This article is published in and is part of our Vol 1. Issue 4 Journal with a special focus on Food Security - Editors
With expansion of tourism industry across the country, the demand for fresh products has been increasing dramatically. Concurrently, the interest of local consumers too, for healthy and high-end fresh products have increased. Because of the business opportunity in locally grown foods and interest in commercial farming, Fantasy has ventured into farming to produce some of the imported fruits and vegetables locally. With this intention, Fantasy applied to lease an island under the government’s scheme for leasing of uninhabited islands for agriculture projects. Although the effort to obtain an island with adequate land area for open field cultivation was not successful, eventually we were able to lease a small island (Felivaru) of 9 hectares in size, from Noonu Atoll and began developing agriculture under the name of Hortifarm. The key objective of this project is to grow high quality vegetables and fruits, utilising economically feasible technologies and best management practices.
Fantasy embarked on the agriculture project with no prior experience or knowledge in this field and hence, encountered numerous challenges as the project progressed. It took a significant duration to complete preparatory activities of the project and start the operation. There were delays in surveying the island, preparing the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) and approving of the report, mobilisation work and developing basic infrastructure. Challenges were also faced due to access difficulties and hence deepened the lagoon for harbour along with the access channel.
Measures were taken to protect the island’s eco system, saving groundwater aquifer and minimise environmental impact in the development phase of the project. Water tanks were installed in different locations for storing rainwater harvested from all available roofs including greenhouses with a total storage capacity of 2,600 tons. A reverse osmosis (RO) plant for desalination was also installed to supplement water requirement particularly in the non-rainy season. The desalination plant with rainwater-storage network contribute for energy savings.
Given the small size of the island, focus was made to adopt modern greenhouse practices. Thirty-six greenhouses/tunnels, with a size of 3,000 square feet, were built. Special nurseries were setup to sow seeds and grow seedlings. A drip irrigation system is laid in the tunnels and irrigation time and rate are centrally controlled in an injector house. Fertiliser is applied to the plants through the irrigation system. Disinfestation protocols are carried out after every harvest and if pests and disease symptoms appear on plants, biological pesticides or fungicides are used. Regular checks are carried on texture, ripeness and sweetness to maintain fruit quality. For controlling pests in the open field crops, Integrated Pest Management (IPM) approaches are applied.
Considering the lack of experience in growing commercial crops in tunnels, on-firm trials are conducted to learn and fine tune the practices, procedures and processes of cropping systems. Similar trials were also conducted in open field, to identify marketable high yielding crop varieties. All these research and development activities are done under the guidance of foreign experts who made regular visits to the site and the project became fully operational in 2015. Rock melon and honey melon are grown in tunnels and scorpion chilli and eggplant are cultivated in the open field. Immediately after harvests, the products are sorted, graded and packed in corrugated boxes specifically made for packaging as a Hortifarm brand.
Melons have grown in tunnels throughout the year for the past four years while scorpion chilli and eggplant have been cultivated continuously in the open field for more than three years. Currently, 6 tons of produce are supplied to the market weekly.
Adding an Island to Hortifarm
All available land in Felivaru is fully utilised and thus agriculture production cannot be expanded further on the island. As the infrastructure has developed in Felivaru, expanding farming activities to a nearby island and managing the operation from Felivaru could easily be done. By valuing on how the agriculture project has been managed in Felivaru, the government leased Noonu Maafunafaru in 2018.
Using the experience in Felivaru, mobilising and developing infrastructure was carried at a faster speed. Taking the dangers that pose to vessels bound to the island due to shallow reef and lagoon surrounding the island, part of the lagoon was deepened along with access channel. Installation of tunnels, RO plant and rainwater tanks are in progress. Concurrently, cultivating chilli and eggplant in the open fields has initiated.
Challenges and concerns
Greenhouse/tunnel production is relatively more expensive than producing the same crop in the open field due to fixed costs such as expenses on tunnel frame and cover, fertigation system, and plant growing systems. These fixed expenses have to be paid whether or not a crop is produced. In addition, tunnel production is labour intensive. Use of biological pesticides also add up to production costs. Due to the high operating costs, Hortifarm’s melon prices have been found to be uncompetitive to imported melons from neighbouring countries. Intermittently, market gets flooded with
Scorpion Chilli - open field
imported melons grown in the open field. In such situations, resorts go for prices and buy the imported melons despite low-quality produce.
The biggest market for the fresh produce is the resort market. Even while Fantasy have offered a year-round fixed price, resorts’ purchases have been inconsistent.
Looking into the future
Agriculture industry has a great potential in the Maldives. However, it is essential to use modern farming technology to develop and expand the industry and to run as a profitable business. This means investing on agriculture projects, but the key condition of such investments will be to make them protected and viable.
Egg Plant - Open Field
Therefore, it is essential to create an enabling environment for investments through appropriate policies and strategies to ensure investor confidence.
Investing in agriculture is typically a long-term venture. In designing policies for promoting investment in agriculture it should be recognised that recovering investments on agriculture projects takes longer periods.
Today, we are experiencing disruptions in food supply chains due to countries locking down borders due to the COVID-19 pandemic, showing the necessity for investing in agriculture. We can contribute to food security through supporting and collaborating among stakeholders; if not, the agriculture industry will remain in the back seat.
Fantasy is a pioneer of the Maldivian food service industry, having started operations from mid-1980s. The opening of the supermarket; Fantasy Store, offering a wide range of top-quality fresh, dairy, chilled and frozen products from Europe, Australia and Asia allowed Fantasy to become the leading and preferred supplier to the fast expanding Maldivian tourism industry.
Hortifarm is on a small island in Noonu Atoll in the North of the country being developed with the objective of undertaking commercially viable agriculture in selected products using the latest, efficient and environment-friendly technologies and grown sustainably. With the experience at Hortifarm Fantasy looks to the future with optimism and started investments in Noonu Manafaru in 2018.