In October 2017, Charlie Paton was driving across the parched plains of northwestern Somaliland when he passed a seemingly endless queue of rumbling trucks. Each was piled high with containers of grain – 47,000 tonnes in all – to be distributed as food aid across Somalia and Ethiopia. Paton was struck by the irony: it was the region’s harvest season, and yet here were trucks delivering industrial quantities of grain that would surely strip whatever meagre business there was away from local producers. “Suddenly, the place is awash with food,” he recalls thinking. “Who’s going to buy food from a farmer when it’s free?”

Sundrop Farms
Sundrop Farms now produces 15 per cent of the Australian tomato market – all of it grown using seawater
Sundrop Farms

Huge drops of food aid are common in the drought- and famine-plagued Horn of Africa. This year alone, the United Nations is appealing for $1.6 billion in aid just for Somalia – a fact that unsettles Paton. “That $1.6 billion could probably make the place self-sufficient, not just in 2018, but forever,” he says. And he thinks his invention could help make that a reality.

Paton is the founder of Seawater Greenhouse, a company that transforms two abundant resources – sunshine and seawater – into freshwater for growing crops in arid, coastal regions such as Africa’s horn. The drought-stricken landscape that cloaks this region doesn’t exactly inspire visions of lush agriculture – but then, Paton sees things differently: “The world isn’t short of water, it’s just in the wrong place, and too salty,” he says.

His latest project in Somaliland (an autonomous but internationally unrecognised republic in Somalia) takes that bullish optimism to the extreme. On a 25-hectare plot of desert land close to the coastline, he’s building the region’s first sustainable, drought-resistant greenhouse. Using solar power to pump in seawater from the coastline and desalinate it on site, Paton is generating freshwater to irrigate plants, and water vapour to cool and humidify the greenhouse interior. In January – less than a year after its launch – this improbable desert oasis produced its first harvest of lettuce, cucumbers and tomatoes. “The idea is so simple that it’s rather insulting,” Paton says. “People say, ‘If that’s going to work then somebody would have done it before.’”

The prevalence of this attitude might explain why Paton’s invention is the first of its kind in the Horn of Africa. That – and the overwhelming challenges of investing there. “The main problem is drought. Somalia was hit by serious water shortage in 2016 and 2017,” says Amsale Shibeshi, who works with the NGO Pastoral and Environmental Network in the Horn of Africa, a partner on the greenhouse project. Though Somaliland has maintained relative peace since the 1990s, in neighbouring Somalia the drought has fuelled persistent famine, which underlies disease outbreaks and ongoing political instability – with the militant fundamentalist group al-Shabab still influential there.


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