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AQUAPONICS, A glimmer of hope in drought-stricken Africa

This farming method of sustainable agriculture forms a symbiotic relationship between fish and plants

Bongani Siziba,

South Africa

From the entrance at first glance one would mistake it for just an open space with few dilapidated buildings, but behind those not so good looking walls is a two hectares land that feeds the nation. FinLeaf Farm situated between the border of Gauteng and the North West provinces uses a technically advanced method of farming that combines the cultivation of green plants in nutrient rich water where fish species are bred.

Aquaponics, a farming method of sustainable agriculture that forms a symbiotic relationship between fish and plants. It involves the use of a fish tank placed below a grow bed for plants, where the main input to the system is fish food.

As more government leaders commit to becoming carbon neutral by 2050, and more people choose to change their habits (like eating less meat) to reduce their carbon footprint, methods of food production that promote a harmonious relationship between humans and the environment are becoming more common.

One of these methods involves fish.

With the help of a German based company Integrated Aquaculture Group, Fin-Leaf CEO Lance Quiding  , has come up with innovative ways to achieve food security, improve nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture, while sharing skills with aspirant farmers who see this way of farming as the future.

The technique can help farmers during the dry season

During my visit at the farm, the weather was balmy, making the day even more unenjoyable with sultry and scorching sun, one would wish for a wet blanket, After a long tour  myself and Lance  sat down for an icy glass of  water, while gazing the beautiful farm yard, listening to the birds echoing different melodies from tree far and beyond. l asked

  So how did your interest in aquaponics specifically come about? 

“In 2014 l exited the business l was doing and decided that l want to go full time on aquponics farming after l read about it online. So l  looked at it and it was very interesting to know that one can grow food out of the waste of another animal all in water. l then started small in my garage for a number of years before l expanded” Quiding said.

According to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization. The practice of raising fish and vegetables at the same time is one of the best examples of Aquaculture farming as a method of sustainability.

When the fish produce waste, it is cycled out of the fish tank into the grow bed, where bacteria transform ammonia into nitrates that plants need to grow. The water is then filtered and returned to the fish tank, aiding in the highly optimized, zero-waste process of farming fish and plants together.

Your work at Fin Leaf Farm emphasizes education, specifically around helping people learn to grow their own food, in food sovereignty. Can you speak to why that is important in the production of sustainable food systems?

“Food produced sustainable farming methods has more nutrients in it as it avoids dangerous chemical and pesticides. Sustainable farming practices protect the environment, growing your own food has many advantages because you can control every step of the growing process all the way to harvesting” Guiding said.

Around the world, the environmental impacts of climate change are preventing low-income people from accessing sufficient, safe, and nutritious foods. To improve global food systems and decrease food insecurity, it is more important than ever for people to practice sustainable agricultural development.

What are the challenges that you have experienced?

“There has been multiple challenges and number one is skills transfer, in many industries you employ people to take weight off you, but in this industry you have to train people for up to six months to six years and it takes a lot of time and skill. Another challenge is infrastructure and market excess” he said.

Egypt and South Africa are countries where aquaponics is emerging and being adopted at faster rates and contributing to food security. In West Africa, significantly lower net-discounted benefit-cost ratios were realized when aquaponics systems were constructed using imported materials compared to using locally available materials. Despite aquaponics systems generally having higher start-up costs currently, its potential to be economically viable when undertaken with local materials is very high.

What are the growth plans for the business?

“We are growing this business into two key main areas, one is Finleaf community followed by Finleaf academy, we want to offer everything from entry level online course to a PHD aquaponics working closely with the univesity of Stellenboch and making use of the industry best practices to achieve that.  We want to expand the farms once we have expertise who are able to farm and we will fund those infrastructure and place farmers with potential shareholding those businesses” said Guiding.

Increasing demand on water resources, reduced land water availability, and concerns over food security have spurred the evolution of many innovative and complex food production. An aquaponic system is a productive, innovative, and sustainable fish and vegetable production system that is revolutionizing agriculture in the face of drought, soil fertility losses, and climate change. It has an advanced aquaculture-agriculture system, is expected to improve food security in developing countries. However, as an emerging technology, there is very limited information on the system in Africa

South Africa is one of the countries in Sub Saharan experiencing drought conditions, according to agricultural expects aquaponics has a potential of addressing food insecurity on a larger scale. I t may also serve as an alternative to traditional methods that are less environmentally sustainable.

According to a 2020 report from UNICEF on the state of food security and nutrition in the world, almost 690 million people went hungry in 2019, or 8.9% of the world population. This is due, in part, to the high costs associated with eating nutritiously, the lack of access to healthy food, and the effects of climate change devastating agricultural production systems.

Though South Africa’s agricultural department plays a role in aquaponics education, proponents ask that the government of South Africa include aquaponics in their agricultural policies so that they may assist with more funding. In addition there is need for aquaponics education in schools to increase knowledge and understanding.

Finleaf farm employs sixteen people at the moment and has plans to grow into a fully flagged farming business with many branches across Southern Africa.

All Photos Credits: Bongani Siziba

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