Credit: financialmail.com by LONDIWE BUTHELEZI
Just outside Pretoria, a 1ha farm is producing 5t of fish using just 1% of the fresh water a traditional farming operation would need. And it’s growing vegetables, using the ammonia-rich water from the fish tanks for irrigation, then distilling the run-off and piping it back to the fish tanks in a never-ending cycle.
It’s a sophisticated operation, with technology that allows sensors to be activated remotely to monitor the fish and plants, turn water pumps on and off, and alert farmworkers if the fish are in danger or distress.
"It’s a completely self-sustainable turnkey model," says Leon van Deventer, agricultural engineer at technology company Matsei, which runs the pilot farm alongside Swedish enterprise software company IFS. "You can put it in the middle of the desert because all you need is solar energy and satellite communication to monitor sensors on the plants and fish tanks, and you use so little water."
It may be difficult to get one’s head around the idea of farming in a desert, but Sundrop Farms has proved it’s possible in south Australia. Since 2016 the company has been producing 17,000t of tomatoes a year using just sunlight and seawater.
While Sundrop’s system involves hydroponics — growing plants using a nutrient-rich, water-based solution rather than soil — IFS and Matsei are using aquaponics. A hi-tech version, at that.
Aquaponics brings together conventional aquaculture, such as raising fish in tanks, and hydroponics. Popular with missions and government aid initiatives, it produces more food using less water than traditional agriculture. And it uses just 1% of the land to produce the same amount of protein as a herd of cattle. Aquaponics farmers source fingerlings — juveniles of resilient species such as catfish — and feed them in a controlled environment until they reach the right weight for consumption.
Despite its efficiencies, it hasn’t gained traction in SA — just a few farmers are doing it, and then on a small scale. Van Deventer believes this is because aquaponics needs the entire production ecosystem — farming, processing, storage and transportation — to be in place in the community where the farm is.
However, agricultural economist Wandile Sihlobo says the issue is one of cost: because there’s ample open land still available for growing produce in SA, the cost of aquaponics counts against it. "If competition for land toughened, you would see aquaponics take off," he says.
Sihlobo believes concerns around climate change — and resultant concerns around food security — will drive the adoption of new agricultural methods, including aquaponics. "But the cost has to come down first, and I expect that it will in coming years."
Food security is at the heart of the IFS/Matsei project. The joint venture will focus specifically on rural communities, with the aim of promoting sustainable food production in poor communities, while offering a cheaper source of protein.
"It’s easy for communities in Africa to cultivate starch such as maize," says Van Deventer. "The problem lies in getting meat-based protein, and we know red meat is costly for many, even the middle class." Read the remaining article: CLICK HERE
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