Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Can aquaponics help fill Botswana’s food basket?

Despite its mineral wealth especially diamonds, Botswana is failing to produce enough food to feed its people. This has often led to starvation and malnutrition especially among the underprivileged communities. The mining sector is the highest contributor to the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as it stands at 35 percent while agriculture only contributes around 3 percent primarily through beef exports. Relying on other countries for food imports has since proved to a challenge as the situation is exacerbated by the effects of the current Covid 19 pandemic. Food prices are escalating due to this pandemic. The latest information from Statistics Botswana shows that food imports amounted to over P700 million as at April 2021.

One of the reasons why the country is dismally failing through its agriculture sector to meet its food demand is that farmers are frequently faced with an unreliable climate which often brings about devastating droughts. Botswana is also made up of three quarters desert (Kalahari Desert) and the arid temperature which is not conducive for crop production. Some of the few crops that are supported by this hostile environment are cowpeas, millet, beans, sorghum and maize. Pastoral farming has also been deeply affected by droughts over the years.

Given the challenging climate change which has impacted on food production worldwide, new methods of farming such as aquaponics could be the answer to this problem. Aquaponic is a method of farming or food production that couples aquaculture (raising of aquatic animals among others fish, prawns, cray fish and even snails in fishponds or tanks) with hydroponics (in-house growing crops). The nutrients from the aquaculture water are transferred to hydroponic grown plants, involving nitrifying bacteria for converting. Here are some of the advantages of aquaponics farming; One can only use a sixth of water to grow eight times more food per hectare than traditional methods of farming, it uses natural fertilizer from fish waste, there is no reliance from manufactured fertilizers, it is sustainable and highly productive and does not require a lot of land to produce more.

Botswana imports nearly 3 000 tonnes of fish per annum while local fish production stands at 100 tonnes. The country also imports most of its food especially vegetables, fruits and dairy. Aquaponics can come in handy in that regard.

According to history, aquaponics was started by the Maya and Aztec Indians who grew plants on rafts on the surface of a lake around 1000 AD in Mexico. Although its adoption today is still at infancy stage, this type of farming is slowly gaining momentum worldwide.

Countries that are already thriving through this method of farming include Myanmar, Peru, Germany and even Israel.

An accountant (Statutory Accounts Officer) turned farmer, Isaac Mandingo who is based in Chadibe village 30km from Francistown is a rising acquaponic farmer who is currently making strides in this kind of farming. He is the owner of Acceleron Aquaponics; a business that deals with among others designing and building of fishponds, air pumps, building hydroponics and drafting of aquaponics business plans especially for youth. He also does aquaponics training, deals in fish feeds and installs solar panels. In an interview with the Sunday Standard last week, Mandingo could not stop expressing his undying love for aquaponics farming.

“I worked as a Statutory Accounts Officer for 20 years at Botswana Telecommunications Corporation (BTC) and quit my job to pursue my love for farming. I decided to shelve my ledger book for aquaponics. Farming has always been my passion but I decided to study accounting because I wanted to develop my business skills,” he said.

Asked where he got the aquaponic farming skills from he revealed that he spent four years crossing to South Africa for training. He wanted to gain hands-on experience as there are numerous aquaponic projects in that country.

Mandingo has taken advantage of a space in his humble homestead to establish an acquaponic farming business which comprises of a fish pond (aquaculture) and a hydroponic farm where he grows tomatoes and lettuce. His fish pond has the capacity to hold 6 000 fish. He says that he buys the fingerling (small fish for breeding) from Harare in Zimbabwe. Mandingo financed his business with his pension benefits after retiring from BTC.

“The only problem I have for now is that I still have cash flow problems. I want to expand my business, satisfy the local demand and possibly export abroad. My dream is to see Batswana venture into this type of farming in numbers,” he said.

Mandingo revealed that his fishpond has the potential to produce 6 000 fish in six weeks which would give him at least P40 000 within those weeks. Fish, he says sells at P30 per Kilogram. Having matured in six weeks harvesting and selling of the fish can be done eight times in a year. As for the hydroponic products, mainly tomatoes he says a plant of tomato can yield products worth P1000. Tomato seeds that are not perennial tend to be perennial when grown with this system of farming. The whole aquaponic business has the potential to give him P850 000 per annum.

He says aquaponic farming is not labour intensive and it is cheap to maintain. Touching on aquaculture he said his main responsibilities are to feed the fish and check the status of the water-alkalinity. He also keeps an eye on the health of these fish. On the hydroponic side, Mandingo emphasizes that the system takes care of itself.

“The main advantage of aquaponics is that this method does not require a huge chunk of land. It is also not labour intensive. It is ecosystem friendly-meaning it does not negatively impact on the environment, it is clean as waste is taken care of in an environment friendly manner; it can produce a lot in a small space. Its produce is purely organic. You harvest two products from the system being crops and fish,” he added.

He however admitted that the method can be costly, but has better rewards. Mandingo is eager to share his knowledge with Batswana. He says that he wishes to plant a seed of progress on his countrymen. He currently does business plans especially for youth who are interested in pursuing aquaponics farming. He also has the skills to build and design the aquaponic system.

Asked to comment on aquaponics farming method in an interview with the Sunday Standard the Chairperson of Small Grants Programme-Global Environment Facility (SGP-GEF), Douglas Machacha who is also a plant scientist and former Lecturer at Botswana University of Agriculture and Natural Resources(BUAN) said while the system can produce results in terms of food production, it is complicated.

“This system requires a lot of skill and one has to be capacitated to be able to succeed in aquaponics farming,” he said.

He however said resources permitting; the aquaponics type of farming can become a success. He also said that although it is expensive to start in the long run it can bring results because it saves water as the water is recycled. He said the water circulates and brings more nutrients into the crops or plants. SGP-GEF operates under the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and is tasked with issuing grants to Community Based Organisations (CBO) for implementation of projects designed to tackle environmental issues and climate change.

What is even more encouraging about aquaponics is that the government has more often announced its support for innovative methods of farming to try and increase local food production. At the time of going for press, the Sunday Standard was still waiting for a response from the Ministry of Agricultural Development and Food Security regarding aquaponics farming.

A District Animal Production Officer in the Central District, Tshwaragano Kopano was quoted during one of the consultative forums saying that aquaculture (fish farming) has potential to flourish especially in Central District where there are many dams and boreholes.

He said though it requires high capital investment, other African countries have put in place, enabling environment like funding subsidies, establishment of fish value chain as well as availability of serviced land.

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