Aquaponics: Farming without soil in Zimbabwe
By Tafadzwa Dzenga, bird story agency
A cricketer turns his back on the excitement of pro sports to take on a whole new challenge: farming without soil.
Yasser Parker thought he had fulfilled his childhood dream by becoming a professional cricket player. He enjoyed his days in front of the crowds, playing a sport that even took him overseas. Then, seven years into his chosen career, the future began to look less rosy.
“In my final year, I went to the UK to play a season at Stratford-upon-Avon cricket club; that is when it dawned on me that financially, I was not going to be able to get where I want to be,” 30-year-old Parker recalled.
It was time for a new challenge.
A visit to a modest three-acre plot in Marondera, a farming town 90 kilometres from Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare, today shows a new, thriving, operation and a totally different life. Parker’s solution to his problem? Aquaponics.
Aquaponics is a combination of fish farming (aquaculture) and hydroponics, a farming method where plants are grown without soil.
“We bring together fish farming and hydroponics. We use fish waste to grow our plants,” Parker explained as he showed off his operation.
“Another way to look at it is that the fish produce fertiliser for our plants, and our plants purify the water for the fish; it is a symbiotic relationship,” he added.
For Parker, the journey from cricket to becoming one of the first farmers to experiment with aquaponics is a case of sheer coincidence and curiosity.
“I did my high school at Prince Edward High School in Harare but did not do so well; I managed to pass four O-level subjects, maths not included,” Parker said. In Zimbabwe, five Ordinary-level subjects are considered the acceptable minimum for academic progression.
“I moved to Prestige to try and pass five O-Levels which I didn’t get,” he continued.
“My mother gave me a choice, she wanted me to go to Gwebi Agricultural College, but I decided to take up cricket,” Parker added.
Having hit a wall in his cricketing career, Parker returned to Zimbabwe without a clear plan of how he was to proceed.
“I sat around for about six months to figure out what I wanted to do; I did a carpentry course at Harare Polytechnic College and eventually settled for farming,” Parker explained.
Parker was initially drawn to fish farming but information that he found on the internet inspired a different idea.
“We were supposed to do fish farming on this plot, but one day I was on YouTube and stumbled upon aquaponics. I did research and realised that this is something I could do – and started the setup,” Parker said.
“Finances at the time were a bit tough, although three weeks into our development, some investors came and supported the project,” he added.
Without a background in farming, aquaponics for Parker actually represented a simpler option than regular farming. From his research he realised that successful traditional farming required coming to terms with complex issues like the soil analysis, irrigation, fertilisers and weed control required in regular farming. That was if he could find enough land. And then, there were risks due to weather conditions, especially without access to a water source for irrigation.
Aquaponics, though more expensive to finance initially, provided an answer to many of those problems.
“You can set it up anywhere, and it can be any size – from something for home use in your backyard of 40 square metres to something you see here, of 2,500 square metres. You can grow anything you need to survive in terms of fresh produce and protein. Fresh produce being the plants and protein coming from the fish,” Parker explained.
Zimbabwe’s small-scale farmers have long faced challenges due to the rain-fed form of agriculture they pursue and this season, many farmers have been left counting losses due to an erratic rainy season. Parker believes if these challenges persist, aquaponics could be considered a solution.
“In terms of sustainability, we use 90% less water; all the water in the system is recycled,” he said.
“We don’t have to dump any water at any time; the only water that we lose is through transpiration and evaporation. It is very different from your conventional farming methods with the soil,” he added.
Parker has only one permanent employee at his operation. He only employs casual workers during the harvest season.
“The day typically starts at 5:30; I scout to make sure plants aren’t getting attacked by pests or diseases. After that, I take readings of the PH and temperature water parameters,” Parker said.
Regular tests in water quality are designed to ensure the conditions – or water parameters – remain conducive for fish farming. Variables checked include temperature, dissolved oxygen, alkalinity, hardness, ammonia, and nitrates.
While hardness and alkalinity do not change regularly, oxygen and PH fluctuate and have to be periodically checked; failure to do so can result in the fish dying.
The fish are fed twice a day, from 6 am to 10 am, then between 4 pm and 5.30 pm in the late afternoon.
Explaining the process, Parker said the aquaponics system combines a fish farm and a horticulture farm, with water being the connecting element.
The water that provides habitat to the fish becomes rich in nutrients over time from waste excreted by the fish; that water is then fed to the horticulture side, where the crops survive solely on the residue water – without soil.
As plants absorb nutrients through natural biological filtration, they clean the water, and it is fed back to the fish in a cyclical manner.
The plants rely on the fish to produce waste, while the fish need the plants to purify the water.
Periodically, there is a cleaning process which is done to filter out the waste that plants would have failed to absorb.
“We drain our filters once a week and send them into a mineralisation tank, where we feed the naturally occurring bacterias with molasses and the bacteria break down that solid fish waste, and it is an enriched fertiliser back in the system,” Parker explained.
According to Parker, even if he is given a more significant piece of land than he currently occupies, soil farming is out of the question because aquaponics is more productive and environmentally friendly.
“I was attracted to the sustainability aspect; I have been following the global crisis since I was young. We are ten times more productive per square metre using this type of farming than farming in the soil,” Parker said.
“For example, per acre, we will grow 120,000 heads of lettuce ten times a year and come up with 1.2 million heads of lettuce; whereas, in the soil, from what I have read and what I have been told, you are doing 40,000 per acre and you are harvesting three times a year. It was a no-brainer,” he adds.
Parker, who claims he is the first to set up a semi-commercial aquaponics operation in Zimbabwe, admits that the cost outlay could be limiting for some unless there are investors.
“If you are going to be setting up a hectare, it can be from 400,000 dollars to 1.6 million, depending on how high-tech you want to go.”
According to Parker, the beauty of greenhouse farming is that one can mechanise and automate almost everything. One can go as automated as installing temperature and humidity sensors and automated computers to control one’s greenhouse with the touch of a phone or computer key.
Though he currently runs a “fairly basic” setup, Parker hopes to upgrade his systems to the point where he can control everything remotely, even though he has a variety of crops.
“We have planted eggplants, lettuce, chillies, and okra, and so far, everything has grown well; the end goal is to tap into the export market,” Parker said.
“It is a difficult process; this is something new to Zimbabwe; this has turned into a pilot project. Once we are ready, we will invite investors to the field days and see if anybody is willing to part ways with a decent amount of money into the operation,” he added.
Parker supplies the local market in Marondera and surrounding communities with his produce. He also hopes to recruit more people into aquaponics.
/bird story agency