Growing fish and plants together – an untapped opportunity in Africa?

Aquaponics. Photo: PwC

Global population growth combined with increased food consumption and a greater demand for animal protein means that by 2050, there will be an estimated 60% increase in global food demand. At the same time, climate change, pressure on water resources, mass migration to urban areas and an increase in the use of food for fuel means that food supply is constrained.

Food security is therefore topping the political agenda globally and many countries are looking towards Africa to help plug the gap. Before this can happen though, Africa needs to address its own US$35bn structural food deficit and it is coming up with some innovative solutions.

While food security will ultimately be addressed via a number of different solutions, aquaponics is emerging as an ideal technology to bring fresh, nutrient rich food to urban environments.

Aquaponics is a closed loop system whereby plants are grown in water which the roots filter down to a pool of fish, whose waste water is then pumped up to the plants as a source of nutrients. This can be achieved at the small scale, with personal aquaponics kits to supplement an individual’s diet, through to industrial aquaponics warehouses that can feed hundreds. There are many advantages of aquaponics over traditional farming methods, including the efficient use of resources – namely water, fertiliser, infrastructure and land.

As it is a closed circuit, aquaponics requires very little water and no plant fertilisers. The water is looped around in the system and only requires occasional topping up. This is vital in areas where rainfall is minimal or unpredictable and is a much more efficient use of water than traditional irrigation. It also prevents run-off and eutrophication of nearby water sources, as no fertiliser is added.

Additionally, fresh food can be grown in urban environments, close to where people live, meaning that the need for long-ranging roads and infrastructure is reduced and the carbon footprint of the produce is diminished.

There are, of course, the usual challenges of implementing technological innovations in Africa. A reliable source of energy is needed to run the pumps and training must be sufficient so that locals can manage and repair aquaponics systems once technical support has been withdrawn. Despite these challenges, aquaponics is looking like a viable solution to tackling some of Africa’s food security issues. Pilots, as well as full-blown commercial farms, have already been set up in Uganda, Namibia, Kenya, Zimbabwe and South Africa, with many countries sure to follow.

As more and more people are migrating into urban centres, Africa needs a way to feed these growing populations sustainably. Aquaponics can help provide food security and, due to its greater cost-effectiveness than traditional farming techniques, can also create opportunities for economic growth.

Joel Segal is partner and chair of PwC’s Africa Business Group. Juliet Phillips works for PwC Consulting. This article was originally published by PwC.