Aquaponic farming plan for schools

In front centre is chef Mark Jackson and guests.

A Westgate farmer and her co-directors want to roll out aquaponic farms to the 1 600 schools in the Western Cape.

Aquaponics involves two symbiotic processes where plants feed on the discharge or waste of the fish and the vegetables clean the water that goes back to the fish.

It is a combination of aquaculture from the fishing part and hydroponics, which is planting in water.

Magda Campbell, founder of Beacon Organic Garden in Westridge; Angelo Marman, Tafelsig born and raised in Westridge, now an agriculture manager in Malmesbury; logistics manager Hiran Leng, from Malmesbury; and Paul McVoy, a principal at Factreton Primary School, are directors of Sustainable Food Development Foundation (SFDF), a non-profit company.

On Wednesday March 11, they shared their plans with Education MEC Debbie Schäfer at the Factreton school, where a system has already been implemented.

They want to take this aquaponic system to schools, homes and South Africa.

Ms Campbell is tweaking and testing a system at her home and Mr McVoy has harvested hundreds of plants within two years.

“This is going to revolutionise the way food is grown and by implementing this project at schools, we can reach the 1.1 million pupils in the province, who will take it home and families will have access to food security,” she said.

Mr McVoy said their system at school was a collaborative effort with the community.

He believes that fences at schools should be taken down and the residents living around the premises should use the open space and in turn report incidents of vandalism and theft.

“It has done amazing things for the kids. They have fantastic logs and within three weeks – you pop it into the system and three weeks later you can harvest,” he said.

This is dependent as to what is being grown but he said residents would not have to buy a whole packet of lettuce but could collect a few leaves. “It’s not magic but it is magic in the making and I promise you, watch this space it is a thing of the future,” he said.

The project is dependent on funding but doubles its investment over time.

Mr McVoy narrated a story of a Grade 7 pupil involved in the project who solved a problem in the aquaponic process, which could not be solved by a Master’s student. “But that is not the point. The point is that, that young kid is already thinking in a certain way because he had been exposed to this system over about two years.

“Science in the future is creating things and will ensure sustainable food spaces. We don’t have to beg, borrow or steal,” he said.

Mr Marman said they have professional and skilled installers; system developers and trained individuals.

“We want to bring the aquaponics methodology into the school curriculum; develop new and upcoming farmers; stir an interest among young pupils; create exposure and awareness to an aquaponics career; and build or mould entrepreneurs.”

Aquaponic specialist Mark Austin and Henning Human, who studied microbiology together, designed an aquaponic system, which covers 180 square metres at a cost of R700 000.

This includes training for workers and a solar system to run pumps and lights, tanks for the fish, pines, fittings, tunnels, nets, and gravel beds, which would more than double its initial investment price in three to four years.

They will provide a specialist for every five schools to do routine maintenance and checks.

Pupils will have to check the health status of plants; remove dead leaves; cut or harvest plants or crops on order or per order.

They will also have to feed the fish; note feeding times; observe their behaviour; and average weight determination – which would form part of the curriculum credit system.

Ms Schäfer said she was excited by the project and would like to see how far they could go.

“Just do it. Nothing is impossible,” is a saying she shared with guests.

She said: “I am happy about the mindset change.

“Very often we find teachers in poor communities say that the children have got no future because they think they are stupid because they are poor.

“They (the pupils) can do whatever they want to and if their teachers believe in them, they can help them (the pupils) believe in themselves,” she said.

Ms Schäfer said the project ticked all the boxes, including empowering people; greening spaces; making schools more sustainable; water efficiency; and job creation.

“I like that you’ve got markets available,” she said.

There are solar energy projects at schools being installed by private companies.

“We haven’t got boreholes in every school because they (parts of it) get stolen.”

She said they had to divert R300 million to prevent the drought, which affected the delivery of school buildings and maintenance.

There are more schools with boreholes but the department found that they were not being maintained.