The aquaponics project on Nelson Mandela University’s Missionvale Campus is an example of how  the university is working with private enterprise, a non-profit organisation and schools in the area to grow food sustainably all year round.

Through a partnership with INMED South Africa and Mondelēz International Foundation, this adaptive agriculture and aquaponics project brings together aquaculture (fish farming) and hydroponics (soilless crop production) in a closed system that uses 90% less water than traditional agriculture. Since 2016, INMED’s aquaponics system generates several tons of fish and vegetables –tomatoes, lettuce, cucumber and kale annually.

“It has really made a very big influence on the region,” says INMED South Africa Programme Director, Unathi Sihlahla. “We saw the university as a strategic partner because it is at the heart of these communities we are serving.”

The vision was to create an alternative source of food for schools with overstretched nutritional budgets, part of INMED’s Health in Action programme. Over the COVID-19 pandemic, this need has increased.

Because aquaponics is a technology that can be installed almost anywhere as it does not need soil, let alone fertile soil, it was ideal. The dual production also system means vegetables and protein (fish) are growing at the same time.

“Aquaponics opens opportunities for household gardeners and small-scale farmers. It’s a very simple technology, geared to improve access to fresh foods for children in schools as well as community members,” says Sihlahla. “It’s a project that is really supporting the community, but also pushing the agenda of education.”

Students from the Faculty of Agriculture conduct research and take part in in-service training, and the Department of Dietetics also plays a role in assessing the nutritional value of food produced.

“There are opportunities for learning, and exchanging information,” says Sihlahla, noting that there is the potential for research generated to play a role in influencing policy on food security.

He said the pandemic had highlighted how many were struggling to feed their families, putting the focus on achieving food security and sustainable income generation for the future.

NOURISHING THE FUTURE: School children benefit from the fresh produce grown at the aquaponics project
NOURISHING THE FUTURE: School children benefit from the fresh produce grown at the aquaponics project

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