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The US acting consul general to SA last week hailed an innovative aquaponics partnership when he visited Nelson Mandela University’s Missionvale Campus.

Acting consul general Will Stevens was in the city to visit American firm Mondelez, one of the world’s largest snacks companies, on Wednesday and also took the time to tour the aquaponics facility.

Funded by the Mondelez International Foundation and run in partnership with INMED SA and NMU, this produces several tonnes of fish and fresh produce each year.

The 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 — making it ideal in an arid area such as Missionvale.

Stevens said he was grateful to see how an American firm was working with “great civil society organisations like INMED and your university to solve problems”.

“Working on this continent we used to talk about African solutions to African problems, but we should be talking about African solutions to world problems.

“What you are doing right here is a solution that can be replicated around the world,” Stevens said, adding that he was proud of the work done in “one of the toughest parts of the municipality”.

Missionvale Campus senior director Sharon Masiza welcomed a team of visitors from the consulate, the US Agency of International Development (USAID) — which runs programmes around the world — and delegates from the Bhishobased Eastern Cape Infrastructure Investment Office.

“Aquaponics is part of our services to the community but without INMED and our partners we would not have this project,” Masiza said.

INMED SA programme director Unathi Sihlahla said the project was part of the NPO’s Health in Action Programme.

“It really has had a very big influence on the region, and we saw the university as a strategic partner because it is at the heart of these communities we are serving,” he said.

The vision was to create an alternative source of food for schools with overstretched nutritional budgets and, over the two years of Covid-19, this need has increased.

The university’s deputy vice-chancellor of engagement and transformation, Prof Andre Keet, put the value of the scheme into context.

The university has 250 engagement projects, many of which are directed towards areas such as poverty, unemployment and inequality, and channelled through its Hubs of Convergence.

Despite the dark clouds caused by these “wicked problems”, Keet said the university remained elevated by partnerships that led to projects such as the aquaponics venture.

“If you want to see the new spirit of the university, its pulsating soul, then you will see it here, socially embedded on the Missionvale Campus,” Keet said.

“We are located with the space that literally represents the challenges that we need to engage with.

“And we must be willing to get our hands dirty.”

Students from the university’s 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.

“If we compare this to traditional agriculture, it really saves a lot of water and it also grows 10 times more in terms of vegetables,” Sihlahla said.

“In this very small system we get four to six tonnes of fish and six to eight tonnes of vegetables each year.”

Currently there are 3,000 catfish in five tanks, and each fish takes about a year to grow to about 1.5kg.

The vegetables are grown in a separate adjoining tunnel and are harvested in two cycles each year.

From the start of 2022, aquaponics as a subject has become part of the primary school curriculum.

Project beneficiary Nomonde Ntsundwana, a teacher at Seyisi Primary School in nearby Kwazakhele, said the scheme not only exposed the pupils to aquaponics, it also supplemented the school’s nutrition programme.

“It provides seeds and seedlings so our children are now planting their own vegetables and we also took some of our plants and our learners visit and are propagating them here,” Ntsundwana said.

The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted how many South Africans struggle to feed their families, putting the focus on achieving food security and sustainable income generation for the future.

As a result of the university site, Sihlahla said interest in aquaponics and cybersmart agriculture had grown: “We now have six to eight projects in this province, it has really spread over the past couple of years. And we have reached more than 100,000 kids.”

One New Brighton school, for example, has launched its own system from the knowledge gained from the Missionvale project.

It’s an example of how sharing resources and skills can ripple out to benefit the wider community.

Sihlahla said the average age of a South African farmer was 63.

“Where is the next generation of farmers?

“We want to educate our learners so that they can see agriculture as a career.”

Mondelez International Southern Africa plant director Werner Thetard was unable to attend, but the firm was praised for its valuable and ongoing sponsorship.

BEARING FRUIT: Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Engagement and Transformation Prof Andre Keet, left, and Missionvale Campus Senior Director Sharon Masiza, show US acting consul general to SA Will Stevens fresh produce harvested from the university’s aquaponics project on Missionvale Campus.

This article appeared in The Herald (South Africa) on 8 March 2022, written by freelance journalist, Gillian McAinsh.

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