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Aquaponic kits: conserving land and water resources

Dossier: Small-space agriculture

To protect crops and fish from pests and adverse weather, Save Our Agriculture has five greenhouses for its aquaponic systems and crop farming in Douala

© Save Our Agriculture

Field report: Cameroon

Urban farmers in Cameroon are improving yields and increasing their incomes by producing four times more food by growing vegetables and rearing fish in space-saving aquaponic systems.

Save Our Agriculture, an ag-tech start-up launched by 28-year-old agricultural engineer, Flavien Kouatcha Simo, with his initial team of five, started producing and selling aquaponic kits in 2016. The kits, used for growing vegetables and rearing fish without soil or chemical fertilisers, are enabling urban farmers in Cameroon to grow their own food and earn additional income. The aquaponics system produces four times more food than traditional farming methods. These impressive yields have spurred other urban residents in Cameroon to embrace aquaponics farming, helping to fight food shortages, especially during prolonged droughts. “Many have come to embrace gardening in their backyard and are not only producing for home consumption, but also for commercialisation, thanks to the new farming technique,” states Simo.

Aquaponics combines conventional aquaculture (fish rearing) with hydroponics (cultivating plants in water) in a symbiotic environment. “The fish waste provides an organic food source for the plants and the plants naturally filter the water for the fish,” Simo explains. As the fish-waste contains rich proteins, it becomes the basic substrate for the biological products needed for plant growth. “The system also solves the problem of pollution and waste-disposal from fish farming, which is particularly bad in coastal towns, like Douala, Kribi and Limbe,” he adds.

Expanding production capacity

The Save Our Agriculture team, which has now grown to 12 staff members, has so far developed two ready-to-use aquaponic kits, which contain nurseries of vegetables, juvenile fish, water and fish feed. The base model is a basic 150 m2 aquaponics kit, which sells for 80,000 CFA francs (€121.96). This model is primarily targeted at individual or domestic customers, who use the kits to sustainably produce vegetables – including aubergines, pepper, salad leaves and tomatoes – as well as aromatic herbs and fish to feed their families. The second bigger 250 m2 model sells for 250,000 CFA francs (€381.12), and is mainly targeted at hotel and restaurant owners.

In less than 3 years, the company has already produced and sold nearly 900 aquaponics kits to both individual consumers and restaurant owners in urban areas. Mariam Fule, owner of Afro-Restaurant in Douala, says that since she acquired Save Our Agriculture’s aquaponics kits in 2018, she has been able to grow her own vegetables, which has overcome times of food scarcity, especially during the dry season. “I now have a regular vegetable supply to satisfy my customers,” she says. With 15 small aquaponics kits, Fule is able to harvest over 250 heads of lettuce per week, when previously she had to rely on what was available at the local market.

As it expands, Save Our Agriculture is attracting more customers and many youth groups are interested in learning about how to produce the kits. “With technical support from the Douala city council and the Multi-Functional Centre [a government-run training centre] between 2017 and 2018, we have trained some 135 youths in Douala on the production and use of aquaponics kits,” says Simo. As a result, many of these young people have gone on to set up their own aquaponics farms and are now producing crops and fish to sell.

Sustainable systems

The aquaponics system is helping urban residents to not only curb the problem of food shortages, but also overcome challenges related to the lack of cultivable land in cities. “Finding land to grow a family garden is difficult, but since the coming of this technique, many residents in our council are now growing food in their indoor gardens,” says Elimbi Lobe, councillor for the Douala 5th district area.

In addition, “The farming system spares farmers the trouble of water scarcity, especially in cities, and can be climate controlled using a greenhouse,” says Bernard Njonga, CEO of Association Citoyenne de Défense des Intérêts Collectif, an NGO that protects the rights of Cameroonian farmers. Greenhouses protect the crops and fish grown in the aquaponics system from pests and severe weather, such as heavy rain and intense sun. Save Our Agriculture currently manages three aquaponic system greenhouses and two vegetable greenhouses in Douala and plans to increase their greenhouse production over the next 2 years.

As well as helping farmers adapt to increasingly unpredictable rainfall patterns, the aquaponics system is also very sustainable. The kits’ efficient use of water, space and fertiliser, minimises the impact of farming on important resources, particularly the degradation of soil. Producing organic foods at three to four times higher yields, the aquaponics kits save 90% of the water used in traditional agriculture, as well as the heavy labour costs of irrigation in drought-stricken regions. In turn, these savings reduce the carbon footprint generated by agricultural activity by 20%.

Aquaponics’ transformational potential

Cameroon’s Minister of Fisheries and Animal Husbandry, Dr Taiga, says that Save Our Agriculture could also potentially help to eliminate high fish imports – worth €152 million per year – as well as shortages of certain foods in Cameroon. Simo is optimistic that aquaponics will, in the near future, triple both fish and food crop production, not only in Cameroon but across the entire Central African region. “We are already expanding out of Cameroon with our presence in Senegal and we plan to be in Nigeria by 2020,” Simo enthuses.