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St. Peter's aquaponics project

By Isaac Fernandes, SJ / Zimbabwe - Mozambique

aquaponics aquaponics1

Three months ago St. Peter's primary school embarked on an audacious project to venture into cutting edge agriculture in the form of an aquaponics system. A combination of Aquaculture and Hydroponics. Aquaponics combines the best of both worlds of aqua-culture and hydroponics.

Aquaculture refers to commercial fish farming in ponds, while hydroponics is a form of agriculture that does not use soil. In hydroponics plants are grown in gravel, or sand and nutrients are supplied to the plants through the water. In hydroponics, the water that is used to grow the plants in has to be periodically thrown away as it becomes toxic from the chemicals that are added to it over time to fertilize the plants. Similarly in aqua-culture, about 10% of the water volume in the ponds has to be dumped every day and thrown away in order to keep the pH levels from rising to toxic levels that would kill the fish in the pond. In both systems, therefore there is wastage of water.

The benefits of Aquaponics
Aquaponics combines aqua-culture and hydroponics in a closed circuit system that ensures no wastage of water. The genius of the aquaponics system is that is forms a mini-ecosystem that is self-sustaining. The water from the fish ponds is pumped through a hydroponics system. The system is completely organic, there is no need to add any chemicals to the water as one would have to do in a traditional hydroponic system because the excrement from the fish is rich in ammonia. This ammonia is broken down by bacteria in specially constructed grow-beds filled with gravel that the promote the breeding of specific bacteria that break the ammonia down into nitrates. The plants by absorbing the nitrates clean the water and enable it to be safely returned to the pond. The pH is thus kept constant and there is no loss of water.

As a consequence aquaponics uses 90% less water than traditional agriculture and significantly less water than traditional aquaculture.

Our aquaponics system
A variety of plants and fish can be grown and reared in an aquaponics system. In our system we have bream, which are amongst the most hardy fish, adaptable to varying temperatures and levels of pH. We have planted a variety of vegetables, including lettuce, yams, green peppers, green beans, and rocket. We have also planted several types of herbs, including rosemary, ginger, basil and fennel.

Vermi-culture
In our aquaponics system at St. Peter's we have gone a step further and tried to add a further component to the ecosystem between the fish and the plants by venturing into vermi-culture. The vermi-culture has two advantages. Firstly it provides the worms that we need to feed the fish and secondly the worms produce vermi-compost, a high nutrient compost that replaces chemical fertilizers in organic farming. However we have faced challenges in getting our vermi-culture off the ground and are currently working on an overhaul of this system. Currently we are feeding our fish on commercially produced pellets, but once the vermi-culture is in full swing we hope that the worms will supplement the fishes' diet by at least 40%. Vermi-culture has an additional advantage of being an environmentally friendly way to dispose of organic waste generated in and around the school. Mbare is an area renowned its dirtiness and spralwing waste dumps. Part of this is due to the City Council's inability to cope with the huge amounts of refuse generated in the area. By feeding our worms all our organic waste we reduce the amount of waste that the City Council needs to cart off to the city's landfill in Pomona.

Aquaponics as a learning aid
The aquaponics system is therefore the ideal teaching aid for lessons in ecology, ecosystems, organic farming and recycling. Lessons have yet to begin in the aquaponics system, we are currently still at the stage of training the teachers, but we hope to have kids in the greenhouse potting around before long.

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