“If my parents were to come today, I doubt they’d recognise me. They died when I was in primary school,” says Mapopa Gwengo. He is affectionately known by his parents’ initials, PJ. “I’ve been raised by a village and a good support system.”
Part of the reasons why his parents would not recognise him, PJ says, is because now he is a manager of Integrated Aquaculture, a decoupled multi-loop infrastructure aquaponics farm with a Global G.A.P certificate. This demonstrates a commitment by agribusinesses to produce organically grown fresh produce in a much safer, water-wise, and sustainable manner compared to open-field farming.
PJ has been a farm manager at Integrated Aquaculture –nestled at Hekpoort on the borderline of Gauteng and North West – for the past seven years. When he tells people that he is a farm manager, “they are already thinking of hard labour, gumboots, tractors and ploughs”.
However, they get puzzled when he starts to explain that Integrated Aquaculture passionately drives its well-thought agenda to extend the scope of the existing Internet of Things toolbox even further. He says he’s extremely proud to possess an in-depth know-how and hands-on farming experience about aquaponics.
PJ adds that Germany-based Desertfoods International has been of great support in further sharpening his aquaponics farming profile over the last two years, representing the departure point of the utmost exciting partnership between Integrated Aquaculture and them.
The core of their joint endeavours at Hekpoort is to establish an aquaponic centre of excellence representing the nucleus for the company’s ambitious growth plans. “The promotion of our aquaponics farming practice across the country and nationwide human capacity building is what we are heading towards, and which is what we are all so passionate about.”
A complicated way of farming
“We should embrace this mode of farming,” says PJ, adding that Integrated Aquaculture is a farm that is based on the processes of growing aquatic life in a controlled-based environment and growing plants in a water-based solution that’s rich in nutrients.
He says the kind of farming they practise incorporates technological advancements which allow for the day-and-night monitoring of all relevant farming parameters such as (ambient) water temperature, high/low water levels, potential of hydrogen (pH), and dissolved oxygen (DO) available in the multi-cell-raceway structure where they grow the Nile Tilapia fish.
For the plants daily attention has to be centred around the pH and electrical conductivity level in the water.
The waste from the fish is packed with high amounts of nutrients, which are transported to other compartments of the farm such as the mineralisation unit where the nitrification occurs with the nutrient-rich water then catering the plants in our deep-water-culture growing system.
“This is where the magic happens,” he says. This waste is packed with nutrients which are used to grow their chemical-free leafy greens.
“The form of farming we do here is complicated. You are dependent on nature and microorganisms to process the nutrients that you need to grow the plants. Hence, I say it requires a certain level of understanding and patience and hard work,” PJ says, adding that this kind of farming demands constant upgrade of one’s knowledge capacity as it is a relatively new field of agriculture.
“It is always an interesting story when I explain how we grow the produce,” PJ smiles as he explains. “Another thing that excites me is that we have crops on a highly productive 3 500 square metre growing compartment. If you were to put them on the ground [in soil], you’d need maybe ten times more than that.”
Given the space where the farming operation takes place, it is quite remarkable that they have a weekly production capacity of at least 1.5 tonnes of leafy greens, which currently includes lettuce, spring onions, chives, baby spinach, watercress, and mint. All of these vegetables are processed and packaged on the farm for different packhouses and the Johannesburg and Tshwane markets.
Farming practises in harmony with nature
This farm manager, who has a national diploma in mining and engineering, previously worked in the hospitality industry. When asked how he feels about his farming journey as a farmer manager thus far, he says he is deeply beguiled.
“Wow! It sounds like 10 to 15 years already because of the changes and advancements in the technology space, environmental changes and growing techniques,” he says. “You can go to sleep while the plants are looking all good and healthy, then tomorrow when you wake up it may look different.”
PJ says it was a blessing in disguise to be exposed to the nuances of smart farming.
“Remember that the other farmers who farm onto the ground for them to fix a problem it is easy because they use chemicals. With us, we are dependent on the microorganism to do the job for us,” he says.
It is for this reason that their farming practises are deeply intertwined with biology and humans. “It has to do with understanding and respecting nature, because if we put chemicals all the microorganisms could die. When you put more chemicals the soil profile gets damaged and become lifeless.”
The future is here, and it is now
Integrated Aquaculture farm has employed at least 20 workers. The entire farming operation only takes place on land that’s just under 2 hectares from the 50-hectare farm.
Lance Quiding, who’s the founder and chief executive officer of Integrated Aquaculture, is the man who gave PJ an opportunity seven years ago on a Mothers’ Day.
He says PJ’s journey as a farm manager is a success story. “There is no doubt that whenever and if he leaves this farm, he’d be a valuable asset to any farm that he goes to in the world, whether aquaponics or not,” he says. “PJ’s story gives youngsters the opportunity to look up to someone [who’s] a living example.”
Quiding adds: “As a business, we are one hundred percent behind empowerment. The next step is to push him to the next level of his growth, as he’s ready to move to the next portion of his development. He needs to know what he’ll be facing when he runs his own farm.”
PJ echoes similar sentiments that now he’s more than ready to push himself beyond his comfort zone.
“I am in a space where I am an all-rounder. Now it is time to get to the biology side, like understanding which bacteria are useful, which are not useful for the conversion of the element that you want. Also, how do you replicate from having a 2-hectare farm and growing it into 20 hectares?”
Once he’s reached his destiny, he wants to be remembered as a ground breaker and someone courageous. “I am willing to take more risks and I am fearless,” PJ says that his unwavering love for aquaponics is rooted in the fact that this kind of farming epitomises what future farming will look like considering the devastating consequences of global warming.
PJ is far ahead of modern times. In fact, he’s already in the future. “If I do not succeed in aquaculture and aquaponics, I’d consider myself as a failure. This is what I want to do today, this is what I want to do tomorrow and forever.”
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