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Aquaponics in Uganda – Questions of Sustainability

Photo courtesy of Dr. Martin Wilkes (CAWR) showing the completed aquaponics system

Guest post by Tim Messeder, Centre for Business in Society

Aquaponics is a relatively unknown agricultural system and as such it creates a lot of questions and interest. Having just returned from a two week trip to Uganda where we built such a system, I can certainly attest to this. Our project was to build a test model at a government led demonstration farm, to test its viability. Members of the public come in on open days twice a week and whilst we were there the questions came thick and fast. I can understand why, aquaponics really suits urban farmers.

Aquaponics is an integrated farming system, the merger of two food production systems, aquaculture and hydroponics. This food production model allows fish to be raised in a circulatory system alongside plants. This system functions as a closed ecosystem, the waste from the fish, feeds the plants and the plants in turn clean the water for the fish. The bacteria at the heart of this system are the key to making this system work. They convert the ammonia produced by the fish waste into nitrite and then into nitrate, which the plants are able to absorb and use to grow.

The project I was involved in is called the ELIZA project, and is aimed at supporting food security in the Democratic Republic of Congo, particularly those people most affected by war and displacement. The first stage of this project was to build this system in neighbouring Uganda, which is host to large communities of displaced people from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Uganda has a large number of refugees from the DRC, Burundi, Sudan, South Sudan and Somalia. Uganda is seen as having progressive and forward-thinking refugee and asylum policies that treat refugees as the ‘neighbours’ they are so frequently referred to by those we met. Ugandan communities that accommodate these refugees are called ‘host’ communities. The survivability of this attitude can be seen in programs that target host and refugee communities. Doing so develops livelihoods and fosters integration, a strategy that is ultimately sustainable as a result. The aquaponics unit we developed is therefore located at a demonstration farm owned by the Kampala City Council Authority (KCCA), so as to be accessible to many people.

There are a number of advantages to producing food in this method that make it suited for displaced people. It is extremely water efficient as the water is reused and recirculated in the system. Very little in the way of space is needed, as the production units can be stacked together to maximise space. The whole system is very productive and can provide a household with high value fish and vegetables. All these factors mean that aquaponics is ideally suited to boost the food security and income of refugee communities.

Whilst the initial phase of this project was a success, the truer test is still to come. Local staff will need to be show they can grow the fish and vegetables at high enough yields so the system is ultimately profitable. The big question remains, where does the fish food come from? Currently it is being supplied by a large fishfood producer in the region that uses fishmeal from Lake Victoria. However feeding fish to other fish is not the most sustainable of practices. Stage 2 of this project aims to produce home feed from soldier fly larvae and fermented legumes. It may be this stage that is the most critical. Can this system be implemented with no need for commercially bought fishfood? This is a question worth asking.

Tim is currently planning his next trip to Uganda in January 2017, where he will be undertaking research for his PhD. What you know and who you know. Sustainability of human and social capital in Ugandan aquaculture.

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Coventry University