/ 5 May 2022

New innings: Pro sportsman trades cricket bat for aquaponics

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Aquaponics is a combination of fish farming (aquaculture) and hydroponics, a farming method where plants are grown without soil.

Yasser Parker thought he had fulfilled his childhood dream by becoming a professional cricket player. He enjoyed his days in front of the crowds, playing a sport that took him overseas. Then, seven years into his chosen career, the future began to look less rosy.

“In my final year, I went to the UK to play a season at Stratford-upon-Avon cricket club; that is when it dawned on me that financially, I was not going to be able to get where I want to be,” 30-year-old Parker recalled.

 It was time for a new challenge.

A visit to a modest 1.2 hectare plot in Marondera, a farming town 90km from Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare, today shows a new, thriving operation and a very different life. Parker’s solution to his problem? Aquaponics.

Aquaponics is a combination of fish farming (aquaculture) and hydroponics, a farming method where plants are grown without soil.

“We bring together fish farming and hydroponics. We use fish waste to grow our plants,” Parker said as he showed off his operation.

“Another way to look at it is that the fish produce fertiliser for our plants, and our plants purify the water for the fish; it is a symbiotic relationship.”

For Parker, the journey from cricket to becoming one of the first farmers to experiment with aquaponics is a case of coincidence and curiosity.

“I did my high school at Prince Edward High School in Harare but did not do so well; I managed to pass four O-level subjects, maths not included,” Parker said. 

In Zimbabwe, five Ordinary-level subjects are considered the minimum for academic progression.

“I moved to Prestige to try to pass five O-Levels, which I didn’t get,” he said.

“My mother gave me a choice, she wanted me to go to Gwebi Agricultural College, but I decided to take up cricket.” 

Having hit a wall in his cricketing career, Parker returned to Zimbabwe without a clear plan of how he was to proceed.

“I sat around for about six months to figure out what I wanted to do; I did a carpentry course at Harare Polytechnic College and eventually settled for farming,” Parker explained.

He was initially drawn to fish farming but information that he found on the internet inspired a different idea.

Stumbling upon aquaponics

“We were supposed to do fish farming on this plot, but one day I was on YouTube and stumbled upon aquaponics. I did research and realised that this is something I could do  and started the setup.

“Finances at the time were a bit tough, although three weeks into our development, some investors came and supported the project.”

Without a background in farming, aquaponics for Parker represented a simpler option than regular farming. From his research he realised that successful traditional farming required coming to terms with complex issues such as soil analysis, irrigation, fertilisers and weed control.

That was if he could find enough land. And then, there were risks due to weather conditions, especially without a water source for irrigation.

Aquaponics, although more expensive to finance initially, provided an answer to many of those problems.

“You can set it up anywhere, and it can be any size; from something for home use in your backyard of 40 square metres to something you see here, of 2 500 square metres. You can grow anything you need to survive in terms of fresh produce and protein. Fresh produce being the plants and protein coming from the fish,” Parker explained.

Zimbabwe’s small-scale farmers have long faced problems caused by the rain-fed form of agriculture they pursue and, this season the rain was erratic, leaving many farmers counting their losses. Parker believes if these problems persist, aquaponics could be considered a solution.

“In terms of sustainability, we use 90% less water; all the water in the system is recycled,” he said.

“We don’t have to dump any water at any time; the only water that we lose is through transpiration and evaporation. It is very different from your conventional farming methods with the soil.”

Parker has only one permanent worker. He employs casual workers during the harvest season.

“The day typically starts at 5.30am; I scout to make sure plants aren’t getting attacked by pests or diseases. After that, I take readings of the PH and temperature water parameters,” he said.

Regular tests in water quality are designed to ensure the conditions, or water parameters,  remain conducive for fish farming. Variables checked include temperature, dissolved oxygen, alkalinity, hardness, ammonia and nitrates.

Although hardness and alkalinity do not change regularly, oxygen and PH levels fluctuate and have to be periodically checked; failure to do so can result in the fish dying.

The fish are fed twice a day, from 6am to 10am, then from 4pm to 5.30pm.

Explaining the process, Parker said the aquaponics system combines a fish farm and a horticulture farm, with water being the connecting element. 

The water becomes rich in nutrients over time from waste excreted by the fish. That water is then fed to the horticulture side, where the crops survive solely on the residue water and do not need soil.

As plants absorb nutrients through natural biological filtration, they clean the water and it is fed back to the fish in a cyclical manner.

Periodically, there is a cleaning process to filter the waste that plants would have failed to absorb.

“We drain our filters once a week and send them into a mineralisation tank, where we feed the naturally occurring bacterias with molasses and the bacteria break down that solid fish waste, and it is an enriched fertiliser back in the system,” he explained.

According to Parker, even if he is given a larger piece of land, soil farming is out of the question because aquaponics is more productive and environmentally friendly.

“I was attracted to the sustainability aspect; I have been following the global crisis since I was young. We are 10 times more productive per square metre using this type of farming than farming in the soil,” Parker said.

“For example, per acre, we will grow 120 000 heads of lettuce 10 times a year and come up with 1.2 million heads of lettuce; whereas, in the soil, from what I have read and what I have been told, you are doing 40 000 per acre [0.4ha] and you are harvesting three times a year. It was a no-brainer,” he adds.

Parker, who claims he is the first to set up a semi-commercial aquaponics operation in Zimbabwe, admits that the cost outlay could be limiting for some unless there are investors.

“If you are going to be setting up a hectare, it can be from $400 000 to $1.6-million, depending on how high-tech you want to go.”

He said the beauty of greenhouse farming is that one can mechanise and automate almost everything. One can go as automated as installing temperature and humidity sensors and automated computers to control a greenhouse with the touch of a phone or computer key. 

Although he runs a “fairly basic” setup, Parker hopes to upgrade his systems to the point where he can control everything remotely, even though he has a variety of crops.

“We have planted eggplants, lettuce, chillies, and okra and, so far, everything has grown well; the end goal is to tap into the export market.

“It is a difficult process; this is something new to Zimbabwe; this has turned into a pilot project. Once we are ready, we will invite investors to the field days and see if anybody is willing to part ways with a decent amount of money into the operation.”

Parker supplies the market in Marondera and surrounding areas with his produce. He also hopes to recruit more people into aquaponics.

“I have not been mentoring people yet, but we have had people come through to learn. For example, I am part of the Federation of Young Farmers in Zimbabwe and we had a mini-field day for the ladies in the organisation.”

He also hopes to start a college to educate people about sustainable forms of farming. 

“The more people who can get into this, the better. There are no chemicals that we are spraying onto our plants. No one is ingesting anything toxic,” he said.

Parker remains a cricketer at heart despite the rewards he reaps from aquaponics and hopes that his farming venture will open the door for him to provide financial support to his former club, Old Hararians.

“One day, when I am in a better position, I will give back, be it through sponsoring a team or individuals,” Parker said. – bird story agency