20 Jun University of Johannesburg pioneering innovative use of aquaponics and sandponics to enable Food Justice for all
Professor Michael Rudolph of the Center of Ecological Intelligence is spearheading a programme of inexpensive approaches to cultivating food gardens to address food insecurity issues in South Africa.
If you head up to the University of Johannesburg’s (UJ) Bunting campus and ask for the Center of Ecological Intelligence (CEI), you will be forgiven if when you get to the top of the hilly road it’s located on and think you’re lost. However, if you persevere up what looks like an unassuming embankment to your left, you’ll see a small sign saying ‘Centre for Ecological Intelligence’. Once up the embankment, you’ll find impressive-looking tunnel food gardens, aquaponics and sandponics displaying hydroponic systems and green building structures which are currently in progress; these form a part of UJ’s food justice programme.
Professor Michael Rudolph is the director of CEI and is leading the university’s Food Justice programme. According to Rudolph, it is important that the programme’s work is ‘transformative’, which is the basis of everything that they are doing. He says what is needed is an agricultural system that’s built on a foundation of innovation — one that allows for the very best mix of applied research, real-life grass-roots projects and open dialogue about the complexities of food and nutrition security. This requires the implementation of a process of transformation at every level.
The once unproductive land occupied by the project has now been transformed through crop rotation and tillage management into a nutrient-dense and rich soil; food waste, cut grass and woodchips transformed into compost. Most importantly according to Rudolph, people’s mindsets have been transformed from attitudes of disempowerment to ones of purpose, inspiration and confidence.
Rudolph says the systems they use embrace 4IR such as solar energy, sensors and smart boxes that collect data ranging from soil ph to nitrite levels in order to ensure the system is operating efficiently and effectively.
“The key objective of what we’re trying to do is to demonstrate the range of food systems to empower people in different settings, so we’re working with schools, villages, community-based settings and we’re working on different campuses around the country. We want to very clearly demonstrate different kinds of food systems, the cost, ROI and the benefits of the different systems.”
Walking into the aquaponics and sandponics tunnel, Rudolph shares that the programme is a multi and cross-disciplinary undertaking of zoology, botany, intelligence systems, electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, industrial design, architecture and graphic design students.
“We’re dealing with complex problems such as food justice, it’s not just one thing; it’s all related to land ownership, it’s about empowerment, training, it’s about previous disadvantage etc. It’s not just a matter of giving you a nice plate of food; it’s a much bigger issue” Rudolph says that the programme is working towards providing information for communities to allow them to make decisions on which food system would be appropriate for their needs.
Explaining the aquaponics system of farming, Rudolph tells Daily Maverick that it uses Tilapia fish (because they are hardy). The fish waste is pumped into grow beds which are made up of shale and rock which grow lettuce and onions using a deep water culture system. No additional nutrients are added because of the richness of the fish waste. The system is also water efficient.
The sandponics system uses the same principle as aquaponics but without using rocks as biofilters. Instead, it uses sand for filtration and fish waste for nutrients and can be used to grow root vegetables like potatoes and beetroot. Rudolph says UJ and their implementing partner Siyakhana Growth and Development NPO, have replicated several of these systems in the Phumulani Agrivillage in Mpumalanga as well as in a few schools in Tshwane.
“We want to show people how to grow a range of vegetables,” Rudolf told Daily Maverick, referring to climate change and the covered tunnel garden. “I’ve lived in Joburg for many years and I don’t remember the hail storms when I was younger as severe as they are now. A hail storm can wipe out one crop completely. The winters are seemingly quite cold, particularly in the morning and evening so the soil becomes frosted, so growing under cover has many advantages.” However, he says the structure that CEI currently has can be quite expensive, estimating the overall cost at about R100,000 meaning the return on investment (ROI) could take a long time.
Innovation for the greater good
Rudolp says that CEI’s hub demonstrates a range of systems which vary in cost and allow clients and students to understand the advantages and disadvantages of each as well as the management, operations and return on investment of the options.
Some of the other farming systems on-site that take into consideration the availability of land space are referred to as grow reels. In this instance, land is sectioned off into small pockets of rich substrate planted in the sand. It uses inexpensive netting to shield plants from the cold while still allowing ventilation. There is also a compost section that uses food waste from the campus restaurant and worms to create rich inexpensive organic fertilise, something Rudolph says is another example of transforming food waste into something useful.
According to research up to 90% of food gardens fail because people underestimate the amount of money andresources needed to make a garden succeed. These include water, the importance soil, training, the appropriate tools and most of all fertilisers, says Rudolph. He says fossil fuel fertilisers are very expensive which is a deterrent for people.
UJ boasts an on-campus population of 55,000 students, 10-15% of whom are food insecure says Rudolph. He says these students “have funding for accommodation and their tuition they’re left with very little stipend for day to day and many are food insecure UJ has a feeding scheme in place which gives students vouchers to get meals and some food parcels. However, it doesn’t include the kind of dietary diversity to enable functioning at maximum capacity. So if you’re just eating bread and a bit of meat and one vegetable — that’s great. It fills your stomach it gives you a bit of energy, but it doesn’t maximise your whole system.”
Rudolph says the simple definition of food security is about diversity, affordability, accessibility and distribution and that what they produce on-site is given to the students who are food insecure.
Rudolph, who has an extensive public health background and was part of founding the WITS university school of public health, intimates that one of the social determinants of dropout rates in universities is often food insecurity for students rather than academic issues. He says there are case studies of students from rural areas who are the first in their families to go to university. They receive bursaries for tuition and accommodation and try to send home what little money they have left over to assist their families back home. “How can you go into an exam when you’re not eating properly?”
Rudolph says one of the reasons he got involved in food justice work was his concern for the nutritional impact on health.
“When I was at medical school, the profile of somebody with diabetes was over the age of 55 — somebody who did very little exercise and was overweight. Today it’s 12-year-old kids and it’s not because of fast food, it’s because of poverty. They eat foods that are high in carbohydrates, high in sugar, high in salt and with very narrow dietary diversity. So we’re facing a huge problem and the health system can’t cope.”
Rudolph says if he was the minister of health he would devote a large amount of the budget to better nutrition and making healthy food available. He says if you have healthy communities people are able to function better.
“When we talk about food we cannot separate the water from the energy from the sanitation. It’s all part of a whole and together with that we have to create jobs, purpose and an environment which nurtures young people into career opportunities.”