South African women take aquaponics path to boost food security

By Dianah Chiyangwa 

Johannesburg

In the heart of Puledi, on one of the dusty streets of Thokoza, one of the townships in Gauteng, children play between unfenced Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) houses. Overheard, grey clouds threaten to break the heavy humidity that hangs over this community. An all-female-led agricultural project that farms vegetables and nursery products, produces vermin compost, broilers, waste management and aquaculture fishery on the land provided by the Ekurhuleni Municipality shares their journey of fighting poverty through farming.

Green and climate-resilient agriculture for sustainable growth in South Africa’s agricultural sector has the potential to drive economic growth and lift people out of poverty and increase food insecurity, but Africa’s agriculture sector is highly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Increasing temperatures and changes in rainfall patterns threaten food security and the livelihoods of millions of rural smallholders, especially the rural poor, in a region where more than 90 percent of the crops are rainfed.

“South Africa is among the many vulnerable developing countries that are already experiencing climate change,” stated Barbara Creecy, Minister of Forestry, Fisheries and Environment while calling for innovative ways in the face climate change.

This is evident from the increased frequency of extreme weather conditions such as floods and droughts that threaten lives, food security, and infrastructure.

Despite the many challenges faced by communities due to the high rate of unemployment, the women of Thokoza Eco Cooperative, located in the East of Johannesburg, started farming as a way of eradicating poverty through a collective responsibility in communities to ensure change that is positive and impactful.

Aquaphonics
Farmers are focusing on modern technology such as hydroponics and Aquaponics as a way to enable cities and towns without land to grow crops. Photo/Diana Chiyangwa/AWiM

Nombulelo Mbatha, one of the cooperative members, said, “We have put our minds together, and decided to start a cooperative as a survival mechanism for both our children and the entire community.”

In South Africa, high poverty rates limit the country’s capacity to respond to both the COVID-19 pandemic and the climate crisis. Green and climate-resilient agriculture, including aquaculture practices, is, however, playing a critical role in addressing the drivers of farming and increasing the ability of both urban and rural poor to adapt to a changing climate.

As part of its green recovery plan, South Africa has made strides to mitigate climate change in agriculture by helping farmers set up soilless farming foundations for high-impact adaptations and mitigating citizens’ farming projects that create green jobs and improve livelihoods.

Gugulethu Mahlangu is also another female organic farmer who is focusing on modern technology such as hydroponics and aquaponics as a way to enable cities and towns without land to grow crops.

A promising future

Many women who belong to the Thokoza Eco Cooperative are widows or grandmothers who are taking care of orphans and surviving on SASSA grants that are not enough to sustain a living.

According to data released by Statistics South Africa, as of 2019, 41.8 percent of households in South Africa were female-headed, which amounted to a total of approximately 7.2 million.

“This project has not only helped us in eradicating poverty in our community, but we have also established a huge clientele by selling our vegetables to bigger supermarkets and other individuals,” Ms Mbatha explained.

Zandile Kumalo, Sandton’s first hydroponics rooftop farmer, is another example of a young woman who was inspired by the agri-tech that is eco-sustainable, clean-tech growing practices to grow fresh vegetables locally year-round and get healthy nutritional food for the people in South Africa.

Ms Kumalo believes that most South Africans, especially those living in townships, eat a lot of fast foods and even vegetables that don’t have any nutritional value. She, therefore, wishes to grow a variety of crops that can be used by households, such as root vegetables and herbs.

Small-scale farmers with fewer resources have been hit hard by unusual weather patterns. Experts predict the trend will continue if nothing is done to mitigate the effects of climate change.

Peter Johnson, a climate scientist and researcher at the University of Cape Town, said: “The threats of changing rainfall seasons lead to rainfall dates and crop management.” Wide-ranging crop yield reductions may not affect a country with access to grain imports, but many countries with large subsistence agricultural bases face severe food shortages when crops fail.

Potential Policy Solutions

The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic denied many South Africans their right to adequate food, as enshrined in the South African Constitution, and undermined the efforts that have been made to meet the National Development Plan’s goals and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s) for hunger by 2030.

For Africa to fulfil the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) agenda, the empowerment of women farmers must be placed at the centre of policymaking, and then carefully monitored to ensure implementation and achieved outcomes, “says Corteva, an Agriscience company dedicated to supporting female farmers through theoretical and experimental training and facilitating networking opportunities with other farmers.

In her speech during the 18th session of the African Ministerial Conference on the Environment, UNEP’s Executive Director Inger Andersen indicated that the organisation is committed to providing policy advice, facilitating knowledge sharing and promoting dialogue on how green fiscal policies can mobilise resources.

There are, for example, plans to convene a private sector forum to explore how the private sector can support the mobilization of resources and partnerships for the implementation of the African Green Stimulus Programme.

The next UN Environment Assembly would hopefully provide an opportunity to accelerate a green recovery. through increasing collaboration with partners and other regions. Through exploring new funding opportunities, Through engaging with other major recovery programmes to find areas of mutual benefit,

Climate-Smart Agriculture (CSA) is an approach that helps guide actions needed to transform and reorient agricultural systems to effectively support the development and ensure food security in a changing climate. CSA aims to tackle three main objectives: sustainably increasing agricultural productivity and income; adapting and building resilience to climate change; and reducing and/or removing greenhouse gas emissions, where possible.

A study by the Sustainability Initiative of South Africa (SIZA), an initiative of the Department of Agriculture of South Africa, clearly indicates through their qualitative and quantitative data how women are represented within the country’s agricultural sector. The report also highlights how women have been emancipated and areas where improvements can be made to eliminate the consequences of past injustices, cultures, and other relegations.

Promoting awareness among communities, civic society organizations, and government bodies to collectively confront climate change and help build a better future for marginalized communities. It will draw references from issues and decisions made around gender and small-scale farming in the UNFCCC and COP26 processes given the advances made in last year’s final agreement text and how this will be developed at the African COP27 in Egypt.

Invitation to action

Though South Africa’s agricultural department plays a role in aquaponics education, proponents ask that the government of South Africa include aquaponics in their agricultural policies so that they can assist in funding. Farmers and entrepreneurs will continue to develop sustainability and food security with aquaponics in South Africa, and aquaponics may provide the solution to climate variables such as drought.

This article is part of African Women in Media (AWiM)/ UNEP Africa Journalism Environmental Programme

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