Yasser Parker thought he had fulfilled his childhood dream by becoming a professional cricket player. He enjoyed the days in front of the crowd, playing a sport that took him overseas. Then, seven years after his chosen career, his future began to look less rosy.
“In my senior year, I went to the UK to play a season at Stratford-upon-Avon cricket club; that’s when I realized that financially I wouldn’t be able to get to where I wanted to be, ”recalled Parker, 30.
It was time for a new challenge.
A visit to a modest 1.2-hectare parcel in Marondera, an agricultural town 90km from Zimbabwe’s capital Harare, today shows a thriving new operation and a very different life. Parker’s solution to his problem? Aquaponics.
“We combine fish farming and hydroponics. We use fish scraps to grow our plants, ”Parker said while showing him the operation.
“Another way of seeing is that fish produce fertilizers for our plants and our plants purify the water for the fish; it’s a symbiotic relationship “.
For Parker, the journey from cricket to becoming one of the first farmers to experience aquaponics is a case of coincidence and curiosity.
“I went to high school at Prince Edward High School in Harare, but I didn’t do very well; I was able to pass four O-level subjects, excluding math, ”Parker said.
In Zimbabwe, five ordinary level subjects are considered the minimum for academic progression.
“I moved to the Prestige to try and pass five O-Levels, which I didn’t achieve,” he said.
“My mom gave me a choice, she wanted me to go to Gwebi Agricultural College, but I decided to start playing cricket.”
After hitting a wall in his cricket career, Parker returned to Zimbabwe with no clear plan on how to proceed.
“I sat there for about six months to figure out what I wanted to do; I took a carpentry course at Harare Polytechnic College and eventually decided to go into agriculture, ”Parker explained.
He was initially drawn to fish farming, but the information he found on the internet inspired a different idea.
Tripping on acquaponics
“We were supposed to do fish farming on this plot, but one day I was on YouTube and I came across aquaponics. I did some research and realized this was something I could do and started the installation.
“Finances were a bit difficult at the time, although three weeks after our development, some investors came and supported the project.”
Without a background in agriculture, aquaponics for Parker represented a simpler option than regular agriculture. From his research, he realized that successful traditional farming required coming to terms with complex problems such as soil analysis, irrigation, fertilizer, and weed control.
That was if he could find enough land. And then there were the risks due to weather conditions, especially without a source of water for irrigation.
Aquaponics, although initially more expensive to finance, have provided an answer to many of these problems.
“You can set it up anywhere and it can be any size; from something for home use in your 40 square meter yard to something you see here, 2,500 square meters. You can grow whatever you need to survive in terms of fresh produce and protein. Fresh produce is the plants and proteins from fish, ”Parker explained.
Smallholder farmers in Zimbabwe have long faced problems caused by the rain-fueled form of agriculture they pursue and, this season, the rain has been erratic, leaving many farmers to count their losses. Parker believes that 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, “she said.
“We don’t have to drain the water at any time; the only water we lose is through transpiration and evaporation. It is very different from your conventional cultivation methods with the soil. “
Parker has only one permanent employee. She employs casual workers during the harvest season.
“The day usually starts at 5:30 am; I go on an exploration to make sure the plants are not attacked by pests or diseases. After that, I take the PH and water temperature parameter readings, “she said.
Regular water quality tests are designed to ensure that water conditions or parameters remain conductive for fish farming. Controlled variables include temperature, dissolved oxygen, alkalinity, hardness, ammonia, and nitrates.
Although the hardness and alkalinity do not change regularly, the oxygen and PH levels fluctuate and must be periodically checked; Otherwise, the fish will die.
The fish are fed twice a day, from 6:00 to 10:00, then from 16:00 to 17:30.
Explaining the process, Parker said the aquaponic system combines a fish farm and a horticultural farm, with water as the connecting element.
Water becomes rich in nutrients over time from the waste excreted by fish. That water is then fed to the horticultural side, where the crops survive solely on residual water and don’t need land.
As plants absorb nutrients through natural biological filtration, they clean the water and it is returned to the fish in a cyclic manner.
Periodically, there is a cleaning process to filter out waste that the plants would not be able to absorb.
“We empty our filters once a week and send them to a mineralization tank, where we feed the naturally occurring bacteria with molasses and the bacteria break down solid fish waste, and it’s an enriched fertilizer in the system,” he explained.
According to Parker, even if he is assigned a larger plot of land, soil farming is out of the question because aquaponics is more productive and environmentally friendly.
“I was drawn to the sustainability aspect; I have followed the global crisis since I was young. We are 10 times more productive per square meter using this type of agriculture than in soil farming, ”Parker said.
“For example, per acre, we will grow 120,000 heads of lettuce 10 times a year and we will produce 1.2 million heads of lettuce; while in the land, from what I have read and been told, you make 40,000 per acre [0.4ha] and harvest three times a year. It was a no-brainer, “she adds.
Parker, who says he is the first to start a semi-commercial aquaponics operation in Zimbabwe, admits the cost outlay could be limiting for some unless there are investors.
“If you’re planning on setting up a hectare, it can range from $ 400,000 to $ 1.6 million, depending on how high-tech you want to go.”
He said the great thing about greenhouse farming is that you can mechanize and automate almost anything. It can be as automated as installing temperature and humidity sensors and automated computers to control a greenhouse at the touch of a phone or a computer button.
While managing a “fairly simple” setup, Parker hopes to upgrade its systems to the point where it can control everything remotely, even if it has a variety of crops.
“We have planted eggplant, lettuce, chillies and okra and, so far, everything has grown well; the ultimate goal is to tap into the export market.
“It’s a difficult process; this is something new for Zimbabwe; this turned into a pilot project. Once we’re ready, we’ll invite investors to the field days and see if anyone is willing to part ways with a fair amount of money in the deal. “
Parker supplies the market in Marondera and surrounding areas with its products. He also hopes to recruit more people into aquaponics.
“I haven’t mentored people yet, but we’ve had people come to learn. For example, I am part of the Federation of Young Farmers of Zimbabwe and we have organized a small field day for the women of the organization. “
He also hopes to start a college to educate people about sustainable forms of agriculture.
“The more people that can get into this, the better. There are no chemicals we are sprinkling on our plants. Nobody is ingesting anything toxic, “she said.
Parker remains a cricketer at heart despite the rewards he reap from aquaponics, and he hopes his agricultural venture will open the doors for him to provide financial support to his former club, Old Hararians.
“Someday, when I’m in a better position, I’ll reciprocate, whether by sponsoring a team or individuals,” Parker said. – bird story agency