By Ruvesen Naidoo
Makhanda farmer Curt Henderson has successfully adopted a farming technique known as aquaponics, using the waste of fish as the main source of nutrients for his plants.
Henderson is the owner of RCR Aquaponics, which he founded in August 2022 in a bid to build a sustainable and cost-effective organic farm. The business is “a marriage of my two passions for water and plants,” he says.
He uses tilapia and catfish, which are housed individually but placed in containers within the plantation of the plants he grows. This container then breaks down the fish waste with the assistance of an installed pipe system that allows the right nutrients to travel directly to plants. The nutrients are further mixed with a certain water solution that fertilizes the plants.
While traditional aquaponic farmers often grow only one crop, Henderson has produced an array of vegetables and fruits, including the ‘superfood’ kale, lemon balm herbs, chilies, peppers, and fruit including pineapple, watermelon, and strawberries.
Henderson also grows basil and makes pesto that he supplies to Makhanda restaurants, Major Fraser’s and JJ’s.
Henderson was working as a mechanical technician for a water purification company when he first began experimenting with aquaponics. “I had watched two tutorials off YouTube on how to build an aquaponic system, and I failed dismally,” he said.
He then took up a mentorship under an aquaponic farmer for two years, before starting his company last year.
Unfortunately, Henderson is no stranger to processes of trial and error. Just before he launched RCR Aquaponics, an investor pulled out at the last minute, leaving him with just R9500 of his own funds to maintain the project. A smart aquaponics system that uses recycled material can cost R1 million, he says.
Like most businesses, RCR Aquaponics has also been affected by load shedding and water shedding. The costs of purchasing a diesel generator and running water pumps daily have added up. Although Henderson had hoped to build two additional aquaponic farms, the absence of an investor has delayed the new development for now.
Meanwhile, Henderson continues to supply businesses and restaurants with his fresh produce.
He advises that anyone interested in starting an aquaponics farm should take a six-month internship under a very experienced aquaponics practitioner. “This is beneficial in the long-term”, he says, as it allows would-be farmers to understand the technical workings of the system, and how to design their own innovative systems within a budget.
He also suggests having enough funds to maintain the system for some time after the farm sees its first healthy harvest.
Those interested in purchasing aquaponic produce can find Curt Henderson behind Unit 37 on Saturdays and in front of LA Cafe on Sundays.