Empowering African women through aquaponics


In African communities, women play a crucial role in agriculture and food production. Women smallholder farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa produce 80% of the foodstuffs for household consumption and sale in local markets. The female share of the agricultural labour force in Sub-Saharan Africa is the highest in the world (50%).

A FAO study suggests that farm yields in sub-Saharan Africa could rise by 20% if women had equal access to inputs and land. Despite their immense contributions, many African women face challenges in accessing resources and opportunities for economic empowerment. Women are primarily involved in underpaid or unpaid agricultural jobs, which are often temporary in nature. Moreover, women farmers continue to have 20-30% lower rates of agricultural productivity than men, not because women are less efficient farmers but because they need equitable access to agricultural inputs, land rights, and markets for their products. 

This puts women at a disadvantage, resulting in them dealing with food insecurity and making them vulnerable to sexual and gender-based violence. Several women tend to resort to coping strategies that may harm their wellbeing

These systemic challenges faced by women are further exacerbated by climate change. Given the climate-related risks faced by the sector, there is a growing role for climate-smart solutions to improve productivity, reduce input cost, and use resources more efficiently. In addition, such climate-smart technologies are potentially easily accessible to and/or usable by women in the sector, thereby alleviating some of the challenges faced by them.

An emerging technology for African farmers 

Aquaponics, a sustainable farming technique that combines aquaculture (fish farming) with hydroponics (soilless plant cultivation), is one such tool that has emerged over the last few years to address climate change-related challenges. The technique also has immense potential to transform women's lives across the continent, providing them with opportunities for economic empowerment, food security, and environmental sustainability. 

Aquaponics combines aquaculture and hydroponics to create a closed-loop environment where fish and plants thrive together. The plants are grown in the grow bed (constructed spaces filled with water with a top layer of styrofoam, or similar, to hold plants in place), and fish are placed in a fish tank. The nutrient-rich water, generated from fish waste from within the fish tank, is channeled into the grow bed where naturally occurring bacteria break the ammonia down into nitrites, and then into nitrates. Plants put into the grow bed absorb these nitrates and other nutrients, and the cleaned water is channeled back into the fish tank for the cycle to begin again. This allows, overall, for faster growth and increased stocking densities.

In recent years, there has been a notable increase in the adoption of aquaponics as a sustainable farming technique. Countries include Egypt, Nigeria, Kenya, and South Africa.

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How are private sector enterprises leveraging this technology?

Intellecap is working with ten private sector enterprises' innovative climate-smart business models to use gender-transformative approaches to scale their businesses. One of the enterprises the project supports is in Rwanda.

NjordFrey has developed Rwanda’s first commercial-scale demonstrator aquaponics farm, which presents a comprehensive solution to remove the above-mentioned barriers, and deliver both financial sustainability and lasting impact. It focuses on three core elements to do this:

• Technology – NjordFrey has designed and built a cost effective, high-yield aquaponics starter kit (combining fish and crops in a closed loop system) for easier uptake by farmers. 

• Operation – NjordFrey aims to support the farmers through an extensive 2-year training programme on operating and maintaining the farm. Furthermore, farmers also receive continual access to their integrated Digital Monitoring System (DMS). This system will collect data 24/7, to be centrally analysed and provide simple direct feedback to farmers, to ensure production is maximised at all times. 

• Finance facilitation – Working with financial institutions, NjordFrey plans to support farmers access loans, allowing them to acquire theses aquaponics kits and build them on a separate piece of purchased land. NjordFrey founders estimate that each farm will be managed by a minimum group of 40 farmers. 

Currently, NjordFrey utilises grid electricity to circulate water between the fish tank and grow beds; estimated at 15-20kWh to run the pump and other system components. There are plans to transition to solar power on the farm in next few months. 

NjordFrey has conducted detailed surveys and hands on trials with 100+ farmers on its farm in Kayonza, Rwanda, with positive feedback and aims to expand its current demonstrator to a fully operational aquaponics farm, that will be replicated and sold to farmer groups across Rwanda and wider Sub-Saharan Africa. 

On successful repayment of the initial farmer loan and completion of training modules, NjordFrey will transfer the majority of farm equity to the farmer group, allowing them to unlock a ten-fold increase in income, in addition to income from their primary agricultural land. 

Once transitioned to commercial scale, the enterprise will contribute to at least three Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), including - SDG 2 (achieving food security and improved nutrition, and promoting sustainable agriculture), SDG 13 (climate action), and SDG 5 (Gender equality and Women’s empowerment). 

NjordFrey intends to revolutionise the agriculture and aquaculture sectors in Rwanda through the following pathways:

1) Tackling food insecurity 

Aquaponics offers a resilient and climate-smart solution to food insecurity faced by women, by ensuring consistent food production and eliminating the high dependency on rainfall for food production on the continent. Based on field trial data provided by NjordFrey, the aquaponics starter kits deliver up to 3n000% more fish and on average 700% more crop production as compared to traditional practices. Further trials conducted by NjordFrey also indicate a five-fold increase in lettuce production and ten-fold in bean production in the region.

As women embrace aquaponics, they can become drivers of food security within their households and communities. With the ability to grow a wide variety of crops in a limited space, women can grow culturally significant/ indigenous crops and address the prevalent nutritional deficiencies in their region. The opportunity to produce a diverse range of fresh fish alongside crop produce throughout the year has the potential to elevate household nutrition further and reduce reliance on low-protein meals currently accessible to them. 

2) Empowering women in agriculture 

Aquaponics presents a transformative avenue to economic empowerment for African women through entrepreneurship and income generation. With its efficient use of resources and ability to yield high-quality produce year-round, aquaponics presents a sustainable business opportunity. Aquaponics requires minimal land, fully eliminates dependency on rain and uses less water, and reduces hard labour, making it an ideal solution for women smallholder farmers. The system is a closed loop, where fish waste is broken down for use as fertiliser for crop growth, thereby eliminating the need to purchase expensive fertilisers and saving input costs for farmers. By cultivating and selling fish and organic vegetables, women can establish profitable ventures, breaking their poverty and dependency cycle. With the ability to grow high-value crops such as herbs and leafy greens, these women are tapping into niche markets, creating new economic opportunities for themselves and their communities. 

Moreover, the cultivation of fish alongside crops provides dual income to these women as well as helps increase their access to high-quality protein for household consumption. Data from demo trials conducted by NjordFrey establishes that the aquaponics starter kit can generate 10x growth in income for the farmers from an average of $125/year to $1250/year. As a result, women will be able to have a sustainable income source for their families, enhance health and nutrition outcomes, and also improve their standard of living. Finally, they gain financial independence and inspire other women in their communities to pursue similar endeavours. 

3) Sustainable agriculture and environmental conservation 

With its resource-efficient design, Aquaponics offers a low-carbon alternative to traditional agricultural practices. Multiple research reports estimate that aquaponics uses up to 90% less water than traditional farming techniques, significantly reducing the strain on already limited water resources in the region. Farmers using NjordFrey starter kits are able to grow multiple crops per year, whereas traditional soil farming allows only two crops (East Africa witnesses 2 wet seasons per year). Field data shared by NjordFrey indicates that powering the system fully through solar can potentially save around 147,000 kg of CO2 emissions per hour. In addition, it eliminates the need to apply harmful pesticides and fertilisers, promoting natural pest control and minimising its ecological footprint.

Aquaponics thus helps farmers overcome two key barriers: 

i) Access to quality fertilisers - as a solution, it inherently generates high-quality fertiliser for plant growth which also allows crops to grow faster, and 

ii) Lower space requirement - crops sown on water beds grow well even when placed in close proximity to each other, while those sown on soil need to maintain a minimum distance between two plants. 

Leveraging these aspects, NjordFrey is able to boost yield per hectare, with multiple harvests and a lot more production on the same land size. As illustrated above, since women face higher risks and greater burdens from the impact of climate change, it is only logical that they become drivers of low-carbon practices for their community. Studies indicate that countries with more women in social and political life have 12% lower carbon dioxide emissions. By adopting techniques such as aquaponics, African women could become agents of environmental conservation. As sustainable farming practices gain momentum, these empowered women could further contribute to mitigating the adverse effects of climate change on their communities. 

4) Education and community development 

Given that aquaponics is still an emerging technology, the stakeholders involved frequently engage in knowledge-sharing and community development initiatives. Training programs and workshops on aquaponics offer opportunities for women to enhance their expertise and leadership capabilities, leading to increased confidence and decision-making power within their families. 

NjordFrey’s training programme and ongoing service contract ensures that farmers fully understand the technology, and where needed, are continually supported with NjordFreys’ expertise and Digital Monitoring System, so they become comfortable in operating the farm long term. More than 90% of the farmers who participated in trials on NjordFrey’s demo farm demonstrated a positive interest in using aquaponics, with the provision of ongoing support (56% of the participating farmers were women). 

The impact of aquaponics goes beyond the individual entrepreneurs; it extends to community development and knowledge sharing. These groups may also become a source of social support for women, who are often restricted within the household due to cultural norms and gender roles. As women succeed in their aquaponics ventures, they become role models for others, encouraging the younger generation of girls to pursue education and entrepreneurship. 

The road ahead 

Aquaponics holds incredible potential for transforming the lives of African women, providing them with the tools to become self-sufficient, resilient, and environmentally conscious. By embracing this sustainable farming technique, women can break free from the cycle of poverty, contribute to food security, protect the environment, and also inspire positive change within their communities.

Given aquaponics is still at a nascent stage, it is important for investors and financial institutions to have a dedicated focus on this technology. This will not only enable rapid commercialisation of aquaponics but also ease uptake for farmers through targeted financing solutions. Research institutions and think tanks could disseminate information about the technology and its benefits for farmers. This will create widespread awareness about aquaponics as an agent of change. 

At a sector level, support providers such as incubators and accelerators, industry and farmer associations, and governments need to create an enabling environment to facilitate increased adoption of aquaponics technology by – creating awareness through forums and print media on similar work across Africa, supporting demo farms for farmers to experience the technology first-hand, encouraging financial institutions to develop relevant instruments for farmer financing, and creating incentivising policies around the uptake of aquaponics. 

With increased adoption of aquaponics, the region is bound to witness a positive shift towards economic independence and food security. Investing in aquaponics and promoting women’s representation in this field is not only a wise economic choice but also a decisive step towards achieving inclusive and resilient development across the African continent. 

With this objective, Intellecap is supporting NjordFrey to scale its business model and integrate more women into its value chain in the process, while identifying new growth opportunities. This support has empowered NjordFrey with the requisite skills to increase awareness about the nascent technology in Rwanda, tailor their marketing approach to increase social media presence and recognition, on-board additional business-to-business buyers, apply for and attract relevant donors to fund scaling of their product, and enhance their customer segmentation and targeting. The aquaponics sector needs to implement more initiatives and channel investments to increase adoption and accelerate their impact through gender mainstreaming. Such initiatives will help build a future where empowered African women thrive as agents of change, fostering progress and prosperity for future generations. 

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