Belgium Campus Brainchild, Bothlale Village, Partners with La Pieus Aqua in Agri-Tech Venture

There truly is no end to the extraordinary potential that technology holds for our world. It keeps us connected, saves lives and moves us forward as a species. Of all its merits, what immediately comes to light in recent years is technology’s immense capacity to save our planet. More so, in the developing world, where progress is most needed in drought-ridden countries and the vast majority of the population live off the land.

According to Prof. Dr. Kris Willems (Ph.D.) “Real progress and evolution stems from human imagination” . “When we as a species learn to stop depending on the limited energy sources around us that pose nothing but a threat to our ecosystems and use our brains to untap the unlimited and green energy supplies from the sun and wind, we will not only survive, but thrive as human beings.”


Purpose-Driven Technology

As the Executive Director, Professor Willems explains that all activities undertaken in Botlhale Village are intended to improve the lives of community members in this region. “Research at this innovation and incubation hub will always be conducted with the purpose of serving the needs of citizens in terms of learning and teaching,” he says. “We believe in social development as a premise to ensure that our society grows and that opportunities are created for everyone in our communities.”

Conceived by Belgium Campus, Bothlale Village serves as a place of knowledge creation and sharing to advance ICT and innovation in South Africa, Africa and further abroad as part of their ICT4Development initiative. “At Botlhale Village, ICT will be exploited in innovative ways to provide benefits in areas where they impact on the community and bring about a transformation in their daily lives. This is the essential tenet for change in our country and around the world,” Dr. Willems adds.

Stressing the importance for purpose-based technology, he shares, “Any technology we develop at Bothlale Village always underpins a number of key factors. We ask ourselves, is it regionally, socially and culturally inclusive? Does it have a purpose? A mandate?”

The village is also an incubator for economic entities where research students engage with virtual companies. Successful projects may lead to the creation of new, small and medium enterprises that add value to the knowledge gained and systems developed. This type of development leads to growth in the local economy and contributes to the improvement of the region in the spirit of Ubuntu.

 When Smart Data Meets Green Energy

One such project is their partnership with South African teenager and founder of La Pieus Aqua, Rikalize Reinecke. Recently, she became a trailblazer in the area of aquaponics, a system which combines fish farming with plant cultivation. Through her company, La Pieus Aqua, Rikalize developed a model that successfully purifies aquaculture waste water in a decoupled aquaponic system. This is then reused in an Aquaculture RAS, to reduce excessive water spillage/wastage. Her system has a limited carbon footprint and conserves water in a country battling drought.

Aquaponics is the combination of aquaculture (raising fish) and hydroponics (growing plants without soil) growing fish and plants together in one integrated system. The fish waste provides an organic food source for the plants, and the plants naturally filter the water for the fish. Rikalize states “Aquaponics is a very efficient method of growing food that uses a minimum amount of water and space, all the while utilizing waste, resulting in an end product of organic, healthy fish and vegetables. From a nutritional standpoint, aquaponics provides food in the form of both protein (from the fish) and vegetables.”

There is growing interest in aquaponics as a form of aquaculture that can be used to produce fish and vegetables closer to urban centres and solve the impending food scarcity crisis that is imminent.  According to Professor Willems, the value of technology cannot be underestimated in the agriculture sector. Technology‘s capacity is still untapped for farmers, investors, and entrepreneurs to improve food production and consumption in Africa. “When we combine a green system with technology, there are major economic, social, and environmental benefits that will follow.”

“The power of computers and data has grown exponentially,” he continues. “We now all have smart phones with the power of a supercomputer of a few decades ago. This has seen the capacity to gather and analyse data increase tenfold; ushering in the era of Big Data.”

“The key is what we do with this information available to us, and how we use it to make the world a better place. After all, data has little value until it can be turned into knowledge,” he explains.

Rikalize Reinecke

Solving a Crisis

 Experts and recent studies estimate that almost half of South Africa’s population is currently struggling to afford even the most basic foodstuffs and many local government departments are urging families to use their own land for growing some of their own basic foodstuffs.

“If agriculture cannot feed the growing population, the, worryingly, there is no sustainable future for society,” Professor Willems urges. “Investing in sustainable agricultural practices and improved inputs to boost yields will be especially important in light of the possible effects of climate change in the region.”

Though on a national level South Africa is regarded as a “food secure” nation, the situation for households in rural areas is different. About 30.4 million people (54% of the total population) are reportedly living in poverty and if this trend continues, the food security situation might come under pressure.

“As scientists, we understand the value and importance of green solutions to the food scarcity issue and that on all levels, government and private sector, need to reach a place where sustainability of our ecosystems becomes a top priority,” states Rikalize .

“We need more investment in the agriculture sector, particularly to develop technology to improve production. My model is completely scalable and can be placed in the garden to feed a family of four, or on a larger scale in rural communities to feed the local population. This was the main reason I built the modular aquaponic system; to develop a green, sustainable and scalable model.”

Now, coupled with the technology advancements that the Bothlale Village students and Professor Willems are developing, her model is going to prove both sustainable and efficient.


Supporting a Smarter future for a Micro-sized Enterprise | An Insight into the Project

As part of their Participatory Development Model at Bothlale Village, Professor Willems and his team of students and young ICT graduates are currently working with Rikalize and her father to identify technologies that are economic, efficient and sustainable, and to accelerate the deployment of these systems into the market.

“What is crucial to note is that these solutions cannot be imposed from outside or above within local communities,” Professor Willems adds. “They will only prove effective when we engage with communities and people living on or below the breadline and truly understand their needs. Ultimately we need to come up with solutions that are resilient and long-lasting.”


Project 1 |Counting, Measuring and Sorting Tilapia Fish


According to Rikalize, obtaining an up-to-date count of the total number of animals in a fish facility is an essential task, which is performed by technicians who manually extract animals with the help of small fish nets. “This manual counting process requires a significant amount of time and is prone to error,” she explains. Moreover, the handling of animals while counting induces significant stress. “Finding a non-invasive automatic procedure to obtain the precise number of tilapia fish is a long sought-after goal of fish facility managers.”

According to Professor Willems, it should be born in mind that depending on the chosen system one needs to develop appropriate software/algorithms, a task currently underway by his team.


Project 2 | Monitoring Platform for Physicochemical Parameters


Today in La Pieus Aqua the following aquaponics related parameters (T, NO2, NO3, pH, DO (dissolved oxygen), water level) are measured manually. This is a very intensive and time-consuming activity. Therefore, according to Professor Willems, it is essential they implement the automation of the whole system, enabling better control over the system and data.

Project 3 | Counting Fish Eggs and/or Hatchlings


“The production of eggs in a fish population is a fundamental parameter in fisheries management and ecology,” Rikalize outlines. Traditionally, the quantity of fish eggs is determined either by counting them one by one using a pipette, or by estimating the number of eggs by measuring the total volume or weight and calculating the numbers from established correlations between volume/weight and egg numbers. Professor Willems and his team are tasked with finding a non-invasive method to count living fish eggs. “In a similar way to Project 1, a comparison of the different methods to count fish eggs and/or hatchlings, based on publications, needs to be performed. The collected information can then be used to evaluate which system is best suited, considering the company’s context,” he explains.


Smart Technology Saves the Planet; Saves Lives

The food challenges in Africa are multipronged and baffle scientists daily. The population is growing, but it is threatened by low productivity exacerbated by weather changes and rural-urban migration that deprives farming communities of young people. “Since we cannot mitigate these factors, we need to increase outputs by becoming smart, technologically SMART,” Dr. Willems elucidates.

“ICT is changing continuously and at a rapid pace. This is an important time for humanity, where we need to leverage ICT as valuable tool in saving our planet and towards poverty alleviation.”

by Candice Turner