Teen’s fish farm is booming
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Johannesburg - Rikalize Reinecke leans over a large tank, her petite arms straining as she runs a net through the water.
The 13-year-old stands on a bench to be able to see into the tank.
The frown of concentration on her face changes in an instant to an excited smile as she nets two pinkish-coloured tilapia.
This is a normal part of Rikalize’s daily routine as she runs her 18-month-old aquaculture and aquaponics business.
The remarkable youngster, who lives on a plot in Kameelfontein, north of Pretoria, shows The Star around her “farm”.
At the entrance are glass tanks with a new batch of baby tilapia and catfish.
Then there are the four big, black plastic tanks or dams which the fish get transferred to at their different growth stages.
“I catch them and put them in the harvesting dam. I do everything,” Rikalize says as she throws pellets into the water.
“It started when I saw the movie Dolphin Tale; I wanted to be a marine biologist,” she says.
“I started doing research, and this one page just popped up of an aquaculture farm in America.”
After nagging her father, Danie Reinecke, for weeks, he eventually agreed to help her set up a plant if she got a qualification.
“That was meant to be a deterrent, to get her off my case. But she kept on asking and nagging,” the proud father chuckles.
He chaperoned his daughter on a week-long course at Aquaculture Innovations in Grahamstown, where she did better than many of the adults.
The rest, as they say, is history.
But Rikalize has had her fair share of disappointments, and every day is a learning curve.
“My first batch of catfish died. I accidentally fried them with the element,” she says.
Reinecke adds: “It was big tears that day.”
Then some of the fingerlings - finger-length fish - escaped from their net in the dam after a bigger fish ripped it open, which meant Rikalize couldn’t control their food intake and growth.
She’s also still grappling with how to regulate the water temperature so that it stays at 28ºC, which is optimum for the health and growth of the fish.
The tanks work on a gravitational system where waste products fall through centre drains at the bottom of the tanks and through a mechanical filter which separates the water and the solids.
The water is cleaned even further in a biological filter so that it can be re-used.
“But we realised the biological filter was too small,” says Rikalize, who is extremely clued up about the technical aspects of her farm.
This is how the second leg of her business - a thriving aquaponics vegetable garden - was born.
In the greenhouse tunnel, next to the dams, plants of all sizes can be seen growing out of a series of pipes.
“The plants are just floating in the water. There’s not one drop of sand in this system,” Rikalize says.
Waste water from the fish dams is now also filtered by the plants, providing them with nutrients at the same time.
“The water quality is the main thing in her business. She uses the same water over and over again,” says her father.
Rikalize explains: “If I’d put up another biological filter, I’d have no profit. With the vegetables and aquaponics, I get something out of that… I take that to grow my business.”
The vegetables are her main source of income at the moment as the fish take 13 months before they can be harvested.
She supplies Rovos Rail, two restaurants, a chef school, a hostel, as well as locals with her products.
Any money that Rikalize makes gets ploughed straight back into the hobby she has turned into a business.
She pays the salary of Yolande van der Merwe, who looks after the plants while she’s at school, and she buys fish, fish food, water-quality test kits and extra equipment.
Although Rikalize spends most of her free time with her fish, she is still very involved at Kameelfontein Primary School, where she is the head girl. She does cross-country and is in the choir, the Eco Club and the Robotika Club.
“In the beginning it was hard, but now I’m used to it. My friends don’t understand it. They think my father does everything for me. They think I’m crazy because I just want to talk about fish,” the animated girl says.
Rikalize’s mind is always with her beloved fish.
“I never put my phone off during school because I have to know if something’s wrong here.”
She and Reinecke get SMSes if there’s a power cut or if a piece of equipment stops working.
Rikalize has big dreams for her business. She wants to invest in steam boilers for the water temperature and solar power for the air pumps to get off Eskom’s unreliable grid.
The demand for her products is so high that once she has figured out how to regulate the water temperature, she’ll expand her business by erecting the 10 dams that have been donated to her.
And she’d still like to be a marine biologist, if there are any fish left in the sea, she says. If not, she’ll start a marine aquaculture farm.
“Then I’d rather keep doing the fish and be the crazy fish girl,” she laughs.