Thought Leadership

Worm Tea

October 2022

 -Sustainable Innovative Solutions in Agriculture

Sizwe Mnamatha, founder of Phumelela Solutions (Succeed) in the Eastern Cape, takes farming to an extraordinary level with his innovative worm farming solution for sustainable development. As a young boy, a dinner-time prayer that his grandmother instilled in him, “God be with those who are less fortunate”, discouraged Sizwe from simply throwing unwanted food away into the garbage bin. That prayer directed his life’s journey, however, without immediate action taken. Thus, his purpose lay dormant for years until an encounter with Professor Tony Booth reignited his passion for helping those who are unable to help themselves. Sizwe believes in his purpose as a solutionist, as he terms it, and has gone to great lengths to ensure that worm farming is recognised in the agricultural sector of our country. Strange as it may sound, a container of worms has proven to be an alternative solution to waste disposal, a rich organic fertilizer and a source of many job opportunities.

Indigenous knowledge systems, like worm farming, can be used to respond to the challenges of climate change and global warming. Waste disposal after all is one of the major contributors of toxic greenhouse gas emissions. Valuable programme funding that Sizwe received as a Social Enterprise Award, along with access to natural resources, enabled him to grow the business and mitigate these challenges. In addition to this, Sizwe expressed that he was able to demonstrate to those people scavenging for food in rubbish bins and waste dumps, that there is an alternative for them. Phumelela, an Mbewu beneficiary, creates jobs and trains them, not only to farm the worms but empowers them with the education and skills to run their households. Worm farming enables them to produce nutritious foods that they can eat at home as well as supply to the community and even sell to grocery stores.

Worm farming is not as vulgar as it sounds. It’s quite simple; using a compost bin to hold the worm colony they aid in decomposing food waste by consumption. The urine they produce is then tapped at the base, which is known as “Worm Tea”. The urine of these worms is a rich organic fertilizer that boosts growth in vegetables, fruits and grains, a healthier alternative to growing veggies than making use of synthetic fertilizers.

Waiting two months for a harvest of spinach was not a feasible strategy in Sizwe’s books. He therefore turned to his mentor (Dr Martin Maboko), who was working at the Agricultural Research Council (ARC) in Pretoria, for assistance and Dr Maboko introduced Sizwe to hydroponics. This process produces food produce (fruit and veg) in an artificial environment without burying the roots in soil but rather in gravel thus providing the nutrients for growth through a uniquely designed watering system, ultimately increasing growth rates and a higher yield.

A beautiful, yet simple representation of this type of farming, is by placing a tray underneath the geyser that captures water overflows. The water flows onto the tray below that is filled with gravel. A pump then infiltrates the Worm Tea infused water. With the use of a specific ratio, Sizwe observed that if he grows barley in this system (which is a very nutritious animal feed), it grows faster than when it is grown in soil. This process is not only a faster way of growing crops, but also provides farmers with year-round animal feed.

Driving sustainable innovative solutions in agriculture, Zuka, a division of Phumelela, is continuously developing sustainable innovative solutions using natural resources. A zuka (colloquial for the 5cent coin) on its own is somewhat worthless, however a community of iZuka can constitute a substantial and formidable basis upon which to build wealth.  Zuka combines biotechnology, Internet of Things (IoT) and hydroponics to respond to waste disposal and food challenges. Zuka provides dairy farmers, sheep, pig, goat and chicken farmers with Zuka Animal Feeds, as well as rents or sells its unique Zuka feed production greenhouses to animal farmers. Additionally, Zuka has a Waste Management Service which provides waste collection and disposal solutions for municipalities, abattoirs and fruit and vegetable vendors.

Sizwe has partnered with Technology Innovation Agency and is working towards producing an organic pesticide that will keep pests away from vegetables, without harming birds. This partnership is also conducting research that will enable Phumelela to produce a range of Zuka products that target specific types of crops. This is done by utilizing indigenous knowledge of growing crops that has been certified safe through laboratory tests to determine and ensure product safety. 

Zuka strives to achieve the goals set out in the United Nations Sustainable Development Strategy for 2025 and are involved in various programs to uplift communities including, the School Vegetable Garden Project, Bread Tags for Wheelchairs and Project Playground among others.  They are also involved with Seed Bank; an initiative that endeavours to collect seeds for the creation of an organic seed bank. In parting, Sizwe leaves a note of gratitude and raises his hat to Barloworld’s Mbewu programme for their contribution to jumpstarting this initiative of worm farming as a solution for sustainable development.

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