Happy New Year!
It is an honour to be having our first guest post here on Alex Grows Up. Over a year ago I met Cindy Achieng, who was a guest at our Toastmasters meeting. She later became a member and is now doing a fantastic job as the President of our club! Not only that – she has quite some experience in aquaponics. Cindy, the floor is yours…
Back in 2014, I was in my final year of a bachelor’s degree in engineering, with a focus in renewable energy, in a small town in North West Arkansas, USA. For my final year bachelor’s project, I did a group project in which we powered a small aquaponics system with solar power. I designed the solar and battery system for the pump as well as took care of the system from day to day.
We built this system for a client 4 hours away, in Little Rock, AR. Designing a solar powered system in a not-so-sunny part or the world through winter presented its own challenges especially for the goldfish. It became clear that:
A solar-powered aquaponics system is best for warmer locations.
At the end of the project, we delivered the whole system to the client by car (!). A month later, my colleague and I had the privilege of building an aquaponics system in Siem Reap, Cambodia. This system was quite different from the previous one. It was made from local materials and we made use of the natural pond. From this I learned that:
Simple is sustainable.
Keeping things simple allowed for the easy knowledge-transfer from us to the owners. There were no fancy materials to replace in the future. Our mission to give the locals an additional source of nutrients was easy to accomplish when they knew they could take care of the system once we were gone.
Two years ago, I did an internship in Amsterdam where there is a beautiful aquaponics system. I spent 6 months running an already established aquaponics system. It may seem elementary but an aquaponics system is work! It is just like farming, and has to be tended to daily. The system is in constant flux with plants growing, nutrients being taken up and pipes biofouling.
Some things can get easily forgotten, especially the build-up of organic matter the pipes and pumps then one day you find that some plants are not getting water. I developed a simple Arduino flow rate sensor system to keep track of the flow rate and send an alarm when the flow rate was below 700 L/h.
Aquaponics systems need to be augmented with computer systems to reduce the human labour involved.
The type of aquaponics system you choose matters for the location. Location informs what materials are available to you including the type of fish. Choosing fish can be tricky because of human variables such as demand of the fish in the local market or hardiness of the fish. Often fish that do not fit into the local ecosystem can be chosen which can also introduce other concerns.
Working with the local environment can dramatically simplify an aquaponics system. Simplification can be achieved by the use of local materials or basing your choice of plants on its benefit to permaculture. A system built from local materials is especially useful in less developed countries— materials should not get in the way of a basic need such as food. A local approach can open up more options for nutrient sources in many countries.
With any size of aquaponics system, some daily tasks have to be done. These tasks, such as checking of chemical balances and flow rates should be digitally monitored if possible to reduce human labour.
The most important factor I found, however, was the human factor. Aquaponics is farming, and most farmers would say, that’s a full-time job. Growth needs tending and care, and with so many variables and need for attention, there has to be ownership. When the farmer takes personal responsibility for the system, it becomes sustainable longterm. For aquaponics to be a true catalyst for change and bring impact in the places it is needed most, personal responsibility is absolutely important.
Thanks, Cindy. Very well put! It was great to read about your experiences, and as I would have expected, some succinct and practical take-home messages.