Lowly farmer’s fortunes turn after embracing aquaponics

Symbiotic relationship between chickens, fish and crops allows Sikuku to maximise output on his two-acre farm in Kisumu County.

When Mr Samuel Sikuku looks at his farm located in the rocky hills of Kandaria Location, Lower Nyakach in Kisumu County, he marvels at his crops, catfish and tilapia, as he readies himself for his first harvest.

This is not just because he is likely to pocket Ksh600,000 from harvesting the fish alone in two months’ time, but also due to the vast potential of his entire enterprise. He uses only a tiney portion of his two-acre farm for aquaponics. He raises fish, keeps chickens and grows sukumawiki (kales), onions and tomatoes.

Aquaponics is the combination of aquaculture and hydroponics (soilless farming), where fish and plants are grown together in an integrated symbiotic system, depending on each other for survival. Aquaponics poultry farming is a combination of chickens, fish and plants. The chicken structure is constructed on top of the whole system to allow the birds’ droppings to fall into the pond, while water from the fish pond is recycled and used to water the crops. Chicken waste becomes fish feed, and the fish waste in the water is pumped to the vegetables, which absorb the ammonia-rich fish waste. This provides organic food for the plants, which naturally filter the water through their roots and it goes back to the pond clean and oxygenated. This saves on the cost of expensive aerators or refilling the water.

I used KSh100,000 as seed capital to start the venture, putting in a total of 1,000 Tilapia and 800 catfish fingerlings

“Nothing goes to waste here,” says Mr Sikuku, grateful to  Mr Robert Mwakio as he awaits his bounty harvest. “I first learnt about aquaponics farming on Facebook and it was not until late December 2017 that I got in touch with Robert Mwakio through my sister,” recalls the 43-year-old, who has become a celebrity in his village.  Mr Mwakio is not only a successful farmer in aquaponic poultry rearing, he is also becoming a household name in Kenya and Rwanda for constructing, training and educating farmers on this type of farming, which he started in 2014.

“I used KSh100,000 as seed capital to start the venture, putting in a total of 1,000 Tilapia and 800 catfish fingerlings that were provided by Mr Mwakio,” says Mr Sikuku, a father of three children. The fish are fed once a day with chicken waste. He feeds both the catfish and tilapia with wheat bran,” he says.

Catfish takes about six weeks to mature, and a kilo fetches KSh500, while tilapia costs between KSh200 and KSh300. For reliable water supply, he harvests rain water.

“I use about 2,000 litres of water reserved in a tank. During the dry season, I top this up with water from vendors at the cost of KSh1,000 a month,” adds the farmer, who  had  tried  rearing  kienyeji chicken after being disappointed by layers in 2015, before settling on aquaponic poultry farming. “I managed to get only a meagre Ksh20, 000 as profit from layers,” recalls the former casual labourer in Kisumu Town. Mr Sikuku has partnered with officials from World Vision to train fellow farmers. “I am happy so many people who were once sceptical are impressed when they come to my farm and see how my catfish and tilapia have matured. I am now targeting youth groups to train them on how aquaponics poultry farming works, so as to woo them into agribusiness.”

Mr Mwakio is also using solar energy to boost the venture.  He developed an interest in aquaponics years back, while doing his master’s degree course at Southern University of Agricultural and Mechanics College in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, USA. At the university, this was practised on a large scale.

“I knew that one day, I would customize this to suit Kenyan needs,” he says After returning home in 2013, he converted his interest into opportunity, venturing into aquaponic poultry farming, before eventually combining chickens, fish and plants.

I am happy so many people who were once sceptical are impressed when they come to my farm and see how my catfish and tilapia have matured. I am now targeting youth groups to train them on how aquaponics poultry farming works, so as to woo them into agribusiness

Today, Mr Mwakio, who started the venture in 2014, in his backyard at  Buru Buru Estate in Nairobi, has become a household name in Kenya and in the semi-arid Nyamata region of Rwanda, where besides constructing aquaponIc systems for farmers, he is also harnessing solar energy to power his systems. The ambitious agri-prenuer is pocketing a tidy sum with the smallest solar aquaponic poultry structure fetching about KSh200,000 inclusive of all costs, while the bigger ones fetch KSh800,000.

A farmer with 5,000 tilapia, which is the minimum number stocked in a typical system, can earn Ksh625, 000 per harvest, if he sells half of the stock at KSh250 per kilo after between six and eight months. Catfish is the best bet for aquaponics, thanks to its high demand for export and by local hotels, Mr Mwakio says.

A mature catfish costs between KSh500 and KSh1, 000 a kilo, with a typical aquaponics system able to raise some 4,500 catfish. “Success also depends largely on the location. For example, in Rwanda, tilapia does well, while in Nairobi, the catfish market is more lucrative. Kenya already has a deficit and is importing fish,” he says.

Aquaponics requires regular water pumping, hence the high electricity bills. But with solar aquaponics, a farmer can save between KSh2, 000 and KSh10, 000 on electricity bills. “Using solar is ‘quite an organic way of generating power’ and it is healthier to the environment,” says Mr Mwakio.

“Because a farmer conserves a significant amount of energy while using solar, it is quite beneficial to largescale commercial aquaponics systems,” he says.

“Using solar, one can vary the intensity of the lighting or heating requirements from time to time. It also means that less money is spent on installation, repair and labour costs,” he says. The solar-powered aquaponics system comes with two batteries, two solar panels, a submersible pump and pipes. A modified solar system costs about KSh70, 000.

According to Mr Mwakio, using solar is healthier to the environment. He is striving to turn the farming concept on its head in Africa by bringing market needs together with cutting-edge farming technology and hands-on business training.

The bid to promote sustainable agribusiness has not gone unnoticed and the initiative has seen several countries, including Kenya and Rwanda, partnering.

“This type of system can be set up in a small backyard or on a large scale to sustain a whole town. I chose Rwanda as the launch pad for this initiative because of its thirst for innovation in agriculture,” says Mr Mwakio. “Fully embracing technological ventures in agriculture may be the answer to runaway food insecurity,” he says.

Kenyan farmers, too, have embraced technology in a big way, though more government support is needed. “Most of my systems are attracting master’s degree students from across Africa. I also consult for several institutions on aquaponics across the globe.” There are plans to train farmers in Uganda, with sessions ongoing in Kenya, especially in Kakamega County. There is also a plan to set up goverment-sponsored aquaponics in Mauritius.

“This system is focused on alleviating poverty and creating jobs through sustained agriculture,” he says.

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Mr Mwakio believes that solar aquaponic poultry agribusiness holds part of the key to ending Africa’s food insecurity due to its utilization of small spaces. However, the urban planning graduate of Maseno University, also faces some challenges. The cost of construction both in Kenya and Rwanda is high.

“In Rwanda, I also face a language barrier. I have had to learn Kinyarwanda to communicate with the farmers well,” he says. Revolutionary tank that reduces weight of water by 10 times. One of the most significant innovations in water storage is the manufacture of a tank that eases the burden of users. This tank reduces the weight of water by almost 10 times, making carrying an equivalent of 90 kilogrammes of water as easy as lifting a 10-litre jerry can.

Invented in 1991 by two South Africans, the Hippo Roller water tank has been credited with changing the fortunes of women and children in dry areas. The tank has eased access to safe drinking water, greatly reducing the daily struggle that rural women and children across Africa, face in their quest for water.  The award-winning technology is a distinct potable water innovation that enables rural communities to transport water more easily and in a shorter time than when using methods.

The Hippo Roller is a strong and durable barrel-shaped container equipped with a steel handle, with which it can be pushed or pulled.

Its design allows water to be placed “inside the wheel” so that the weight is borne on the ground and distributed over a wide rolling surface.

It is effective and efficient when pushed or rolled on a level ground, making it user friendly for women, children and the physically weak. This greatly reduces the loads the women and children carry. It is ideal for daily use in tough rural conditions, including uneven surfaces, gravel roads and sharp stones. It has a long lifespan of five to 10 years.

The Hippo Roller is maintenance free and requires no replacement parts. It can be used continuously with no adverse effects.

The tank has empowered women and children, allowing them to have more time for other activities and education.

It is also ideal for the elderly, making them less dependent on others and it also doubles up as a tool for the irrigation of food gardens. Since the container is air-tight, it keeps water fresh improving hygiene and the health of users.

Another innovation is the utility cap. It is effectively a cap-in-cap design that ensures water is hygienically dispensed. The cap also functions as an irrigation tool and if it gets lost it can easily be replaced with a standard soda bottle top.

When a farmer is irrigating using the Hippo Roller, there is no need to stand the drum upright to access the water. The inside cap allows one to draw water without opening the larger cover. Airtight seal promotes hygiene and small cap that can be used for irrigation.

Filters and other points of use for water treatment products can be added easily to further improve the quality of the stored water.

The Hippo Roller comes with yet another advantage as it can be easily turned into a shop with the addition of a steel frame that can be attached to the tank. The steel frame also converts the Hippo Roller into a simple trolley for transporting products to the market. The frame is so strong; it can also be used as an emergency stretcher in remote areas to carry the sick and injured.

Then there is the Dynapump, an improved irrigation for the Hippo Roller. It was developed by a team of middle and elementary schoolers from Saratoga, California, US, as part of the First Lego League Global Innovation Project.

It makes the Hippo Roller easier to use and provides a way to fill and use the water with very little additional effort. The Dynapump is an affordable solution to three problems, which allows it to reach more people.

  • It powers a pump using the spinning motion of the Hippo Roller.
  • It thus pumps water from a source into the Hippo Roller, thus avoiding the need to carry an additional vessel.
  • The attached filter cleans the water as it is pumped in.
  • The Dynapump can then be connected to an irrigation system to quickly irrigate crops.

According to the students, the Dynapump has a potential to benefit over 100,000 people based on the number of Hippo Rollers in use.

In many parts of Kenya, water is scarce. Women and children walk for many kilometers in search of it.

Food security is an issue as crops fail due to lack of adequate water. This could be one of the ways to empower farmers through the multiple benefits that the innovation comes with.  Though the price of the Hippo Roller may be limiting to smallholder farmers its numerous uses make the cost affordable. The innovation is transforming lives, having been shipped to 27 other African countries. community and other stakeholders to see the technology pick up to industrial level. “As a scientist I seek to improve the lives of people through my research and nutrition and health is my major concern,” Dr Nduko says. The project began in April and they received funding in October 2015.

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