Aquaponics in Rural Kenya
Amsha Africa Foundation is working with grassroots community movements in rural Kenya to educate and help build simple and sustainable aquaponic systems from locally available materials. These aquaponics systems will provide a viable option for Kenyans seeking to grow their own vegetables and ensure adequate nutrient consumption. The closed circuit aquaponics system produces both vegetables and protein and reduces dependencies on other variables such as land, water and fertilizers.
Although aquaponics methodologies and technologies have been around for a long time, this approach to growing food is only recently getting the attention it deserves.
The concept of Aquaponics has been successful in the United States of America and Asia and is well suited to the African environment.
The warm weather reduces heating costs (solar energy can also be used) and there is a significant water saving as it is a re-circulating system and only requires topping up from time to time.
Fresh vegetables and protein in the form of fish are easily produced on a regular basis.
Aquaponics is the solution to many of the global problems we are seeing today.
Here just some of the environmental, social, and financial reasons why:
Most of the energy in the world's food systems goes to processing, packaging, transporting, storing, and preparing food.
Produce travels huge distances from farm to consumers. With consumers' increasing awareness of 'food miles' and the 'true cost' it takes to produce their food, preference is shifting towards local, sustainable agriculture.
The world population will go from 6.8 billion today to 9 billion in the next 30 years and more than half the world's population, 3.3 billion people, live in towns and cities, a number expected to swell to almost 5 billion by 2030. (U.N. Population Fund)
The World Health Organization estimates that one-third of the world goes hungry.
If we're to feed the world sustainably, now and in the future, we need to grow food closer to where it will be consumed in an efficient and sustainable way.
If we don't, vital ecosystems worldwide will have to be replaced with farmland needed to feed our growing population.
Traditional farming is highly dependent on dwindling fossil fuel oil products.
Combating global warming depends on creative solutions to large scale problems.
Urban agriculture in controlled environment greenhouses dramatically cuts down on CO2 emissions because it doesn't rely on farming open fields or long distance transportation.
70% of all available freshwater is used for agriculture. Over pumping of groundwater by the world's farmers exceeds natural replenishment by at least 160 billion cubic metres a year. (UNESCO)
Global water problems, already at crisis proportions, are already a source of conflict in many areas and could escalate into full-blown war in the future.
The time has come for us to become better stewards of this most precious of natural resources.
Representing less than 1% of all water on Earth, freshwater is essential to all life, and we can no longer afford to waste it.
Every cent spent locally generates twice as much income for the local economy. When consumers buy imported goods, money leaves the community at every transaction. (New Economics Foundation in London)
Closing the loop makes good economic sense: by supporting local agriculture we will keep our money re-circulating in the local economy. Plus, local food is fresher, tastes better, and makes us more secure than relying on imported food.
Due to increased energy costs, importing food is becoming cost prohibitive. Demand for high-quality fish products is increasing as importation costs increase, and its value is currently second only to oil products.
Hydroponic vs. Conventional Farming
The above chart shows the relative amounts of resources it takes to produce equal amounts of food using these two farming practices. Compared with conventional field agriculture, hydroponics (low impact method of growing plants in nutrient solutions without using soil) is sustainable, efficient, and requires no pesticides.
Additionally, hydroponic produce is picked ripe, and is thus fresher and tastier than conventionally farmed produce, which is typically picked prematurely, transported hundreds or thousands of miles, and then "gas blasted" with ethylene hormone to ripen artificially. (Cityscape Farms LLC)
The Aquaponics Concept
Aquaponics is a "natural" solution to growing plants and fish for food and can solve these problems as people with just a little spare room on their patios, roofs, yards or farm.
Anyone can develop a self-sufficient system that consistently yields food for their family, and community.
Aquaponics can be set up in areas smaller than a coffee table and expanded to the size of any closed-in space.
These systems require no dirt. It is 3 to 9 times more productive and requires one third or less of the man hours than a traditional dirt farm. It uses less than 80% of water and can be set up in very arid climates.
Aquaponics creates a symbiotic relationship between fish and plants. The fish can eat some of the plants grown and they provide the fertilizer for the plants.
The water in a fish tank is high in nutrients and requires filtering. Instead of using a traditional filter, we pump the water into a specially built vegetable garden that feeds and waters your plants.
In turn, the vegetable plants obtain the nutrients they need from the water, and return the filtered clean water to the fish tank. Growing in this nutrient rich water your vegetables experience accelerated growth rates, are stronger and healthier and use about 10% of the water it takes to grow vegetable plants in soil.
Advantages of Aquaponics
- water carrying feces from fish is a source of organic fertilizer that allows plants in the system to grow well;
- hydroponics is viewed as a method of biofiltration that facilitates intensive recirculating aquaculture;
- aquaponics is seen as a method to introduce organic hydroponically-grown products into the market place, because the only fertility introduction is feed, and all of the nutrients pass through a biological process;
- food-producing greenhouses, yielding two products from one production unit, are naturally appealing for niche marketing and green labeling;
- in arid regions where water is scarce, aquaponics is an appropriate technology that allows food production with re-used water;
- aquaponics is a working model of sustainable food production in which plant and animal systems are integrated, and the recycling of nutrients and water filtration are linked;
- improved efficiency in the use of water, especially in areas with a limited supply of water (McMurtry et al,1997).
Design for the Aquaponics System
AAF and its partners are working on building aquaponic systems that have proven to be effective in the various climates within the tropics.
The aquaponics system that will be used for this project will use locally available materials, be simple to build, and will be easy to implement. This system will also be low maintenance and sustainable for the average home in rural Kenya.
Thankfully, there is an aquaponics system that meets all these requirements. This system was designed by Travis W Hughey and it uses readily available barrels used in food production and tanks for grow beds and the fish tank.
Travis Hughey's Barrel-Ponics manual has been a tremendous help to people around the world. Travis wrote the "How To" manual about the aquaponic systems he developed using barrels / drums, he then released it to everyone, free of charge, so that they could build their own aquaponics systems from cheap recycled materials.
His 101 page manual comes in the form of a 3 MB PDF file that can be downloaded from this link.
Water for the Aquaponics System
From the perspective of food safety, the source of water used in aquaponic systems has the potential to have a significant bearing on the quality of the final products, whether they are fish or plants. Deep wells or municipal supplies of water are the most common sources of water for experimental or commercial aquaponic systems.
Water can be a carrier of many microorganisms including pathogenic strains of bacteria, such as Escherichia coli, Salmonella spp., Vibrio cholerae, Shigella spp., and the microscopic parasites Cryptosporidium parvum, Giardia lamblia, Cyclospora cayetanensis, Toxoplasma gondii, and the Norwalk and hepatitis A viruses. Even small amounts of contamination with some of these organisms can result in foodborne illness in humans.
The quality of water, how and when it is used, and the characteristics of the crop influence the potential for water to contaminate produce. In general, the quality of water in direct contact with the edible portion of produce may need to be of better quality compared to uses where there is minimal contact.
In general, water from pond or irrigation sources would not likely be good sources for aquaponic systems because of the potential of introducing other species of fish, along with a variety of disease causing agents, i.e. viral, bacterial, parasitic, fungal, etc..
Over all, it would seem that the best sources of water for aquaponic operations are likely to be treated municipal water supplies, or those from drilled wells or springs.
All such supplies of water, especially those from wells, should be analyzed prior to use for their levels of chemical constituents and contaminants, to determine their suitability for both plants and fish (Mitchell,1998).
The Fish for the Project
Fish are the power house of an aquaponics system, they provide the nutrients for the plants and are the protein source when harvested. Keeping fish in an aquaponic system is simpler than keeping aquarium fish.
There are many different species of fish that can be used in an aquaponic system, depending on the local climates and available supplies.
Any fresh water fish or crustacean can be used in an Aquaponics system, but environmental factors will, to a large extent, determine which species are feasible.
Factors affecting species selection include;
- Maximum and minimum ambient temperatures.
- Daylight hours.
- Water quality.
- Size of ponds and volume of water.
- Market for the fish in your area.
- Hardiness of the fish.
- Availability of fry.
- Legal issues.
- Personal preference.
Fish selection will differ from region to region but the basic principles remain the same. Fish can be raised for consumption (e.g. Tilapia or Trout) or ornamental (e.g. Koi or Goldfish).
Simple aquaponic systems that are built primarily to provide a family with fish and vegetables
will have fish species that differ from aquaponics systems designed for an entire community or for commercial use.
Below are some of the common fish species used in an aquaponics system:
- Freshwater mussels.
- Freshwater prawns.
What often happens in practice, is that a new aquaponics (AP) system is stocked with “test” fish while the essential bacteria establishes itself and the new AP farmer gets his mind around the whole concept of AP. In the early days, despite the best laid plans, fish will die. Rather sacrifice these “test” fish now than valuable brood or production fish.
For this project, AAF will be stocking the initial aquaponics systems with male Tilapia fingerlings that will be obtained from the Kenya fisheries department and other reliable sources. Tilapia appear to be one of the most popular species of fish reared in aquaponic systems
Tilapia are hardy fish and are relatively easy to raise. They are easy to breed and consume and omnivorous diet. Tilapia is a warm-water species best suited for the tropical climate in sub-Saran Africa. They grow well in a recirculating tank culture. Furthermore, tilapia is tolerant of fluctuating water conditions such as pH, temperature, oxygen, and dissolved solids. Tilapia produces a white-fleshed meat suitable to local and wholesale markets. .
The Plants for the Project
Most vegetables and herbs adapt well in an aquaponics system. Media filled beds seem to be the most successful for growing a large range of plants, and you can grow just about anything.
In a true aquaponics (AP) system, both the fish and the plants are equally as important, but the ratio of revenues from each will vary. The selection of plants to grow in the AP system will, just
like the fish, depend on numerous factors. Set out below are some.
- Maximum and minimum ambient temperatures.
- Daylight hours.
- Water quality.
- Type and size of growbeds and volume of grow media (e.g. gravel)
- Market for the vegetable (or other plant) in your area.
- Hardiness of the plant.
- Suitability of the plant to an AP environment.
- Availability of seed and/or seedlings.
- Legal issues (e.g. bans on certain exotic plants)
- Personal preference.
Some plants thrive in AP systems, others (those less tolerant to a damp environment) just don't.
Below are some of the firm favorites that have been tried and tested on aquaponics systems.
- Egg plant
- Coriander ,etc.
Aquaponic plants are subject to many of the same pests and diseases that affect field crops, although they seem to be less susceptible to attack from soil borne pests and diseases. Because plants may absorb and concentrate therapeutic agents used to treat parasites and infectious diseases of fish, these products cannot be used in aquaponic systems. Instead, non-chemical methods are used, i.e., biological control (resistant cultivars, predators, antagonistic organisms), barriers, traps, manipulation of the environment, etc.).
It also seems that plants in aquaponic systems may be more resistant to diseases that affect those in hydroponic systems. This resistance may be due to the presence of some organic matter in the water, creating a stable, ecologically balanced growing environment with a wide diversity of microorganisms, some of which are antagonistic to pathogens that affect the roots of plants (Rakocy, 1999a).
One of the concerns in the aquaponic systems is the control of insect pests of plants. However, the use of man-made chemical pesticides to control these insects is not a viable option in aquaponic systems. A practical method to aid in the control of insect pests on aquaponic plants may be through the use of strains of the Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) and insecticidal soaps.
The bacterial organism (Bt) occurs naturally in the environment and has been isolated from insects, soil and the surfaces of plants. Its value lies in the fact that it produces substances that are toxic to insects
Compared with traditional pesticides, insecticidal soaps control many targeted pests with fewer potentially adverse effects to the user, beneficial insects, and the environment – important factors in aquaponic systems. Some operators of aquaponic systems simply use a mixture of ordinary soap and water, and find it to be effective in controlling insects. One recipe is:
one teaspoon of liquid soap such as mild Dove®, Pure Ivory Soap®, Sunlight® or pure castille soap, per quart of water.
The plants will be put in the aquaponics system in a variety of ways, namely;
- Seeds planted directly into the Growbeds.
- Seeds planted in seed trays and then transferred to growbeds when they germinate.
- Buy seedlings from a nursery and then plant out.
- Plant from cuttings and grafting directly into the AP growbeds.
For more information on plants that have successfully grown in an aquaponics system, please click here.
Pilot Project Sites in Kenya
- Kisumu Pilot Aquaponics Project - growing vegetables such as kales, tomatoes, peas.
Other project sites to be determined by the AAF field teams.
The success of these projects will enable AAF expand the aquaponics projects to many more sites around Kenya and other countries in Africa.
Project Objectives, Implementation and Management Plan
With fresh produce and fish from our proposed “aquaponics” project, young children who spend most of their time looking and working for food will return to school, women will begin small businesses selling the fresh produce, and men will no longer be too sick to work. Food supply will become more reliable. Health will return to the local community and children will grow up to be productive members of their community. The cycle of poverty will be broken and lives will change with the completion of this project.
Immediately after we secure the funds for the aquaponics project we will:
- Mobilize the Community. This ensures effective management of project. During this phase, we educate the community on the project, its benefits, and answer any questions.
- Form local committees from the project locations that will oversee the aquaponics systems. This develops project ownership and sustenance. At this stage the local committee will pick a spot in their facilities where the aquaponics system will be set up.
- Purchase locally available materials such as drums/barrels for growbeds, gravel, framework material, etc.
- Purchase remainder of materials from hardware stores, i.e. solar water pumps, PVC parts, hardware, solar panels, etc
- Build the aquaponics system on site and make sure it works with trial tests. Fix any lingering issues.
- Fill the newly built and tested aquaponics system fish tank with non-contaminated fresh water and the grow beds with cleaned gravel.
- Stock the fish tank with Tilapia fingerlings obtained from the Kenya Fisheries department and plant seeds of various edible plants such as Spinach, Cabbage, Peas, etc on the growbeds.
- Monitoring & manage aquaponics system for the duration of its life. This ensures successful and efficient management of the project.
- Project time-frame once we secure the funds from start to finish will be 4 months for all the project sites. At 4 months, the success of the project will be noted by how well the fish and plants have grown and adapted to the system.
It takes 1-2 days to build and fully test the aquaponics system so long as all the building materials are available. The Tilapia fish will be grown within 4-6 months after being stocked in the fish tank. Fish feed will be mostly earthworms and vegetables that will be grown on the gravel grow beds of the aquaponics system.
After the fish are harvested, new fingerlings will be introduced to re-stock the fish in the fish tank. The vegetables on the growbeds will be self replenishing and most of the veggies will be fully grown after just four weeks with little maintenance.
The harvested fish and vegetables can be sold at a local market and the proceeds from the sales will help sustain the aquaponics system and the community. The aquaponics system requires little maintenance as long as the fish are fed from the earthworms and vegetables grown within the growbeds of the system.
Depending on the project site, we will expand these systems to meet the demand for vegetables and fish. Since this is a scalable system, we can easily add a larger fish tank to rear more fish and expand the grow beds to grow a variety of vegetables.
Project Monitoring and Evaluation
In all cases, we work to ensure that the local community is actually invested in the project.
We work with the community groups and the Kenya Fisheries department to form committees that will monitor and evaluate the project. In addition we make sure that the local community invests some money into the project so that they feel like they own part of the project. The best ways we've seen that happen is to require the communities receiving the aquaponics system to arrange and pay for the initial building materials or Tilapia fingerlings that make the system.
Since we designed an aquaponics system that contains readily available materials such as drums and PVC pipes, these materials usually cost a few hundred US dollars and require the community to mobilize and organize around the project. In the long run, this initial commitment to the project means it will be valued and cared for by the community. It's an essential step.
We also involve the community in building the aquponics system so that they can learn how it’s done on their own. Our field team provides them with building and maintenance manuals for each system and trains them on how to maintain it in case the community encounters any issues during the operation of the system.
After the aquaponics system is installed, the Amsha Africa Foundation field team will explain how the system works, how to feed the fish, and keep the water and the plants healthy, and what to do if the system encounters any issues. We will train the local community on ways to make repairs and also contact our partners whenever maintenance is needed through our local project coordinator.
A month after the installation, our project coordinator will visit the site to evaluate the progress of the aquaponics system. We will also bring along the Kenya Fisheries department to evaluate the fish in the system and also look at the plant growth. We will also make sure that the local community group committee in charge of the project provides weekly reports on the progress of the system.
Documentation & Sharing Results
For every project we complete, we document the work with GPS location data, a field report, and photos. We will set milestones for each phase of the project and provide reports from our field co-coordinator and the local aquaponics management committee that will be formed to oversee the project.
Each month during the project, our project coordinator will visit the project sites to take stock of the fish, measure and weigh a one or two individual fish and check on the plants to ensure that they are growing well.
During the progress of the project, weekly meetings will be set to ensure all the participants are informed of the progress. The field project co-coordinator will be sending email updates with photo and video attachments (if possible) during and after the completion of the project.
A media event will be held at the start and conclusion of the project which will include local and foreign media, local authorities, and the community that was involved in making the project a success.
We will invite all parties that were involved in the project, the donors, the media, etc. during the harvesting of the fish from any one of the project sites to make sure that the community and funders know that sustainable agriculture is possible and that local communities can play a major role in ensuring their own food security without the need of conventional farming.
If you are interested in this project and would like to sponsor any one of the projects sites, please email
or call our project team leaders: Kenya +254-722-251063, USA +1972-746-1478