Inspiring and amazing urban farming geek, Eric Maundu
October 24, 2012 12:41 AM   Subscribe

Eric Maundu - who comes from Kenya, now lives in West Oakland and is trained in industrial robotics- transforms unused spaces into productive, small aquaponic farms. He has taken the agricultural craft one step further and made his gardens smart. He explores new frontiers of computer-controlled gardening. More information about this story. His company, Kijani Grows. Via
posted by nickyskye (21 comments total) 41 users marked this as a favorite
Oh hey, that's actually the same sort of line I am trying to migrate my business into*. The garduino project is a similar thing:

and there's a shed-load more on

this is apparently a very good book for aquaponics (bought it for my mum to try and persuade her to heath-robinson** her carp pond).

* It turns out that writing at excited length about your plans for stirling engine based compost-powered compost tumblers is a great way to dissuade people on OKC from replying to you.

** The Professor Branestawm books are responsible for a remarkable number of my major life choices.
posted by titus-g at 2:23 AM on October 24, 2012 [7 favorites]

ive never heard of aquaponics until now but it sounds like the best thing ever.

from sewage treatment to arid farming to making fish farms less nasty whats not to love?
posted by dongolier at 2:25 AM on October 24, 2012

It's been around a while (chinampas + in China) as well.
posted by titus-g at 2:38 AM on October 24, 2012

Kijani Grows Smart Aquaponics Garden – $945.00

Smart aquaponics controller kit (not included)

Kijani Grows Smart Aquaponics Garden Controller – $690.00

[$495.00 unassembled]

$1635.00 without fish and plants. For this price it might even be organic.
posted by three blind mice at 2:49 AM on October 24, 2012

Table top small scale industry for anyone to start a little income stream on the side. This seems to exemplify innovation under conditions of resource scarcity to me. And look at that price.
posted by infini at 2:54 AM on October 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

Hydroponics stuff is stupidly expensive in general, especially the lighting* (which I don't think those kits include).

There is plenty of info around on how to make up your own though, which would probably come in at somewhere between 10->25% of those prices (I'm guessing that the embedded linux computer is a Raspberry Pi).

* Newer LED stuff is looking promising, both in terms of energy usage, and initial cost.
posted by titus-g at 3:03 AM on October 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

It's also worth noting that there is quite a bit of build info on the Kijani site if you do want to build your own from scratch:
posted by titus-g at 3:17 AM on October 24, 2012

Hydroponics stuff is stupidly expensive in general

So expensive, with the cost of equipment, labor, electricity and the space itself that the only crops which can be grown economically indoors are cannabis (wholesale $200 per 28.5g). Vegetables and fruits don't even come close. I skimmed through that youtube video and it looks like somebody going to a great deal of effort to replicate what indoor weed farmers do all year round. I have no idea how it can pay for itself unless he is growing $85 bunches of spinach leaves.
posted by thewalrus at 4:53 AM on October 24, 2012 [2 favorites]

Didn't they find that hydroponically grown food simply didn't have the same level of nutrients as the old school dirt-grown stuff?

Essentially, the only nutrients the plants are getting in a aquaponic set up is the waste from the fish.
posted by Blue_Villain at 5:53 AM on October 24, 2012

Very cool, thanks you!
posted by jeffburdges at 6:34 AM on October 24, 2012

This is really cool stuff, and forms something of a nexus connecting a few things I've done over the years: rain barrels, backyard container ponds and gardening. I could see myself giving this a run in a year or two. Thanks for posting it.
posted by jquinby at 6:37 AM on October 24, 2012

Alert Bacigalupi!
posted by mwhybark at 6:46 AM on October 24, 2012

Hydroponics stuff is stupidly expensive in general

This may be true, but aquaponics is slightly different (no, I am in no way responsible for the dopey nomenclature, but it is a distinct subtype and aquaponics people will point out the difference faster than you can say aquaponics) and is not particularly or necessarily expensive. I have a friend who has been working with aquaponics systems and they are extremely cheap and simple - basically a few simple pumps, gravel, tanks, some high density closed-foam, and fish. It seems like it has been a bit touchy to get going, but once it is up and running it really just works. His systems are outdoor in Texas and therefore don't have lights, but other than that they are really low-tech. And yet they work.

I don't know if it would be a good commercial vegetable/fish production method (and Mr. Maundu seems to see it as a commercial venture only insomuch as he wants to sell the systems, plans, or classes, but not necessarily the produce), but as a personal sort of victory garden it has some extremely good qualities. Giving people access to organic produce and fish for next to nothing in densely urban, arid or polluted areas is pretty cool. There are surely drawbacks (I don't know about the nutrient loops) but it has always seemed like a killer, killer idea. This guy, Eric Maundu, seems like a smart dude. I hope he does well with it.
posted by dirtdirt at 7:40 AM on October 24, 2012 [3 favorites]

I was really only talking about retail hydroponic systems (in reference to the pre-built aquaponic system prices not being unusual), if you make them yourselves they can cost pretty much nothing (even things like pumps can be salvaged from car wiper systems).

You can even build a fairly decent large scale (income creating) system using PVC drainage pipe (e.g. these people:

Nutrient solutions can be made from compost tea (especially if combined with vermiculture), even lighting can be done with consumer CFL bulbs (admittedly only suitable for smaller setups) and tinfoil lined cardboard...

The book I mentioned has pretty good info about the nutrient cycle, from what I recall (I've only read the first couple of chapters and skimmed the rest, I'm more into worms than fish) it does take care of itself for the most part, apart from the occasional cleanup perhaps -- which could probably be addressed with things like bokashi bran and water lilies to save work.
posted by titus-g at 7:59 AM on October 24, 2012 [2 favorites]

I see Kijani's sign every time I ride BART to the City, and have been meaning to look it up. This is more interesting than I expected. I like that he pointed out the rooftop space- I grew some of the best tomatoes ever on the roof of my West Oakland warehouse, though I had to carry five gallon jugs of water up two flights of stairs, a ladder, and then out the window.

Essentially, the only nutrients the plants are getting in a aquaponic set up is the waste from the fish.

... which is actually quite a lot of nitrogen, phosphorus, and calcium, if you feed fish commercial fish food. Also a lot of carbon which is needed for the microorganisms to convert the nutrients to plant available forms. You'd want to test your fish water because not every nutrient is going to be balanced properly for every crop. I think these sorts of systems make a bit more sense when you're growing fish for food; the fish have to be fed no matter what, so putting their waste towards growing crops makes sense.
posted by oneirodynia at 10:29 AM on October 24, 2012 [2 favorites]

aquaponics of this sort is tricky because a failure (pipe blockage, electric outage, pump failure) can result in a fish kill, contamination of the rock beds and so. Thus the need for electronics to monitor closely and alert immediately. Sort of like running a 24x7 computer data center, lots of points of failure, monitoring.

I'm impressed he is growing his own fish food, duck weed and compost worms, that is real dedication to a closed loop. And solar power to run the electronics.

His rationale is he can't grow in the soil in a concrete wasteland. Yet there are other options such as Sub-irrigated planter which many people do. The only disadvantage is need to provide fertilizer. Otherwise it's an easier cheaper cleaner system than aquaponics. And there is organic fertilizer made from cow dung. I would do aquaponics for the challenge and coolness and growing fish, but world go with SiP for the bulk of it. Even better a Permaculture farm somewhere.
posted by stbalbach at 10:34 AM on October 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

Here in Milwaukee we've got SweetWater Organics, whose raising 80,000 fish in giant trenches dug out of an old crane factory. They also installed some smaller setups in nursing homes and schools and are trying to start an educational program based on the Mozilla Foundation's badges called Aquapons. There's also Growing Power, which has both aquaponics, traditional farming, and vermiculture.

It is possible to grow produce, generally organic and specialty greens, and sell them for a profit. Basil, for instance, is around $15/lb, wet. The fish also gets a decent price (and sweetwater is working with the UWM WATER Institute to grow Yellow Perch, whose natural populations collapsed from overfishing a couple decades ago).

I really like the idea of small systems, but the cost is still pretty astoundingly high. I'm thinking those 275-gallon HDPE crates and some 4-6" drainage pipe could be the basis for a pretty nice and inexpensive system. I'll also take fluorescent over LED any day. It's not even that expensive and if you've got some more money, HPS and MH are even more efficient. LEDs will be there eventually, but right now they're in the same ballpark. If you can grow outside, though, do that.
posted by nTeleKy at 11:14 AM on October 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

And there is organic fertilizer made from cow dung.

Bovine manures have a really low nutrient profile, something like 0.6-0.2-0.5. (highly variable by season, locale, herd type, and feedstock) of immediately available nutrients. In beds where there's room to add a lot, and where the slow release of previously unavailable nutrients happens due to plenty of soil microorganisms that's okay. Beds allow for the high salts present in many bovine manures to be leached and help buffer variables in nutrient profiles. Manures are also great for soil conditioning, increasing soil organic matter and therefore cation exchange sites and humic acids. However, I wouldn't use them in seasonal vegetable containers, especially sub-irrigated planters where sodium build up would be a problem, and where fertilizers with more immediate nutrient availability are needed due to the shorter growing cycles of most container grown vegetables. You also would want much higher nutrient density in situations where you have a finite amount of growing medium. One would expect highly engineered soils in SIPs in order to allow for good capillary water movement, while preserving as much aeration as possible and keeping a very low perched water table. Under those conditions, you'd want a more inert media, rather than one that will release nutrients as it decomposes, and consequently also change the structure of the media in the container. In order to control those variables under SIP conditions it's more optimal to add nutrients via the irrigation system.
posted by oneirodynia at 11:51 AM on October 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

Blue_Villain: Essentially, the only nutrients the plants are getting in a aquaponic set up is the waste from the fish.
Plants make their own nutrients from water + CO2. Essentially, only minerals and nitrogen are gleaned from the soil - which are readily supplied by fish fecal matter and urea.
posted by IAmBroom at 12:11 PM on October 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

Where LEDs get interesting are that you can target light frequencies better, which means... you guessed it, multivariate testing possibilities!

And y'know, if you have plenty of cow dung and live in t'north, then hotbeds are the way to go.

And if you have rabbits or guinia pigs...
posted by titus-g at 12:11 PM on October 24, 2012

I just happened upon the Growstuff Wiki while reading "No, I still don’t want to work for Google."
posted by jeffburdges at 3:08 AM on October 29, 2012

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