By Brie Mazurek
Eric Maundu is, self-admittedly, an unlikely gardener. Growing up in Kenya, he became disillusioned with agriculture, seeing farmers struggle with lack of arable land, water, and resources. “The last thing I wanted to do was farm,” he says.
Everything changed when Maundu learned about hydroponics, which uses nutrient-rich water in place of soil and fertilizers. By that point, he had studied industrial robotics and had moved to the U.S. to work as an engineer.
“All my life people had told me you need soil to grow plants. People kill one another for soil,” says Maundu. Farming with water offered new possibility.
Today, Maundu is the cofounder of Kijiji Grows, an Oakland-based company that designs and sells custom aquaponics systems for growing food. With his business partner, local artist and Guerilla Café cofounder Keba Konte, he also educates people about aquaponics and brings new possibilities for sustainable farming to Bay Area schools, homes, and businesses.
Closing the Loop
In a typical aquaponics system, water cycles through a fish tank into a gravel-filled planter. Natural bacteria break down the fish waste, converting ammonia, which is toxic to fish, into nitrates that feed the plants. The fish water irrigates and fertilizes the plant, and the plants purify the water, which is recycled back into the fish tank, creating a closed-loop system.
Fresh water herbivorous and omnivorous fish — like tilapia, catfish, largemouth bass — can also add another level of food productivity to the garden. Aquaponics systems are easy to maintain, requiring only small amounts of water to replenish the evaporation loss. (Aquaponics uses up to 90 percent less water than soil-based methods of farming.)
Outside the Kijiji Grows office in West Oakland, Maundu grows herbs and leafy greens in a demonstration garden irrigated by a small goldfish tank. Though the plants are untouched by soil-borne disease, they are not immune to air-borne pests such as aphids. Maundu is unfazed by aphids, though. When he finds a kale leaf on which aphids are starting to breed, he picks it and drops it in the fish tank for the goldfish to eat.
Maundu has spent the last decade experimenting with aquaponics. His goal is to build affordable systems using locally sourced and recycled materials, or whatever people have on hand. “I’ll go out of my way to use something that is made or found locally, rather than use something that’s sustainable but must be transported from far away,” he says.
The Village Grows
A few years ago, Maundu returned to Kenya to help people in AIDS-ravaged villages establish low-tech aquaponics and sustainable farming practices such as worm composting. When he returned to the U.S., he saw connections between the arid savannas of Kenya and asphalt deserts of West Oakland, where soil is scarce and residents face food insecurity, malnutrition, poverty, and economic underdevelopment. His eyes were also opened to opportunities he hadn’t seen before, such as vacant lots, public spaces, and community resources.
Revenue from the home aquaponics systems Kijiji Grows builds and installs helps fund Maundu’s service work with youth and the community. (“Kijiji” means “village” in Swahili.) Working with the Oakland Office of Parks and Recreation, Maundu built an aquaponics garden in North Oakland’s Mosswood Park, and started organizing after-school and summer youth programs.
He found that aquaponics, when combined with computers, can be used to engage youth in food issues. Drawing on his engineering background, Maundu employs electronics, math, programming, and 3D design tools in his youth classes. He sees the Mosswood project as a model worth expanding on. The next phase will be developing the areas around the Kijiji Grows warehouse (including an empty lot under the BART tracks) into gardens. Maundu also plans to create an aquaponics-based entrepreneurship program, which will train youth and adults in professional and technical skills such as business planning.
Aquaponics provides the medium, but the mission is to give people tools for self-sufficiency and channel the power of community. “I’m trying to go beyond the ‘green’ trend,” Maundu said. “It’s about creating connection.”
Photos of Kijiji Grows by Brie Mazurek.
CUESA (Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture) is dedicated to cultivating a sustainable food system through the operation of farmers markets and educational programs. Learn More »