ECHOcommunity Conversations

Would you promote smallscale Aquaponics? Why/why not?

Hello community development friends,

I always hear a lot of buzz/hype around small-scale aquaponics systems as a food security tool, but through my travels and work in SE Asia I have seen far more failed aquaponics ‘skeletons’ than I have functioning examples. I’m curious to ask those of you that have experience what your thoughts are.

  1. Would you promote small-scale aquaponics systems to small-scale farmers (or other development workers)? Why or why not?

  2. If you have seen or had sustained success with these systems, what do you think made the difference? Why do you think they worked?

I would appreciate any thoughts or nuggets of wisdom! Thank you

I will be interested to see any responses you get. I also often hear the buzz/hype around small and large-scale aquaponics but have only seen new systems. I’ve not seen any systems that have been sustainable or in place for any period of time. The only system I have seen that seemed to be somewhat successful was in Laos where chicken coops were placed over lagoons so the fish could benefit from the chicken waste. I don’t know if this system was actually working, or just there for show. One place I visited in Zimbabwe commented that after a few months, the fish suddenly become “Flying Fish” because they seem to disappear overnight. It seemed the locals would come in a night and take the fish when they got big enough to eat! I have not seen any successful systems that include plants.

A resounding “no”. Aquaponics should be considered a fad as it pertains to agricultural development but fine for a relatively expensive hobby. As a missionary working in agricultural development I have been trying to talk people out of wasting time and resources on aquaponics for about 10 years. I have seen numerous systems that were not working well or not at all and also as I see these systems I also get a change to evaluate the cost vs. benefit ratio which I encounter to be very high. In fact I know of almost no other technology promoted in the lesser developed countries that has a worse cost to benefit ratio based on what I have observed. The technology is very difficult to properly balance since it is difficult to control the nutrients in the water and plants grow much more efficiently in soil. It is difficult for me to think of a situation where the investment would be justified, perhaps in a city? Hydroponics operations are quite technical and aquaponics even more. So I agree with Floyd. There are some great aquaculture systems out there such as integrating fish, small animals and their manure, crop fertilization from the pond nutrients and weeds, cut-and-carry systems (usually legumes), etc.

I agree with Dan Janzen. One of the guiding principles of our organization is to never introduce a concept to the farmers that is not completely sustainable. Another principle is to never introduce a concept that is not attainable to the poorest in the community. Another principle is to encourage the farmers to use their own God-given or local resources. There are many other basic development principles that stand in the way of considering aquaponics.
Unless you are an organization that thrives on perpetually giving out aid and foreign resources, aquaponics is not a good fit. I have yet to see one aquaponics system in the poorest of communities that is locally sourced and locally managed without outside intervention.

Edward Martin