Cameroonian engineer brings fish farming to the city

Flavien Kouatcha, an engineer in Douala, is attempting to popularise aquaponics to show that food can be grown in alternative ways. Photo credit: Josiane Kouagheu
Flavien Kouatcha, an engineer in Douala, is attempting to popularise aquaponics to show that food can be grown in alternative ways. Photo credit: Josiane Kouagheu

To meet the food needs of Cameroon's urban population, which is in the midst of a boom, and with an eye to promoting organic agriculture, a young Cameroonian engineer has developed an aquaponics kit that lets inhabitants grow their own food. The kit allows people to grow vegetables and raise fish, doesn't require fertiliser and can be installed in urban and peri-urban zones.

In the past 30 years Cameroon's urbanization rate has doubled and the urban population continues to grow, rising by five percent each year, versus 2.9 percent for the country's overall population. This expansion of urban space comes at the expense of rural areas, where food growing traditionally takes place. Additionally, a lack of transportation infrastructure means that bringing agricultural products to urban centres can be complicated.

With these observations as a starting point, in October 2015 our Observer Flavien Kouatcha launched "Save Our Agriculture," a start-up dedicated to agricultural production that is more ecologically friendly and better adapted to Cameroon's specificities. In less than a year, he's already sold nearly 100 of his aquaponics kits to individuals and restaurant owners.

Aquaponics is a type of aquaculture, combining the growing of vegetables with the raising of fish. Excrement from the fish serves as a natural fertiliser for the plants, which in turn purify the water.

The aquaponics kit is made up of two containers, one containing water and fish and the other containing plants. The combination of the two allows for an entirely organic production process.

"With the kit, you can feed a family"

Flavien Kouatcha is a 27-year-old engineer.

I grew up in a rural area in western Cameroon. I was always passionate about agriculture, though at the same time I realised our growing method wasn't the right one. Here [in Cameroon], 40 percent of the food produced in rural areas stays in the villages, for lack of logistical means to bring them into the cities. And when it is brought in, it’s very expensive. In addition, fertiliser use is very high, and people don't know much about new agricultural techniques.

After my studies, I worked as an engineer for several big multinational companies. For a 25-year-old, I was making a very good living. But last October I decided to quit. I sold my car to get the money to start my business. I wanted to develop a sustainable solution for organic growing in the city, where the residents don't have parcels of land but where food needs are growing, with the rise in population.

In the video below, Kouatcha explains how his aquaponics kit works.

"The technique allows you to reduce water use by up to 90 percent"

I decided to do an adaptation of aquaponics, which already exists in other countries, notably Japan. It's a system with real advantages, because it doesn't require a lot of space. In addition, it allows for a production process that's twice as fast as in classical agriculture, according to our tests, because the natural fertiliser from the fish is delivered continuously to the plants, giving them nutrients all day long. So no more need for any chemicals.

The technique also allows you to reduce water use by up to 90 percent as compared with classical agriculture. You can use goldfish, but also fish that you can eat, depending on how much space you have. It's easy to use and to install; anyone can produce the food he or she eats.

Simple goldfish produce the nutrients needed to grow plants.

"We're going to open an aquaponic garden in Douala"

I've developed two models, and I sell them ready-to-use. All the clients have to do is plant what they want to grow. There's a base model that sells for 80,000 CFA francs [Editor's note: €121], which is targeted toward individual users, and a second model that sells for 250,000 CFA francs [€381], which is meant more for hotels and restaurants. With the basic kit, you can feed a family by growing tomatoes, aromatic herbs, aubergines, etc. The cost is not insignificant, it's true. The problem is that some of the parts that go into building the kits can't be made locally, so I have to import them. As a consequence, my clients belong to the middle and upper classes. About 60 percent of them are expats living in Cameroon.

Flavien Kouatcha is also developing simpler, miniature kits, meant to show Cameroonians how his idea works.

There are just four of us, working on this project as volunteers. With our profits we're working on a second project, which we're hoping to launch by October. We want to make bigger aquaponic tubs and install them on parcels of land of 25 to 30 square metres. We're already planning to open a garden like this in a park in Douala. We'll take care of the site, on loan from the city, and the vegetables will be produced and sold directly in Douala.

We're hoping to sell them at below-market prices. If it works, I'm planning to start a crowd-funding campaign to build other gardens in the same vein.

Cameroon is not the only country in sub-Saharan Africa suffering from a lack of arable land. Between 2005 and 2010, Uganda lost 8,000 square kilometres of agricultural surface area. To counter this trend, volunteers from the NGO Ideas for Uganda have developed vertical farm units for urban areas.

>>Further reading: Ugandans try 'stack farming' as arable land disappears

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