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Teaching a Community to (Grow) Fish

By Office of Communication Services    Published on 06/12/2012 More stories >>

The aquaponic system created by Dr. Ako offers sustainable, low-impact production of tilapia, lettuce, and kai choi, using only 2% as much water as traditional farming methods for six times more productivity.

The aquaponic system created by Dr. Ako offers sustainable, low-impact production of tilapia, lettuce, and kai choi, using only 2% as much water as traditional farming methods for six times more productivity.

They called me the Wizard of Oz,” Harry Ako (MBBE) admits, “because when I told them how to do things, it worked!” Dr. Ako and his team, including graduate student Kiara Sakamoto, had gone to American Samoa for six weeks to instruct a group, including High Talking Chief Apela Afoa, on how to build a simple and easily maintained aquaponic system. Created by Dr. Ako, it offers sustainable, low-impact production of tilapia, lettuce, and kai choi, using only 2% as much water as traditional farming methods for six times more productivity. Such a system is well suited to the Pacific islands, where land and fresh water are at a premium.

Samoan farmer Apela Afoa learning to test and analyze water quality for ammonia, nitrite, nitrate, and oxygen using liquid testing kits.

Samoan farmer Apela Afoa learning to test and analyze water quality for ammonia, nitrite, nitrate, and oxygen using liquid testing kits.

The self-contained nature of aquaponics, in which fish create nutrients for plants, which purify the water for the fish, is appealing conceptually, but it must be done right in practice. A similar system had been attempted, unsuccessfully, in Samoa before the CTAHR group came down. “Education, the human element,” Dr. Ako answers when asked how his methods differed. “We taught them what to do, and then we stayed. Every day we’d watch them and make sure they were doing it right.”

Dr. Ako’s grad students are integral to this process, in Samoa and in Hawai‘i. They test the water chemistry—essential for keeping the system running correctly—and teach others to do it; assist in building growbeds; be everywhere and do everything Dr. Ako may not have time for. Requests are coming in constantly for help in setting up and maintaining systems of widely varying sizes and complexity; this is clearly an idea whose time has come.

So thought the judges at the prestigious Social Enterprise Conference when team collaborator David Walfish proposed expanding the successful Samoan model into a business plan, Ho‘oulu Pacific, that would expand these systems across the Pacific. “About that contest,” says Dr. Ako— “when you look at all we did in Samoa, it was really no contest.” The group won, beating out more than 80 international teams from such schools as Harvard, Cambridge, Wharton, and MIT Sloan. The money will come in handy for getting the business plan, created by PingSun Leung (NREM), off the ground. But for Dr. Ako and his team, the real prize came before that, when they saw dreams of feeding their communities and starting their own businesses becoming reality for that first group in Samoa.