Editor's Note: This is the latest installment of our project with PRI's The World, What's for Lunch?
Charles Mulamata fell hard for aquaponics while poking around online after an attempt to start a fish farm failed.
It was love at first sight for a small businessman-slash-engineer-slash-serial tinkerer.
“I love this aquaponics thing,” he said. “And I think it’s going to do a lot for this country.”
Aquaponics is the marriage of aquaculture, fish farming, and hydroponics, vegetable farming, without soil. In the United States, you can buy an aquaponic system from any number of commercial suppliers. Here in Uganda, setting one up is an exercise in improvisation.
Mulamata has converted the narrow courtyard between his house and his office in Kampala into a makeshift aquaponics laboratory — a thicket of blue plastic pipes and black plastic tanks and wooden troughs filled with gravel.
“This is a siphon that we have fabricated out of a mineral water bottle, and this is a perfume bottle,” he said, showing off one of his experiments. “So we tried to make this as simple as possible.”
Mulamata’s first fish tank was a discarded refrigerator. He has fashioned aerators out of shower nozzles and filters out of second-hand barrels and PVC pipe. He has been testing clay balls instead of stones for growing the plants, since they hold moisture longer and absorb the equatorial heat.
In aquaponics, the fish fertilize the water for the vegetables, and the vegetables filter the water for the fish. It’s almost a closed loop. You do need to feed the fish — in this case native tilapia — and you need to do something with their solid waste. You also need to pump the water from the bottom back to the top.
But aquaponics uses 90 percent less water than conventional fish ponds, and the plants grow much faster, and need much less space, than they would in the soil. It’s also nearly climate-proof, since it doesn’t really rely on the weather.
And, just as important for a place like Uganda, it provides two income streams.
“Fish farming in this country has been problematic,” Mulamata said, explaining the high cost of feed tends to cancel out the profits from selling the fish. The “secret” of an aquaponic system, he says, is the vegetables.
“These vegetables can be harvested on a monthly basis. By the time you come to nine months, you’re already sustaining yourself. So fish income comes in as a bonus, as a wonderful bonus,” he said.
Mulamata says a well-designed aquaponic system should break even in less than a year. At least that’s what his calculations tell him.
Trouble is, hardly anyone’s actually doing it here. His own set-up is experimental, since his place is too small for a full-sized vegetable bed. He recently installed a bigger system for a neighbor, but she hasn’t harvested the fish yet. What Mulamata needs to get things rolling, he says, is cash.
“We have the technology, we have demonstrated it is viable. I don’t have the money,” he said.
Mulamata says there are two big reasons aquaponics hasn’t caught on yet in Uganda: the start-up cost, and the need for training. So he’s come up with a plan.
On a sunny afternoon, Mulamata hosts an open house for what he calls the Africa Aquaponics Association. His goal is to recruit investors for a “microfranchise” scheme, in which they put up some money while Mulamata and his team help plan, finance and manage their systems.
About 25 people show up for the event, including an official from Uganda’s national department of fisheries, who makes a speech pledging support. Several attendees say they are strongly considering taking the plunge. By the end, Mulamata is giddy.
“This has been successful beyond my dream,” he said.
Driving through the countryside, Mulamata shows where he hopes to build an aquaponics facility on half an acre he owns with his wife. Back in Kampala, he meets with the minister of agriculture from the Kingdom of Buganda, a regional body with considerable power in central Uganda. The minister sounds genuinely enthusiastic, and leaves Mulamata feeling hopeful.
There seems to be momentum. But nothing in Uganda moves fast.
One afternoon, Mulamata and his wife Joyce show off the fruits of their labor. Charles scoops a tilapia from one of his tanks, Joyce plucks some greens from one of their troughs, and an hour later they their modest dining room is the site of a feast: steamed bananas, rice, fish stew, peanut soup, Chinese cabbage salad, sliced avocados and freshly squeezed passion fruit juice, nearly all of it from the neighborhood.
Mulamata has said again and again how badly Uganda needs aquaponics, and also what a smart investment it is. As the meal is served, he says his motivation is half as a businessman, and half as an idealistic Ugandan.
Half businessman, half idealist — maybe, just maybe, the formula this technology needs.
Not long later, Mulamata emailed to say he’d landed a contract to build an aquaponic system for a local nonprofit. It’s a welcome injection of cash, but more importantly, it’s a chance to build a his first fully functional facility.
Because with aquaponics, Mulamata says, once you see it, you can’t help but fall in love.
“What’s for Lunch” is the latest chapter in “Food for 9 Billion,” a two-year project spearheaded by Homelands Productions and the Center for Investigative Reporting, and additional broadcast partners PBS NewsHour and American Public Media’s Marketplace.