The Nexus Resource Platform is widening its scope to include a focus on innovation and entrepreneurship. In this regard, NRP spoke with the social start-up “Effishent”, an Enactus Manheim project. The founders, Simon Simanovski, 22, and Alex Pirkebner, 23, developed a low-cost aquaponics system and combined it with a social business model. The aquaponics technology combines fish farming with vegetable cultivation in a closed loop water circulation. In comparison to conventional farming techniques, their technique saves up to 90% of water and ensures food security– an innovative example of the water-food Nexus. Effishent makes this technique available to small-scale farmers in tropical areas, where it increases food security in the dry season and contributes to the generation of an additional income for the farmer.
NRP: To begin, can you please talk about Effishent’s mission?
Simon: Effishent is a young social start-up that aims to end malnutrition globally. We directly support the SDG 2: Zero hunger. To do that, we implement agricultural innovations that bring nutrition to as many people as possible. Effishent is a project of Enactus Mannheim ‑ , a worldwide student organisation that builds and grooms social start-ups. The core of the Enactus vision is to have a sustainable impact on communities. We empower individuals and teach them about our innovations, ideas and concepts so that after we are gone, they can work together as equal partners and help themselves and their communities.
NRP: How did you decide to establish Effishent?
Alex: We are all students, and after finishing school, many of our team members spent time abroad in developing countries like Indonesia, Ethiopia, Uganda. There, we were confronted with the consequences of malnutrition. That was as very direct experience to each of us.
If you then look at the global scale, two-billion people are mal affected by malnutrition. The world population will increase to 8.6 billion in 2030. Hopefully the Sustainable Development Goals are met and absolute poverty as well as hunger are eradicated by then. Effectively this means that we have a larger global middle class with the related changes in the diets. 30% to 50% more food will be needed. This is just not possible with the agriculture practices since the amount of fresh water is unchangeable. We want to contribute to this transformation. We met through Enactus and founded Efficient to diminish malnutrition and to the needed change.
NRP: What role did Enactus play and how did you get started?
Simon: Through Enactus, we learned about social businesses. We then started with a needs-assessment for our key interest: malnutrition. We did not start with a solution. Alex had spent a year in Indonesia after school, so we had strong ties there to local organisations, conducted interviews and talked to many people to develop a basic understanding of why people there were malnourished. Then we searched for a suitable solution.
NRP: Can you elaborate on the results and conclusions of your needs assessment?
Simon: After our needs-assessment, we adopted a problem-oriented approach, which is also a key characteristic of the Nexus approach. Our starting point became malnutrition – defined in Nexus terms as a lack of food security. We identified the limited variety of food during the dry season as the cause of malnutrition. In Nexus logic the water scarcity or the absence of water security in the dry season causes the food insecurity. We knew that we wanted to increase food security, so we found a farming technique – aquaponics – that can cope with the climate conditions and produce fresh and healthy food in the dry season. So, we’ve been mission-driven from the beginning.
NRP: Now let’s talk about the technical solution. How did you develop it?
Alex: In the beginning, we were curious and didn’t have an idea of how the technique works. After deciding to work with aquaponics, we searched for a local cooperation partner here in Germany. We found an organisation specialising in aquaponics and worked with them, and a man called Peter Winkler for about two years to develop the first two aquaponics prototypes. After creating our first prototype here in Germany, we were eager to begin and create a knowledge database. That’s how we became experts in the field and were able to innovate further in the field ‑ such as with our new hydroponics systems ‑ without an external partner.
NRP: Can you take us through the technical functionality of your innovation? How exactly does aquaponics and hydroponics function?
Alex: The principle of aquaponics is quite simple. The system works through symbiosis ‑ we manure the plants with fish waste and the fish survive through the plants. It works through a closed loop water circulation. We plant the plants in pipes with the roots in water without any soil and use gravel as a medium. For one plant module, we have about four fish tanks. Between the fish tank and the plants, we have three filter tonnes that filter the general waste but allow the bacterial process to evolve. This process turns the waste into nitrate – which is the fertiliser. The nitrate is then transferred to the plant part of the system through the pipes and received by the plants, which in turn filter the water by extracting the nitrate. After 24 hours, we transfer the water from the plants back to the fish, so that they receive fresh water. Then the bacterial process starts again.
With this closed water circle, the water efficiency per yield of kilogram vegetable is increased tremendously. Also, the farmer produces fish which is a wealthy protein source. This addresses the Nexus in two ways: First the increase of water efficiency for vegetable farming and second the increase of food security by making vegetables and fish available during the dry season. This is actually very simple.
NRP: Did your system work from the beginning, or did you make some modifications?
Simon: In the first prototype, we only had one cycle system, which means that the fish pond and vegetable patch were directly connected. Our newer systems in Togo and Indonesia work with two water cycles. The fish and plant cycles are separated, and the water is transferred by hand. This gives us a more secure and stable system because we can tweak the nutritional values in the water as needed for the cycle. If there is a problem in one cycle, the other cycle still works well.
NRP: How much water is lost through evaporation or transportation of the plants?
Simon: This is a bit difficult to measure in our countries, but we have 5,000 litres of water circulating in the system. So far, we haven’t had to supply much water after the initial setup because each part of the system is closed ‑ not many open water tanks. To avoid the effects of evaporation, we also try to find a suitable place for the systems that are out of the sun.
NRP: That means that plant transpiration – a natural part of the metabolism process is very limited?
Alex: Yes. In our aquaponics system, this is the key factor for efficient production. This is the major advantage of aquaponics and hydroponic systems in comparison to traditional farming – you save up to 90% of water. The 10% we ‘lose’ is due to poor transport, evaporation and plant transpiration. This is a crucial change compared to any conventional farming technique – you can say aqua- or hydroponics is a Nexus game changer! Especially if you also look also at the global perspective: 70% of the global freshwater resources are used for agriculture. Moreover, with an increasing world population and increasing wealth, the water demand will rise, water efficiency in food production is a key figure for a sustainable future.
Simon said it before: We insert water into the system during the setup period only once, then we don’t have to remove it or add much water. The limited water need allows us to grow vegetables during the dry season when the water supply is limited.
NRP: But aquaponics and hydroponics are both usually high-tech systems. How do you keep the technology simple and the costs of the system low?
Simon: There are currently two types of aquaponics systems on the market ‑ either costly, high-tech and developed, or low-tech and unproductive systems that are not suitable for a business model. We combined these two types and created a low-tech aquaponics system that is efficient enough to be implemented in a business system. Basically, we thought of each part of an aquaponics system, broke it down to the very basic biological cycle and thought of how to simplify these parts.
NRP: What are your major innovations to get the cost down?
Alex: One significant innovation was the use of an air pump to move and lift the water. The crux of the innovation is that we do not depend on a water pump. Most systems that work without soil have a water pump. Instead, we lift our water with an air pump and use it to simultaneously insert oxygen into the water. Our construction consists of a small pipe, an air stone and the air pump. Regarding labour input, once you know how to maintain the system, one person could invest three to four hours a day and keep the system running very smoothly.
NRP: In regards to the economics of aquaponics, how does it work? Specifically, can you speak about the Effishent social enterprise business model and the role of the farmers?
Alex: In each target country, we work with a local organisation. In Togo, we are working with a micro credit institute. The local organisation advises us on local circumstances, and we train a group of existing farmers or unemployed people. We finance the cost of materials and initial investment together with the local organisations. After this initial empowerment, these people work on the system every day – it becomes their workplace! By selling vegetables, we generate revenue to cover all running costs, including salaries. Effishent continues to support the system operators for up to two years after establishment, providing remote support for a support fee, thereby generating revenue directly for our project to expand further.
NRP: Effishent is now operating in Togo, Indonesia, Ghana and Uganda. How is your aquaponics model adapted for different geographic regions and farming contexts?
Simon: We currently only work in regions around the equator, where the climate conditions cause traditional agriculture to fail. In Togo, Indonesia and Ghana, the climate conditions are quite similar, but we have to adapt our system to different cultural conditions. In Togo and Indonesia, we are dealing with very different stages of development. In Togo, we had to simplify our system because our goal was to design construction that can be built with locally available materials. In Indonesia, there were simply more shops, more supply possibilities.
Alex: Another factor is religion. In the region we selected in Indonesia, the partner organisation told us about a white eel that is considered holy by the local Hindu community. He advised us to use the eel in the system so that no one steals it from us, because we always have to take the security of the system and its parts into consideration.
Simon: In Togo, we first paid our operators monthly. We then realised that this is too long of a period for them to receive their salary. Many of them had been used to getting paid every day after gathering work off the street. We had to adapt and now we pay them on a weekly basis. These are some of the tweaks we make.
NRP: Is that the only strategy you employ to keep the technology and costs down?
Simon: There are many strategies. We also use simple materials, such as bamboo or wood and avoid using any high-tech materials. We work only with local materials and never import any materials from abroad – this keeps our costs down significantly. It would be very costly to depend on importing systems from Europe to Africa and Asia. That’s why we only work with local materials – and it works!
Alex: It is also better for the people because they know their materials and where to find them best. If we would import materials, the people wouldn’t see the project as their own. We don’t come to these countries with a suitable solution for them and force them to live with it. Of course, we come with a general idea, but we develop the specific solution with the people on site, asking them about what materials they use, how they connect pipes, etc. We source this local knowledge from the people we work with because we’ve discovered that they often know much more about constructing anything than we do. This is something they do all the time, building and creating things themselves. This collaboration between the local people and us really adds value and keeps cost down.
NRP: What kind of vegetables do you grow with these systems?
Simon: We adapt to local conditions and consider the nutritional value of each vegetable. During the needs assessment, we try to discover what nutritional sets are not present in the diet of the local community by taking blood samples and analysing them to determine which vegetables to insert into the system. We try to use as many local vegetables as possible so that people are already used to eating them and would buy them at the market. Of course, root vegetables are difficult to grow in aquaponics systems; they are excluded.
NRP: Thank you very much for the interview.
This interview was conducted by Gerhard Rappold and Michelle Balon. If you have any questions or comments, please e-mail email@example.com.
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