A garden that tweets? A farm with sensors to detect water level, pH and temperature, and with access to clouds and social media networks – stuff of the future? Mais non! A Kenyan born innovator has made it all possible. This is his Xtreme Farming story.
I’ve been to Oakland, California.
It’s concrete central, an urban desert that would play the perfect host to any apocalypse film, and the last place you’d ever imagine a farmer setting up shop.
In the midst of an abandoned, contaminated factory lot in West Oakland, Kenyan born Eric Maundu has created a unique venture that could set the standard for the future of farming in our rapidly urbanised societies.
Surrounded by freeways, roads, light rail and parking lots, Eric’s farm doesn’t have one inch of arable land so this mad hatter farmer doesn’t use soil. Instead he’s growing plants using a few fish and some water – a gardening system called aquaponics that combines hydroponics (water-based planting) and aquaculture (fish farming).
Eric runs Kijani Grows (“Kijani” is Swahili for green), a small startup that designs and sells custom aquaponics systems for growing food and attempts to explore new frontiers of computer-controlled gardening.
The venture has been hailed as the future of farming: it uses less water (up to 90% less than traditional gardening), doesn’t attract soil-based bugs and produces two types of produce (both plants and fish). Additionally he’s able to recycle and he’s not tied to traditional farming methods.
Aquaponics has become popular in recent years among urban gardeners and DIY tinkerers, but Maundu- who is trained in industrial robotics – has taken the agricultural craft one step further and made his gardens smart.
Using sensors (to detect water level, pH and temperature), microprocessors (mostly the open-source Arduino microcontroller), relay cards, clouds and social media networks (Twitter and Facebook), Maundu has programmed his gardens to tweet when there’s a problem (i.e. not enough water) or when there’s news (i.e. an over-abundance of food to share).
Maundu himself ran from agriculture in his native Kenya – where he saw it as a struggle for land, water and resources. This changed when he realized he could farm without soil and with little water via aquaponics and that he could apply his robotics background to farming.
Maundu believes that by putting gardens online, especially in places like West Oakland (where his solar-powered gardens are totally off the grid), it’s the only way to make sure that farming remains viable to the next generation of urban dwellers.
“I don’t see the next generation honestly having access to traditional farms so we have to start arming them with technologies where they can go colonize places like in West Oakland that no one uses, rooftops. We want them to start thinking about it from when they’re kids so as they use their computers, as they use their phones to write those little ‘Hello [World!]’ programs to know that they can (also) write ‘Hello Garden’ programs, and know that, hey, I’m using my device to create food for me.”
What would really revolutionise this idea, is if Eric were to take back what he’s learned to Africa, and empower struggling farmers who are battling drought, famine and decreased access to arable land.
Afritorial applauds his great effort.
Watch Eric’s story for more detail on his innovative farming system: