Teaching Sustainability in Nepal: An Interview on Aquaponics

2:02 PM Jmo 1 Comments

"...people who DO things, can inspire the rest of us to go and DO things too.”
-Maggie Doyne, BlinkNow Foundation

     The vision is a simple and beautiful one: 'We are one human family and that in the blink of an eye, we can change the world.' This is the mantra of the charitable organization BlinkNow, based in the Kopila Valley in Nepal. 
     Currently the BlinkNow organization is working to build a large, self-sustainable aquaponics system to feed the residents of the Kopila Valley community and I had the pleasure of interviewing one volunteer on the cusp of something great. 

But first... What is "aquaponics"? 
Aquaponics is the future of sustainable food.
It is a combination of aquaculture (fish growing), and hydroponics (growing plants without soil).
These are self-contained systems which recreate the natural relationship between plants and wildlife. Fish and plants develop side-by-side and can be harvested to produce a healthy high-protein and nutrient rich diet.

The Project:
Step 1: Build a large, self-sustainable aquaponics system to feed the residents of the Kopila Valley community. Support the Kickstarter: Here!
These systems are easy to build, almost entirely self-sustainable, weather resistant, and use 90% less water compared to conventional agriculture. By building this system, we can help the residents of the Kopila Valley aim for complete self-sufficiency, massively reducing food costs and helping them provide for themselves a better quality of life.  
Step 2: Education.

What I really love about the project is that it's meant to leave a self-sustaining, lasting impact on the community. Education and training will be a large part of the community work. They aim to ultimately educate and leave a tradition in which the residents of the valley have the knowledge and ability to create their own aquaponics systems long after we leave. 

Support the Kickstarter: Here!
Sustainable development has never been more important in the world, and by training the teachers in the benefits and methods of aquaponics, we will be arming this community with the knowledge and skills to feed themselves for generations to come. 

Why am I talking about this?

Well, while I lived and traveled through South Korea, I met a man from the UK named Cal. Though I only met him briefly, he left a lasting impression. He was incredibly smart, talented, charismatic, and welcoming. Just the type of person you'd want to meet while on the road. So it's no surprise that, through the magic of Facebook, I found out that he has turned his talents to BlinkNow.

That's Cal!
I had the pleasure of catching up with Cal and asked him a few questions about his involvement in Nepal, aquaponics, and the "travel experience". Here's our chat:

1) Why Nepal? C) The project came first. Before the Kickstarter, before The Life Aquaponic was started, even before I knew anything about sustainable farming. It was all Carla’s idea. She had spent a lot of time reading about Maggie Doyne and BlinkNow’s incredible work with the people of the Kopila Valley, and had the idea that aquaponics would be a perfect way to feed and educate people who need it most. Carla actually approached me with the idea at a poker game. I had never even heard of aquaponics, but after a fifteen minute conversation I went home and delved into aquaponics research. Six months and a handshake later and here we are. Aquaponics, and indeed sustainable agriculture in general, is the future. Without a doubt. Fortunately, the places that will benefit the most from these food systems are also the places that are most receptive. Established and thriving countries with low poverty rates tend to be less open to non-profit innovation, especially in essential services, simply because of their high quality of life. Is life is so good, whatever they’re doing must be working.

Look at California, romantically considered to be one of the greatest places to live by so many people, but intensive commercial agriculture is close to making it unlivable. But change is slow, because the majority of people who live there lead comfortable lives. In areas with less food security, however, the ground is much more fertile for new ideas (if you’ll excuse the awful pun). Sustainable designs like aquaponics offers a new approach. If you tell somebody who barely earns/grows enough food to live that you know a way they can use a fraction of the water the currently use, eliminate fertilizer costs, grow food more quickly, with higher yields in a wider range of temperatures, they tend to sit up and listen. Nepal has had some well documented recent difficulties, and thanks to a number of organisations doing amazing work, is well connected internationally. It is my belief that ‘poor’ rural communities in areas like Nepal, India, and large swathes of Africa will prove to be a hotbed of agricultural innovation in the next 50 years, and the rest of the world will have to start paying attention.
2) How will this project change the lives of the people in the village? C) As little or as much as they want it to. There must be a catchy way to edit the ‘give a man a fish, you feed him for a day...’ adage to create a catchy soundbite for aquaponics… but I’m yet to find it. The best I can do is “Give a man a fish, you feed him for a day… Teach a man how to fish, you feed him for life. Teach a man aquaponics, and you feed him (and his family) a much healthier, nutrient dense meal, with less effort and worry for life.” Our project is as much about education as it is about food production. The space we will be working with is limited, and the number of residents large, so it is likely that the actual system we create will supplement and improve current food purchases for the residents, rather than produce 100% of food requirements. The long term goal is to enable each and every person we can to create and maintain their own system.

A well managed aquaponics system can feed a family everything they need, using much less water, much less space, less labor, and no fertilizer. Obviously we can’t build a home aquaponics system for everybody, even in a small village. But by working with the school teachers and community leaders we can aim to leave a legacy in which every member of said village has the knowledge to build one for themselves. Imagine if you never had to go grocery shopping again, but could eat a healthy meal of fish and vegetables everyday. And the most it could ever cost you is the price of a bag of fish food per month. That is the change we are trying to make to people’s lives. Of course there are initial start up costs, but those pale into comparison to the savings in food and healthcare made over a lifetime.
3) In regards to travel, how has it impacted your perception on how other people live around the world? C) This is definitely the most difficult question to answer. It’s hard to talk about travel without resorting to tired cliches like “It really opened my eyes”, or sounding like a hippy. People talk about travel as an ‘experience’ but this really undersells it. Traveling is being endlessly slapped with a plethora of experiences. It’s like La Tomatina- the tomato throwing festival in Spain. You spend your time getting hit in the face, and you’re all red and rotten smelling by the end; but you have a big smile on your face, and a story to tell. I’ve met people who have changed me for the better, I’ve seen things I’ll remember for the rest of my life, and I’ve done things I’ll daydream about for as long as I can remember them.
I have learned a real appreciation for the idea of a global community since I first left my little town in Northern England. Everybody’s place of birth is just an accident, a lucky dip, and people need help no matter where they happened to land on the Earth. People who need help deserve it no matter where they happened to be born.
4) Can you talk a little more about the importance of Sustainable Development? C) A very well studied person recently told me that 75% of the world will live in cities by 2050. Considering that even conservative estimates put the world population at 9.5 billion by that point, that is another 2 billion people (an extra 30%) that need food and water. Considering that many places in the world already struggle to support the people that live there, this is clearly a big problem. Whether you believe in man-made global warming or not, the fact is that the world’s climate is changing. Unpredictable weather patterns and human encroachment upon planetary boundaries means that food security will be more and more difficult to achieve as the population grows. You can survive without a house. You can survive without money. You can even survive without clothes. You can’t, however, survive without food or water. Africa has by far the fastest growing populations in the world, and also one of least food and water secure areas on the planet.

A recent UN report lists water scarcity as one of the biggest problems of the present and the future, and yet also points out that “there is enough freshwater on the planet for seven billion people but it is distributed unevenly and too much of it is wasted, polluted and unsustainably managed”. I don't know if 'unsustainably' is a word, but I do know that improving water management is massively important. Sustainable development is simply better management of the world’s resources. As population grows, everybody will be entitled to less and less of the available food and water. It is important to make sure that the planet remains habitable for future generations. This requires change in the way we feed people. And the way we live. 5) I love the plan to integrate the system into their teaching curriculum. Can you help explain why this is important? C) I covered this a little in an earlier question, and actually the educational component of the project is in my opinion the most important aspect. Simply arriving, building an aquaponics system and leaving would be useful; but limited. It would produce food, but what about if something breaks? What about the people who choose to leave? What if there is a flood and the residents have to relocate? Our plan to educate the teachers and leave them with specialised knowledge, useful learning materials, and a skeleton curriculum will mean that aquaponics can be a part of every resident’s skillset for life. Unlike physical objects, knowledge can withstand natural disasters, big changes, and can be carried with you anywhere, and through generations.

You can build an aquaponics system using a fishtank and a plastic tub. The educational guide we are putting together will include innovative designs, problem solving challenges, and every food technology that we can find. Although our main area is aquaponics, new ideas like windowfarms, vertical farming, keyhole gardening and many others are revolutionising the way that food is produced around the world. You don’t need acres of land and an endless supply of water to grow food. You just need the knowledge. That’s exactly what we want to teach people.

The more I travel and learn the more I believe that we are all in this together. Like the founder of BlinkNow, Maggie Doyne, said: "We are one human family..." So let's bind together and act for the future of our family.

Join and support the Kickstarter HERE
And to learn more about BlinkNow and Aquaponics, please visit: BlinkNow, and The Life Aquaponic

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1 comment:

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