Bangkok Food Maker: Aquaponics Thailand
Growing your own food may seem like a wonderful notion but something that is out of reach for the majority of urban dwellers. Space and know-how may be in short supply. One Bangkok couple are challenging what is possible without even using soil.
Water came into Robert and Sunan White’s Minburi home in the devastating 2011 floods that Thailand experienced. They had relocated prior and fortunately damage was minimal. On their return dismay turned to delight when they discovered their garden in tact, a stark contrast to the surrounding plots that were covered in black, toxic silt. Robert and Sunan’s garden had simply floated and thrived. It was an aquaponic system of their own design and proved to be the confidence boost they needed to continue with their experimental endeavours.
The couple’s 8 year journey from the US Navy (Robert) and the travel industry (Sunan) to aquaponics was not a direct one. Shoestring philanthropy led them to initiate small projects with a few government schools to improve student food and facilities. An idea to plant a traditional soil garden to supplement lunches at one upcountry school wasn’t well received and was too labour intensive for the couple to monitor effectively. They thought there had to be a better, more efficient way to grow food.
Robert and Sunan briefly explored hydroponics but ultimately bypassed it due to the chemical solutions involved. Aquaponics was where they ended up as it’s efficient and a relatively closed system – except for the air above the plants. Fish (often tilapia) are kept in food-grade tanks and their waste delivers nutrients to the plants. The plants in turn filter the water for the fish.
The couple founded Aquaponics Thailand and are entirely self taught. They often met dead ends in their research so they turned to crowdsourcing (before it was a term). Along with other aquaponic enthusiasts from universities in Bangkok Robert and Sunan formed a club to problem solve common issues. When they were all truly stuck they contacted Dr James Rakocy, widely regarded as the leading expert in the field. He didn’t merely respond by email but offered to meet the group and answer their questions in person.
Water quality is critical for both the fish and plants in an aquaponic system. They require different pH levels. Robert and Sunan are working on a unique bio-separation technique which will allow the fish to be in their own system and the plants in the other. The fish waste is separated and then delivered to the plants to ensure they receive the correct nutrient levels instead of a free flow between the 2. This split system with 2 independent eco-systems in one gives growers greater control over desired outcomes. It will also enhances the viability for fish farming through aquaponics.
Robert and Sunan offer consultancy services through Aquaponics Thailand to promote chemical free farming. Their 14 x 12 m rooftop is a demonstration garden that produces tomatoes, cantelopes, a few lettuce varieties and Italian basil that will soon supply an Italian restaurant in Bangkok. The largest project they have established is 1000 sq m in Phra Kanong. The smallest to date was a 3 x 3 m balcony. NIST International School has a system up and running to supply Stu Air’s cafeteria. Other schools and even a hospital are in talks to have their own aquaponic systems in place.
Keen to get started on your balcony or at school? Aquaponics Thailand offer courses. Contact here for more information about upcoming dates (April 27-29). They also design and install aquaponic systems.
For further information:
Mob: Robert 083 791 4157/ Sunan 097 130 3040
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(Image credits: Robert White)