With rising population and concerns for the environment, the food production industry has had to become innovative. One of these innovations is Aquaponics systems. Aquaponics uses a recirculated water aquaculture system to grow fish and vegetables at the same time. This system provides a symbiotic relationship between fishes and greens with bacteria in between. Recently I had the opportunity to have a chat with Ali Oliveros for our Talent View. He lives in Venezuela and is currently working on several aquaponic projects like Verde en Concreto (Green on Concrete) and GRO Urban Farms.
Ali’s story caught my interest for several reasons, but I will just tell you about his project and history and you will see why. Verde en Concreto is currently a showcase small production, but Ali’s project is bigger than that. He currently has 150 square meters of production, working with Tilapia and producing mostly 5 types of tomatoes.
What is Aquaponics?
Aquaponic systems are ideally ones with vegetables in a greenhouse. These vegetables are fed fish tank water. Fishes’ excrement is our natural fertilizer since there is no soil in these systems. Then we have the hinge between the two, the bacteria. Which turns fish waste (ammonia) into nitrites and nitrates, the ideal vegetable feed.
Aquaponics has represented a solution for issues and concerns regarding traditional agriculture and fish production. On one hand, agriculture is full of herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizers that help them control every step of the process. And that is mainly, highly -synthetically- chemical. Which poses environmental and health concerns. Agriculture also requires 70% of the freshwater used in the overall food production industry. While aquaponics is a symbiotic self-regulating system that requires no chemical additives and saves around 90% of water.
"1.000 square meters of Aquaponics can represent around 10.000 square meters of traditional agriculture. And that is only a horizontal aquaponic system. If we start talking about vertical aquaponic systems then we can be having massive results. Space is a barrier in traditional production systems, however, hydroponics and aquaponics overcame that obstacle a long time ago".
On the other hand, we have fish farming with its own concerns we have addressed in previous posts. Aquaponics solves the majority, no fish escape, no antibiotic use, no waste. Overall RAS production provides some of the most sustainable fishes. Making aquaponics products some of the most sustainable vegetables and fishes to this date.
What is Verde En Concreto?
"Verde en Concreto is a project that was born at the beginning of the COVID pandemic in 2020. I have been working on the lab for years, but I formally launched the first "farm" in 2020. The first foundation stone was set in march 2020. At the beginning of my experimental phase, I worked with ornamental fishes. At the moment I am working with Tilapia."
Tilapia has represented many benefits in my system. First, they are natural filter feeders. But the other thing is that they take on stress pretty well. They grow very fast, they are not expensive, they are strong and they endure social stress very effectively. They easily adapt to “less than ideal” conditions and to different water PH levels. And they also eat a little bit of everything.
"From the beginning of the pandemic, contamination in Caracas has seemed to step down a lot. And when you measure the PH for rainwater, you get neutral PH, it is not even acidic. And this is extremely beneficial for our project. Our ideal levels are between 6.9 and 7.10 PH for it to be optimal for fishes as well as plants, and rainwater represents a key element in our system. For plants, fishes, and microorganisms". Caracas is sunk in extreme water rationing, around 90% of its population do not get tap water regularly. The fact that Verde en Concreto has had the opportunity to use rain water, represents one of the first major hurdles they have overcame.
Betting for Venezuela
Venezuela is by no means a big country when it comes to fish production. There are also many legislations that regulate fisheries. However, I found it interesting that with this reality, where most of their fish consumption comes from artisanal fisheries, Ali started this project. Venezuela represents an obstacle by itself in many ways and aspects.
"So far everything has been funded by my bank account. And it has been uphill. My current farm is my house. From the beginning, I have always tried to make it as aesthetical as possible for it to be acceptable for my neighbors. Which has been a hurdle itself. When I began, I thought that by it being my home, my yard, I could set up my system with no major setbacks.
But my neighbors have represented a breast wall from the start. Maybe they were afraid that I was going to start bringing cows, horses, donkeys, which was obviously not the case. But they filed complaints at the town hall, at the ministry of the environment, and at every possible institution, they could complain at. But I was able to overcome those obstacles, luckily. I have been able to prove there are no environmental risks from my production, on the contrary, we are actually improving it. "
Aesthetical in Concrete
Part of Ali’s work has focused on making the farm aesthetical. He calls it his own showcase farm. So even when he has worked with recycled materials. Like food-grade buckets instead of Dutch buckets. It all looks appealing to the eye. He could have left the tanks and buckets as they came, but by making it attractive he has had to invest some more money. This, with the aim of first, not getting neighbors’ complaints. And secondly, so he can have people over and make people gain interest in the project.
"The only thing I was not able to do was to greenhouse the system. And that was a problem by itself. The greenhouse is a key element in Aquaponics, you need to be able to control pests and the environment as much as possible. However, every problem has only encouraged me even more and made me fight for my cause. I am very passionate about what my project represents and I intend to overcome every obstacle".
As for the fish tanks he is using regular water tanks and painted them white so they wont absorb the heat from the sun.
What is Verde en Concreto Producing?
"We are currently working, basically, with 5 types of tomatoes. And each of them represents a particular and special case. I take them to their maximum degrees Brix. So I take every tomato to their higher level in the plant. And that gives them an unmatched smell, flavor, and color. Our most popular among restaurants is the "wild tomatillo". It is very popular, but when we consider production, is not a highly effective plant. So it becomes a very expensive product for the final consumer".
The vegetables produced at Verde en Concreto are consumed on the day of the harvest. So it is straight from the farm to your plate. Tomatoes are their main product, however, they are producing other greens. Basil, Kale, Capsicum chinense (or Aji Dulce), Salanova Lettuce, Pak Choi, and Swiss Chard, are among the species they are producing. They are also cultivating several kinds of flowers.
Not having a greenhouse brought a problem that put all of Ali’s crops at risk. He had a fungus that attacked most of his crops.
"Since I handle everything organically. No agrochemicals or fungicides, it is more complicated than traditional agriculture. So, when I planted "Tomate Margariteño" we failed by not putting Neem, which we use to prevent fungal infections. I usually bring Neem from the province, but since that's organic it gets spoiled. And with lockdown, I was not able to travel and get it.
The fungus spread very aggressively. And we had to start studying again and try to come up with a way to attack it. We learned about Bordeaux Mixture, which allowed us to keep the organic process and attack the fungus effectively. We are still trying to see the evolution of the plants, most of their leaves dried out so we haven't been able to prune and trim our plants".
Verde en Concreto is very confident of the sustainability and safety of their products. Everything that hydroponics has, Aquaponics offers it in a more sustainable and organic way, and by keeping it organic we not only ensure the safety of all living organisms engaged in the production. Our own health is guaranteed when we are not inputting the usual chemicals and agrochemicals from traditional food production. Plus, Aquaponics is 20-30% more effective than Hydroponics. By organically exposing the plants to the different elements, Ali believes it will give them a never-before-seen immunity, that could not be accomplished in traditional agriculture or hydroponics.
What are Verde en Concreto’s Goals for Fish Production?
"Initially, in this showcase system, we have a capacity for 2 tones of biomass. That's the bar I have set for my showcase farm. I could perform monthly harvests from the first semester. I have six tanks, right? And my fishes reach a harvest size by the sixth month, so I could be harvesting a whole tank per month and maintain efficiency in the overall system.
The price for Tilapia straight from producers is very low compared to the international market and that is maybe a setback at the moment. Added to that, the fact that organic feed for the fishes is extremely hard to find”. Ali says that once he is able to find a product that is organic, like soldier fly larvae, he will be able to lower production costs while increasing the quality of the fish. Making it of higher protein value, compared to the current market.
"We are now in partnership at GroUrbanFarms. At the moment, we are projecting a new farm in the middle of the city, in Chacao. We have all the permitology, so no setbacks on that end. We will start as soon as possible. Our concept is to have multiple productive yards, many small farms across the cities and to have them all as close as possible. Because in cities everything is relatively close. What we are looking for is to have several production centers (at least 10) and one distribution center. Each production center will be ideally between 100 and 200 square meters. Then whatever production each individual farm has will be distributed by us, and each farm will get their share."
The objective with GroUrbanFarms is to go massive with production to a more extended market with high-quality products. While being able to keep the showcasing of their system, in order to get more consumers and potential partners. And even though an open showcase may expose the plants and fishes to external factors, Ali finds that beneficial to, again, boost the entire system’s immunity.
"In Venezuela, most people say that everything is lost and I believe that is not the case. At least not yet. And my efforts every day are directed towards showing people there is still so much we can do to thrive. Part of my project is also focused in educating the next generation and having workshops to encourage a more sustainable, conscientious and healthy way to approach our food. I am very proud of the team I have been working with. They all started off as students of this project, and have become great masters in the industry. It's got to show, you do not give men fish, its better if you teach them how to fish. I am very proud of how far they have come, and the passion they have shown. I strongly believe Aquaponics is the solution to world hunger".
If you would like to get in touch with Ali Oliveros and learn more about his project you can find him on Instagram at @verdeenconcretove and @grourbanfarms