Graduate’s ingenious poultry and fish farming on the balcony

Robert Mwakio tending to crops and fish being raised in aquaponics culture system at his place in Buruburu. Mwakio is also the inventor of the system and has installed several to many people across the country. PHOTO BY NANJINIA WAMUSWA

Simply amazing. That’s the first thing thought that comes to mind, when you visit Robert Mwakio’s farm in Nairobi’s Buruburu Estate.

Mwakio has developed an innovative way to make use of a small urban space to keep fish and chicken, a form of farming he calls aquaponic poultry.

When Smart Harvest team pays him a visit, we find him adjusting the pipes that connect water from the ponds and recycles it into the small garden made of gravel.

“I am sure you are fascinated that somebody is actually doing some serious farming in Eastlands given the small space. As you can see from the structures I keep chicken, fish and also plant crops. This model of farming is called aquaponic poultry,” he starts off the interview as he takes us round the small urban farm.

Indeed, not many farmers are familiar with aquaponic poultry and Mwakio agrees as he offers an explanation: “This is an integrated farming model where you rear fish, poultry and have hydroponic plants all in one structure. Here, chicken structure is constructed over the whole aquaponics system to allow the chicken dropping fall on the crops as fertiliser. Water from the fish pond is also recycled and used to water the crops. That way nothing goes to waste.”

Given that space is a big challenge in the urban setting, Mwakio is practises farming on his squeezed balcony.

“Using this model that falls under integrated farming, one can keep fish, poultry and grow crops on a small space. And the beauty of this kind of farming is that little goes to waste because everything is reused,” says Mwakio who has a PhD in Urban Planning and Mechanics.

Pricey project

Having perfected the art of smart farming and combined with design background, Mwakio has turned this knowledge into a commercial venture and is making a tidy some.

Mwakio charges around Sh200,000 for aquaponics set up structure and an aquaponic poultry system costs between Sh250,000 and Sh300,000.

And so far, the innovative farmer says he has designed aquaponic poultry system for farmers in Nairobi’s Kayole, Kisumu, Busia and Kakamega.

Quite pricey? one wonders and who can afford that.

“Yes it may look like I am overcharging, but it is really the intensity of work that goes into it. That amount comprise the material for the structure and the high level architectural design that goes into it. I have to use my design background to create a structure that has three distinct components,” he explains.

He goes on: “For the aquaponic, I have to design a structure that carries the plants on top and the fish pond at the bottom. For the aquaponic poultry, I have to combine three components of farming, the poultry structure on top, the crops in the middle and the pond below. I have to synchronise the structure in such a way that waste from the poultry is useful in the farm and the fish pond. It is a complex and intricate process and requires a lot of expertise. That is why I charge that amount,” Mwakio says.

Fruitless search

But how did he start?

The 32-year-old farmer studied a degree in Urban Planning at Maseno University, then moved to the US to pursue a Masters degree in Urban Forestry and PhD in Urban Planning at Southern University and Agricultural & Mechanics.

After completing his studies in 2013, he came back to Kenya eyeing a white collar job. But he was in for a rude shock.

“Like many young graduates, I applied for hundreds of jobs hoping for a positive response, but nothing came through.  The painful thing is that I had the right qualifications but nothing was coming through. Not even regrets. I have never been that frustrated in my life,” he says.

After a year of fruitless search, Mwakio decided to change his game plan. He decided to try aquaponics which he had seen widely practised in the US by farmers in towns where they were occupying small spaces.

Aquaponics is the combination of aquaculture (raising fish) and hydroponics (the soil-less growing of plants) that grows fish and plants together in one integrated system.

Mwakio explains further: “Although all l saw in America was mechanised l resolved to improvise using local materials.”

On a trial-and-error basis, Mwakio first constructed his first structure on his mother’s backyard farm in Kisumu. The idea worked wonders.

“After a few months, my mother harvested so many fish and a lot of kales, tomatoes, spinach and onions, she distributed the harvest to friends and relatives for free,” Mwakio recalls.

From that initial success, Mwakio’s eyes were opened to the possibilities that lie ahead with integrated farming. With that assurance, the ambitious agri-prenuer set base in Buru Buru and went big with integrated farming.

He decided to partner with some youth and they started making the smart farming structures for urban farmers.

“I started doing it for friends and they were impressed. My work spoke for itself and that’s how orders started streaming in,” Mwakio says.

Innovative model

Within no time, word spread round about how he was helping small scale farmers with an innovative model of farming.

The business has now stabilised and Mwakio is enjoying the fruits of his labour. He gets orders for clients and tailors the structure depending on their unique needs.

A simple system can hold between 120 to 200 chicken depending on the breed. 

The innovative agricultural system is a structure measuring 50 x20 feet. The fish tanks and vegetable containers with gravel gravel are connected by pipes which are connected to a pump.

The vegetable tanks are suspended over the fish tank so that when the water is pumped through the fish tank outlet it is directed to the vegetable container suspended above the fish tanks.

The water is filtered through the vegetable container through porous gravel and move back to the fish tank through an outlet.

Mwakio explains the fish in the tanks excrete in the water and this is waste is poured onto the vegetable bed where plants grow, and they use the nutrients.

On his Buru Buru farm Mwakio grows onions and sukuma wiki for home consumption and keeps 1,400 nile tilapia for sale. With each fish going for an average price of Sh 250, on a good season, Mwakio pockets Sh350,000 from the sale of fish. He sells his produce in supermarkets and local hotels.

Promising as the project maybe, challenges abound too.

For example, the people he’s hired to work with, some ran away without proper information and duplicate the same elsewhere.

“One actually went and constructed for a client using my name and did a shoddy job. The client thought I was responsible. Such episodes damage ones reputation,” he regrets.

In as much as the profits are high, the cost of setting up the system remains relatively high for especially average farmers.

The future?

Mwakio, says aquaponics can make a good agricultural tourism, as the structures in urban areas always fascinate people who spot them.

Many people in urban areas who have embraced such projects enjoy fresh and organic from their doorstep.