The Oasis Aquaponic Food Production System

This past fall, the trustees of the Ann Arbor Awesome Foundation awarded a $1,000 grant to Michelle Leach, a recently graduated PhD from the University of Michigan, so that she could continue her development of the aquaponic food production system that she hopes one day to distribute throughout Central America.

Here’s how Leach describes the system: “Food insecurity is the constant companion of the poor,” she says. “Our solution, The Oasis, is a solar-powered inflatable aquaponics system capable of producing at minimum 300 pounds of Tilapia and 600 pounds of tomatoes, or other vegetables, annually. With a projected retail price of $100, and a business model that provides low-interest purchasing credit, our system is radically affordable and accessible.”

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[above: Artist's conception of the third generation Oasis prototype being built with assistance from the Ann Arbor Awesome Foundation.]

The following excerpt comes from a recent interview between Leach and A2 Awesome Dean Mark Maynard:

MARK: Would it be fair to say that, while a lot of work has been done in the area of aquaponics, up until now, there hasn’t been a lot of scientific research in the field? I mean, a lot of people are building systems, but, to my knowledge, not a lot of trained research scientists, like yourself, have taken on the problem in a systematic way that might yield reproducible results, right?

MICHELLE: Yes, this is one my peeves. There are a ton of backyard hobbyists, who are producing systems that seem to work, but they lack controls. It also seems like a few commercial operations are doing well, but they guard their systems like trade secrets. The few scientists who have done work in the area are using systems which are incredibly complicated/expensive and unsuited for the developing world. No one is doing well-controlled research on SIMPLE systems. This is the hole I’m trying to fill.

MARK: You said this was one of your peeves. Are there others as relates to this new industry you’ve entered?

MICHELLE: Sure, I suppose. The idea that the solution to poverty is a ‘thing’ or device is also somewhat misguided. People aren’t poor because they don’t have an Oasis, or a water filter, or a solar panel. People are poor for a host of other systemic reasons, which include poor infrastructure, corrupt governance, non-functioning legal frameworks, etc, etc, etc. But an Oasis, or a water filter, or a solar panel can make poverty less severe while big systemic changes happen slowly. We can use ‘things’ to chip away at the effects of poverty, and in the process empower the poor to demand systemic change.

MARK: There are other aquaponic systems on the market. How is the Oasis system different?

MICHELLE: The Oasis is designed to be radically affordable and large enough to produce a substantial quantity of food. Other systems are either extremely over-priced or too small to make a dent in a family’s nutritional requirements.

MARK: How is the system being received by those currently using the prototypes in El Salvador? Is it, as you had intended, changing people’s lives for the better? Are they providing useful feedback?

MICHELLE: The systems are being very well received. While everyone to date has received their system free of charge, we only provided alevin (baby fish) and concentrado (fish food) for the first crop cycle. It is up to the families to purchase these items for subsequent crop cycles. So far no systems have been abandoned. We see this as evidence that the families find the systems valuable. We have had some trouble getting ‘straight’ feedback, though… Everyone is super polite to me, and I was getting suspicious that perhaps I wasn’t hearing the whole story. So I recruited a local person to do anonymous interviews. We got some good data, which we are still working to translate and compile, but our preliminary read through suggests everyone is happy with the systems. We did, however, identify some small issues to address that hadn’t been on our radar.

MARK: Can you quantify how impactful a system like this might be in the life of a family in El Salvador? Do you have anecdotal data from those you’ve been working with thus far?

MICHELLE: Very impactful. Whole tilapia sells in the market at $2/lb. Tomatoes are $0.60/lb. A family that produces 300 lbs of fish and 600 pounds of tomatoes, that sold every bit of produce, could cover their costs and still net around $900 a year. In a country where a family is lucky to bring in $500 per person, per year, this can have an enormous impact. (Hard physical labor nets $1 per hour, when you can find it.) And all this from a system which only requires 15 minutes of attention daily.

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[above: Michelle Leach and Oasis cofounder Jacquelyn Hernandez Ortiz in El Salvador.]

For the rest of the interview, which goes into more detail as to how the system will be tested and distributed, click here.