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A social enterprise spin-off from MIT is turning the food chain inside out. Inspired by the polluted Niger Delta, ecology, local assets, entrepreneurship and design are integrated into one project: Maa-Bara. Meaning "Water Farm" in the Ogoni language, Maa-Bara is a minimal-waste closed-loop sustainable model that uses kitchen scraps to grow healthy, fresh fish and vegetables. It is also a new way to catalyze a youth culture of innovation – and here's their story:
The Kenyan sun is still low over Lake Victoria and twenty-three middle school students are counting in unison. John races up to me from the shed behind our class with a large bag of discarded plastic bottles and a wide grin. "I found the most, I win, see ...13, 14, 15!" Breathless but dignified he begins displaying his findings, plastic bottles that would be used to make the seedling cups for a new closed loop fish-and-vegetable farm the students are about to help build. John is Maa-Bara's first "Challenge Winner" and will go on to be the fastest and most skillful at cutting the seedling cups from the plastic bottlenecks. This is what it is all about; getting students involved in a hands-on innovation projects, growing food while cultivating entrepreneurial affinity.
"Early exposure to low-cost technology helps us meet ourfood needs today, while grooming innovative and entrepreneurial minds to address the food needs of tomorrow."
Only a few months ago I might not have imagined that I would be up to my neck surrounded by bustling students, community volunteers, fish and seedlings suppliers and co-instructors, under a cool and cloudless July sky. How did an MIT-trained architect from Nigeria— with the name "Ogheneruno" which means "God has done it,"– end up teaching Kenyan middle-school students about growing food using some of the latest technologies for nutrient recycling?
Throughout Africa, youth bear the burden of unresolved food security challenges. A lack of investment in innovative solutions for access to healthy food results in a pandemic lack of hope and vision for a better future. These young students, Africa's next generation, are eager to partner in agricultural innovation customized just for them. Early exposure to low-cost technology helps us meet our food needs today, while grooming innovative and entrepreneurial minds to address the food needs of tomorrow.
I grew up listening to stories about a place and time where technological advancement and economic opportunity were synonymous and restricted to the oil industry. As a young boy in Nigeria's Niger Delta region, my father and his friends would swim and fish in the pristine mangrove-lined waters of the Niger river. During their long trek to school, nibbling on roasted fish, they weaved through kilometers of thriving farmland. Agricultural productivity, as well as, hopes and dreams were soon chocked up by the labyrinth of oil pipelines, oil wells and oil tankers that accompanied a new 1960 landscape of oil exploration activities.
"The oil-slicked rivers, contaminated fish, constant gas flaring polluting the air, left the youths near asphyxiated..."
Prone to oil spillages, this infrastructure exposed the fragile ecosystem to the deadly "black gold". Like my father, most of the youth saw working in the oil industry as the only means to a brighter future. Deciding upon a different path for his children, he worked hard to earn a scholarship and study petroleum engineering in the United States. My siblings and I were raised with a broader definition of opportunity. 30 years after his departure, I returned, eager to hear of a different Niger Delta story from this next generation. However, the plight of the youths was more deplorable. The oil-slicked rivers, contaminated fish, constant gas flaring polluting the air, left the youths near asphyxiated as they endured, in the face despair, the long wait for change.
I embarked on returning to the Niger Delta as the field research component of my graduate work at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 2010, funded by a research grant from the Architecture Department. During my time at MIT, highly talented and ambitious architects surrounded me and without a doubt their work celebrated a diversity of aesthetic innovation. However, this only fueled my interest in how the design of physical infrastructure could be fused with architecture to provide more than just "shelter and delight." I was concerned with broadening the scope of economic opportunity through diversifying access to technological innovation; allowing inhabitants to regain sustainable agro-production and self-reliance while aiding in the restoration of the natural environment. This reconciled my graduate architectural research with a passion for my Niger Delta heritage.
"...helping families grow fish and vegetables from recycled food waste, using recirculating captured rainwater."
I decided to focus my research on how design could help local fishermen resuscitate their valuable fish industry while offering a culture of entrepreneurship, innovation and resilience; helping families grow healthy fish and vegetables from recycled food waste using recirculating captured rainwater. I studied and integrated the culture of innovation and craftsmanship already in existence via canoe-building practices, the use of local material, thatching, and joinery techniques. Local assets of strong community networks, hands-on skill with fish and post-catch processes were explained to me during daily interaction with fishermen in the community. Through my graduate thesis, I explored an adaptation of agriculture technology that offered food security and employment opportunities without negative environmental impacts. This vision for the future was populated with flourishing agro-enterprising youths and titled, "Maa-Bara: Catalyzing Change in Nigeria's Niger Delta." ("Maa-Bara" means "Water-Farm" in Ogoni language of the Niger Delta).
"Maa-Bara's aquaponics system transforms traditional aquaculture from a system producing fish to a robust diversified system, recycling waste streams to output fish, leafy vegetables and fertilizer."
With the collaborative input of experts in sustainable design, water infrastructure, international development and agricultural innovation, this vision was nurtured from a thesis into a project. The goal remained the dissemination of value-adding technology and skills to enhance the livelihoods of the existing agriculture-based community. Low-cost, adapted aquaponics technology served as the mechanism for change. Requiring seedlings, fingerlings and kitchen waste in the fish feed, Maa-Bara's aquaponics system transforms traditional aquaculture from a system producing fish to a robust diversified system, recycling waste streams to output fish, leafy vegetables and fertilizer.
In 2011, Elisha Goodman and Timo Bandele Lassak joined the effort, and we co-found Maa-Bara, LLC as a social enterprise. We believe that development in the global south must take the form of sustainable business and youth empowerment for self-actualization. Specifically, we are building a youth culture of agriculture innovation in Africa that concurrently addresses food security, job creation and waste-to-wealth conversion. We are partnering with orphanages, learning institutions and schools to expand their role to encompass meal-giving and desirable skills acquisition. We demystify technology and fish processing methods, enlarging the number of self-reliant agricultural producers at the bottom of the pyramid. Disseminating the sheer amount of new agricultural opportunities for the active poor is Maa-Bara's biggest challenge and opportunity at the same time.
"We believe that development in the global south must take the form of sustainable business and youth empowerment for self-actualization."
Even with our current low-cost solutions it will take several millions of dollars to equip only a partial number of students in the early phases of our project. We aspire that each resourceful student be equipped with the financial means to own and operate the technology in their family backyards as Micro-Entrepreneurs. Maa-Bara's real-time technical assistance and network of wholesalers, partners and distribution channels will ensure their profitability and sustainability as part of a global development system. We currently have partnerships in North America with Sweetwater Organics, UMass Amherst and UnitedWay for aquaponics consultations and Pilot Projects Design Collective for design solutions and strategic planning consultations. Maa-Bara is a 21st century vehicle for pragmatically and creatively addressing food security and youth employment in Africa.
Food security will continue to be one of the most pressing issues of the 21st century— not only for Nigeria, with a growing population of more than 160 million— but for countries around the globe. Global food issues, climate change and natural disasters continue to exacerbate this condition. Meanwhile, as emerging countries are praised for unprecedented economic growth this view often does not recognize that this growth does little to help the active poor, and may even act in reverse. People at the bottom of the pyramid subsisting on a few dollars a day simply do not have the resources to offset the moderate price increases that economic development often brings. If we add the inevitability of peak oil prices, which raises the costs to run tractors, to transport food, and to use fossil-fuel intensive fertilizer, we have the potential for global famine beyond typical forecasts. What is needed is a paradigm-shift. Innovative and sustainable low-cost solutions can start addressing this problem at a grassroots level. Maa-Bara is one of an increasing number of social businesses that recognize this challenge as an opportunity for economic change in Africa.
"When I grow up, I want to be a Maa-Bara person."
In 2011, Maa-Bara won funds from MIT IDEAS Global Challenge and MIT Sloan AFRICA Innovate Business Competition and established a proof of concept in Africa that additionally provided food and jobs for its host community. We plan to be in operation in the Niger Delta upon strengthening our business and technology models in locations with more suitable existing infrastructure, such as West Kenya. A Kenyan enterprise, Bolena Farms, in Lenya, provided additional funding to deploy our pilot at Lenya School. Serving 589 students in grades K-8th, where 2/3 eat only one meal a day and 1/3 are HIV-AIDS orphans, Lenya School is a prime example of the mission to feed youth today and empower them to feed themselves tomorrow. In July 2012 we deployed a 1,000-liter aquaponics system and education program that immersed the students in hands-on operations and interactive skills acquisition, requisite to spark an interest in agriculture innovation. Our conservative outputs will be a minimum of 200 lbs of fish, 160 heads of kale by the end of 2013. We also output fertilizer that supports neighboring farm beds within and outside our demonstration depot in the school premises. We are establishing vital partnerships locally such as with the Kenya Marine Fisheries Research Institute to explore value-chain enhancement processes post-harvest.
Our deployment in Lenya School concluded with us clearing the classroom and putting away learning props, amidst students playing at the end of a school day. Assisting in these tasks was John our star student trainee and, mid-way through completion, he intimated to me, "I saw myself as a Maa-Bara person in my dream, with a Maa-Bara t-shirt. When I grow up, I want to be a Maa-Bara person." Pausing for a moment, I smiled, slowly registering that this is why a 13-year old collects and cuts plastic bottles enthusiastically, and waits behind to clean up class while others play; he has a dream and discovered a way to realize it.