28 Apr 2020
Cairo, Egypt
Sustainable Food and Agriculture

As the world was glued to footage of Egypt’s massive Arab Spring protests in early 2011, many Egyptians came home from overseas to offer their considerable talents. Amongst the returning emigres was Faris Farrag, formerly a London banker, with a bright idea for improving Egyptian food security. He began to research aquaponics, a technique for cultivating fish and plants together, such that they sustainably support each other.

The spectre of widespread hunger looms increasingly large over Egypt, with its rapidly increasing population and critically scarce amounts of water and arable land. These challenges, in Farrag’s view, make aquaponics ideally suited to the Egyptian context. “Aquaponics are at the nexus between food security, water conservation, and efficient land use,” he explained. An aquaponics facility recycles water and needs relatively little space for impressive produce yields.

Farrag’s company, Bustan Aquaponics, has become an established, profitable business with a strong market share. The Bustan team gladly helps any new entrants to the aquaponics sector, while warning that this developing field requires serious technical and commercial know-how. “People knock on our door weekly, interested in getting involved in aquaponics,” said Farrag. “We always emphasise one thing: do your homework.”

The story behind Bustan Aquaponics begins not in revolutionary Cairo, but on the British Virgin Islands — a small Carribean archipelago just off the coast of Puerto Rico. Aside from glorious weather (not to mention taxation) conditions, the island nation offers a pioneering workshop on the science of commercial aquaponics. The course explains how to match marine life with appropriate plants, such that both will flourish in a healthy environment.

Armed with technical insight, Farrag began to set up his own pilot aquaponics system on the outskirts of Cairo in the summer of 2011. After 18 months of trial and error learning, along with intense market research, the Bustan Aquaponics team had created three operational facilities to service an established customer base. “We made lots of mistakes, but we could set [an aquaponics business] up in three months now,” chuckled Farrag.

Farrag stresses that, while newcomers must study the technical aspects of aquaponics comprehensively, perhaps the greatest challenge is profitability. “The science is pretty well understood by now,” he said. “But the economics still need some working out.” It can be expensive to set up an aquaponics facility, which necessarily drives up overhead costs. 

The higher price tag typically limits sales to high-end food outlets, whose customers are willing to pay more for clean, sustainably sourced produce. To reach this market, Farrag’s team worked hard to demonstrate the extra quality of Bustan Aquaponics products. Over time, the company has developed two key streams of customers: retail (gourmet supermarkets) and B2B (fancy restaurants and juice bars). Farrag says that these reliable income streams have made Bustan Aquaponics profitable for “quite some time,” while adding that the business does not raise extravagant amounts of revenue.

This reality does not seem to worry Farrag, who established Bustan Aquaponics with social enterprise goals in mind. He happily offers his skills and experience to anyone interested in contributing to Egypt’s growing aquaponics sector, and has even allowed some newcomers to start out by selling their first products through Bustan Aquaponics.

For despite Farrag’s clear-eyed understanding of aquaponics’ current limitations, he remains passionate about the field’s revolutionary potential. “Hydroponics are more understood and better funded for now,” he said. “But when you can offer animal protein and plants — then you have a unique proposition.”

 

Learn more about Bustan Aquaponics through the website, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

Photos courtesy of Bustan Aquaponics

David Wood is a freelance writer and researcher based in Beirut. He previously worked in Cairo.David Wood
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