INTERACTIVE: Young entrepreneurs thriving on aquaponic farming


E-Farm is an urban farm that grows about 25 types of vegetables and herbs.

THE Covid-19 pandemic has forced us to seriously look at the way we live our lives and more importantly at how we consume food.

As many people lost their jobs due to the pandemic, there are those who resorted to growing their own organic vegetables at home naturally, with some hard work.

This is to offset paying a huge price for imported organic vegetables.

“When we look at the organic agriculture industry in Malaysia, we find that we import a huge percentage of organic food, which doesn’t make sense because we are a farming country at the heart of it, ” said Petaling Jaya-based The Urban Farm director Brendan Lee.

He said there was not much education in Malaysia when it came to organic and non-organic vegetables.

The Urban Farm uses LED growlights which are designed to grow plants indoors. These LED tubes have a combination of different coloured lights to enable the plants to carry out photosynthesis. UV is one component of these lights which make the plant stronger and healthier in general.The Urban Farm uses LED growlights which are designed to grow plants indoors. These LED tubes have a combination of different coloured lights to enable the plants to carry out photosynthesis. UV is one component of these lights which make the plant stronger and healthier in general.

“All this importing causes such a huge price discrepancy too. Organic vegetables can cost double or triple the price of non-organic vegetables, ” he explained.

Brendan opined that we often do not think about the source of the vegetables, where it comes from and how it is grown.

“Imported organic vegetables are expensive so people don’t see the need for it. And even if they do, many cannot afford to buy it.

“It’s a shame, because when you look at other more developed countries, the difference between non-organic and organic vegetables is at 30%, which is very affordable.

“That’s like US$3 (RM12.44) for non-organic and US$3.90 (RM16.17) for a head of organic lettuce in the US, while in Malaysia, it is RM3 for non-organic and RM7.50 for organic.”

Brendan from The Urban Farm says the price difference between imported organic vegetables and non-organic in Malaysia is between 100% to 200% depending on the variety.Brendan from The Urban Farm says the price difference between imported organic vegetables and non-organic in Malaysia is between 100% to 200% depending on the variety.

Brendan’s aquaponic farm was set up more than two years ago, and even then they were not the first.

Aquaponic is a pesticide-free way of farming that combines aquaculture --- in this case growing fish --- and hydroponics which is growing plants without soil.

The fish do most of the work, by eating and producing waste.

The beneficial bacteria in the water converts the waste into nutrient-rich water and is fed to the soil-less plants.

Brendan said there were more small and medium-size players coming into the farm-in-the-city game.

“This is great, and it is not uncommon to source vegetables from other farms, so you will find that in this industry there is a lot of cross-buying and selling, ” added Brendan.

Recently, Brendan started his second farm in Petaling Jaya Old Town, where he had built a fully indoor vertical farm.

"We are still utilising aquaponics as the method to grow our vegetables, but we have additional control over the environment with regards to temperature and daylight (through the use of LED grow lights), ” he said.

This controlled environment allows him to grow many varieties of vegetables which are unable to tolerate the high temperature outdoors.

Brendan, 27, grows many different varieties of kale (Curly kale and Siberian kale), lettuce (Lollo Bionda, butterhead, romaine), herbs (rocket, mint, sweet basil) and local favourites such as dwarf bok choy.

According to him, vegetable prices customarily fluctuate depending on the weather.

"Excessive rain and flooding will cause prices of the produce to go up. Growing them indoors solves this issue," he said.

He added that vertical farming also reduced the need to clear land for agricultural use.

“By employing new technologies and systems, unused or abandoned urban areas can be revitalised and utilised for food production, ” he said.

Over in Cheras, e-business student Sean Lee, 19, needed a hobby last year when the movement control order was first implemented.

He had a lot of time on his hands when he was not attending his online university classes.

More importantly, he was determined to find a solution to heal his father’s psoriasis.

“My father can only eat organic vegetables.

“The main problem is the fertiliser and pesticides used in (conventional) farming, and his immune system is working against him.

“So, I decided to grow my own vegetables for him, ” said the teenager with a keen interest in aquaponic farming and who is the bubbly proprietor of E-Farm.

Sean always had a love for rearing fish in aquariums, but did not like maintaining and cleaning the filtration system, which is why aquaponics worked for him.

E-Farm proprietor Sean Lee (left) and his business partner Eddie Soong fill up grow cups with coco peat at the aquaponic farm in Cheras.E-Farm proprietor Sean Lee (left) and his business partner Eddie Soong fill up grow cups with coco peat at the aquaponic farm in Cheras.

He started his aquaponic project with one fish tank, a makeshift filter and two vertical plant towers that had spinach, curly kale and bok choy.

“Kale is rich in antioxidants, so I gave this to my father and his psoriasis healed a little, ” he said.

He set out to start aquaponic farming on a corner lot house with a big garden that could fit a 92.9sq m greenhouse to grow 25 types of vegetables and herbs.

It took two months and the help of many property agents to locate the ideal site to start his aquaponic farm, after scouting in Petaling Jaya, Subang Jaya and parts of Kuala Lumpur.

As you step into the split-level greenhouse, the first thing you will notice is the pond full of healthy red tilapia.

E-Farm in Cheras has 120 vertical towers, each holding 90 plants, totalling 10,800 plants overall.E-Farm in Cheras has 120 vertical towers, each holding 90 plants, totalling 10,800 plants overall.

An automated feeder is stocked with fish pellets, and the fish are fed every three hours between 10am and 7pm.

Sean said their fish pellets were custom-made to not contain any antibiotics or growth hormones.

"The fish are also fed vegetable scraps from unsold vegetables at the farm.

"Red tilapia are a common breed of fish used in aquaponic farming.

Oyster shells in the fish pond provide an optimum Ph level for the tilapia to thrive.Oyster shells in the fish pond provide an optimum Ph level for the tilapia to thrive.

“Patin and koi fish can also be used for aquaponic farming, ” he said.

The oyster shells in the fish tank contain calcium and act as a buffer to maintain the optimum Ph level of 6.2 to 7 in the water.

The aquaponic process starts with vegetable pellets that are fed to the fish and their waste produces ammonia. The waste is then pumped into the filtration system to remove the solids.

The ammonia-filled water is pumped into the biotank, which is an “apartment for bacteria”, with a big surface area.

“The bacteria will consume the ammonia (NH₃), and will change it into nitrite (NO2-) and nitrate (NO3-). Nitrates are what plants need.

“The ammonia and nitrite need to be at ‘0’ optimally, as both are poisonous to the fish.

“The function of the biotank is to negate the ammonia and nitrite, ” Sean explained.

The nitrate-rich water is pumped into the power system, where the plants absorb all the nutrients from the grow beds and multiple aisles of vertical trickle towers.

The water from the tower will slowly make its way down into the pond system and from there it feeds the fish again.

Sean grows vegetables such as bok choy (which have standard white or emerald green stems and come in a variety of species like Milky, King, Green Dynasty and Four Seasons); choy sum (Shangrila, King and Japan varieties), kale, watercrest, Oba or shiso leaf (Japanese mint), lettuce (green coral and butterhead), Okinawa spinach, Brazilian spinach and herbs such stevia, peppermint, spearmint, rosemary, mizuna and ensabi.

He has 120 vertical towers with each holding 90 plants, totalling 10,800 plants overall.

The eight grow beds underneath the towers are a space saver, he said.

“Every inch is crucial for optimisation, ” he added.

The grow bed uses clay balls, called hydroton or light expanded clay aggregate (LECA) which is a substitute for soil.

Sean said the system only runs on one water pump which means their electricity bill was kept at a reasonable amount, averaging about RM500 a month while their water bill was RM15 monthly.

“Suffice to say, this is a low cost way of growing vegetables, ” he said.

Animation by Nor Shalina Abdul Samad and Shaiful Rizwan.

Interactive graphics by Diyana Pfordten.

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