Photo courtesy of INMED Partnerships for Children.
INMED Partnerships for Children is striving to simultaneously fight hunger and create economic opportunities for small farmers and their communities through its Adaptive Agriculture Program. At the heart of INMED’s Adaptive Agriculture Program is aquaponics, a combination of hydroponics and fish farming that produces year-round crops at as much as 10 times the yield of traditional farming methods.
INMED provides a simple and affordable aquaponic system that can be used by small-scale farmers, schools, and government institutions as well as home gardeners. Its design and limited mechanization make the system easy to operate and maintain, and it does not require fertilizers, chemicals, or heavy labor. Over the past decade, INMED has established highly successful adaptive agriculture and aquaponics programs in Jamaica, Peru, and South Africa. This approach is improving food security, conserving natural resources, providing opportunities for income generation, and strengthening the ability of communities to understand and respond to the effects of climate change.
Food Tank had the opportunity to talk with Kristen Callahan, Director of International Programs for INMED Partnerships for Children, to learn more about INMED’s adaptive agriculture and aquaponics programs.
Food Tank (FT): What makes this such a strong and successful program?
Kristen Callahan (KC): INMED’s adaptive agriculture program addresses urgent climate-related adaptation needs, resource issues related to soil degradation and water scarcity, health issues associated with food shortages and poor nutrition, and economic opportunity needs. INMED’s program allows small-scale farmers, technical colleges, primary schools, rehabilitation, and other institutions to access aquaponics as an alternative farming method to address these challenges and to produce healthy food while conserving resources and generating income. As part of the program, operators receive intensive training and technical assistance, including guidance and support in system operations, management, and application as a business, an educational tool, and/or nutrition source. The program involves a multi-stakeholder engagement process to ensure participation by policymakers, community leaders, family members, teachers, extension agents, input suppliers, and buyers. Community involvement and an enabling public environment strengthen the sustainability of aquaponics producers, whether small-scale farmers, educational institutions, or others.
FT: What were the local initial reactions towards the program installation? Were they receptive to the ideas or were they hesitant?
KC: Recipients of INMED’s aquaponics systems, whether in Jamaica, Peru, or South Africa, have been very receptive to the introduction of aquaponics into their communities, farms, and institutions. Factors influencing this positive reception include water efficiency and climate change adaptation, particularly in regions of drought, erosion, or crop loss, as well as increased access to nutritious, fresh food. INMED’s ability to provide hands-on education in biology, math, and agriculture science is also an influencing factor. The novelty of the technology itself also has renewed the interest of youth in the field of agriculture. The key is to provide sufficient training and technical support to sustain adoption and continuing implementation of the technology, allowing participants to reap the benefits in the long-term.
FT: What have been some of the greatest challenges for the program?
KC: One of the biggest challenges has been behavior change. Adopting a new technology is exciting and beneficial, but it requires not only the initial enthusiasm but continued dedication. This includes the commitment to applying new, unfamiliar techniques in farming, adjusting and course correcting through learning and experience, and for commercial success, learning to operate a business, which is not familiar to many small-scale farmers. INMED has overcome these challenges to date with multi-year projects that involve continuing education and technical support as participants start and become more familiar and comfortable with operating their aquaponics systems. This support continues as they experience the benefits first-hand through crop and fish production to sell for income, conserve scarce water resources, feed the community, or educate their school children.
FT: What is some advice you can give to the many social entrepreneurs out there wanting to promote aquaponics and sustainable agriculture in general?
KC: As in any development setting, introducing a new technology without sufficient training and community support will likely not succeed. Aquaponics offers so many benefits for individuals, communities, and the environment, but it is different than traditional open-field farming and is a new concept for many. It is important to build and harness enthusiasm as well as maintain it with sufficient technical assistance and enabling policies. This ensures that participants overcome the natural decline in interest that occurs immediately after a new concept is introduced and challenges arise. Operators need support not only with the new technology but with other concepts that may be new, such as running a business or working in harmony with other members of a cooperative. This support must be ongoing until they fully embrace and understand the new techniques, overcome challenges, and ultimately reap great benefits.
FT: What are the next big steps for the program?
KC: Now that aquaponics systems have been introduced and successfully operated by various beneficiaries in multiple locations across Jamaica, Peru, and South Africa, the next phase of the project is to establish a scalable model for commercial application. With support from the Inter-American Development Bank, U.N. Environment Programme, and a consortium of other donors, INMED is building a program in Jamaica to increase access to the technology via intensive hands-on and online training. This training covers aquaponics operations, business planning, marketing, and finance, establishing links to tourism and other markets, and providing creative financing strategies for entrepreneurs who want to start aquaponics enterprises. Investing in farmers practicing climate-smart agriculture, and expanding access to vital financial services and markets, will help to increase diversity, equity, and inclusion in farming in Jamaica, the Caribbean region, and ultimately globally as INMED introduces the replicable model to other regions.