They were church planters in North Africa and they hadn’t eaten in two days. Their young children hadn’t eaten in two days either. This family was not unique in their need or in their situation. It is a story that repeats itself millions of times every day around the globe.
People are starving.
Lots of people.
World-wide there are approximately 820 million people who face hunger or starvation every day (Mercy Corps). Over 2 billion people are malnourished (World Hunger Statistics). Even countries with food surpluses can have significant portions of their populations who do not have access to that food or access to nutritious food.
Once you know the crippling reality facing 10% of the world’s population you have to do something about it.
For Josh Imhoff, founder and director of YWAM Emerge (Emerge), that phone call from North Africa and others like it was the catalyst that caused him and his team to start asking a simple question to a difficult problem: How do we bring food to the people who can’t eat every day? What can we do to help decrease food insecurity?
Around this time, the founder of YWAM, Loren Cunningham, also asked Emerge to find a way to serve the poor through improving how food is grown. It confirmed that they were on the right track and fueled their search for the answer to the question. But what was the solution?
Aquaponics was the answer.
Aquaponics is a powerful model for agriculture that can provide families and communities with nutrient-rich vegetables, protein, and income. Aquaponics is also beneficial in other ways. According to Inmed.org, an aquaponics system:
Produces at least 10 times more crops in the same amount of space as traditional agriculture;
Consumes approximately 75% less energy than mechanized agriculture
Uses 80-95% less water than traditional farming methods
Produces its own nutrient-rich water as fertilizer and does not utilize any chemical pesticides
Requires substantially less labor than required by almost all other food production methods
Emerge was drawn to aquaponics not just for the agricultural benefits but for the business potential as well. When an aquaponics system is built for a community it brings dignity and sustainability in a way that traditional relief efforts cannot. According to Josh, “We can give them a tool that will generate their own income to provide for their families, and they can be pillars of their communities and pay taxes. It opens up so many doors for them to love people in their community when you give someone a good job that can transform their life and their neighbors. They are providing good, healthy food so the families around them are getting nutritious food. There are so many layers to it that allow people to bless their community.”
Emerge learned the basics of aquaponics and built their first system in 2012 for a YWAM base and then two years later purchased a property in Colorado and developed a much larger system there. While on that property they worked on learning and proving that the business model could be successful and sustainable. During this time Emerge also started developing aquaponics systems for orphanages, churches, missionary training centers and individuals around the world. They have built systems in South Africa, Central Asia, India, Nepal, Tanzania, Thailand, Guatemala, Swaziland and the United States.
In 2018, Emerge moved to another property and built an ever larger system and started the project that has led us to this point: The reproducible system.
Aquaponics systems are wonderful resources but they can also be scientifically complicated. Josh and his team had a passion to create a system that could work anywhere in the world, be built with materials that can be found anywhere in the world and be run by anyone in the world. They asked, “How can we design something simple and take a lot of the science out of it? How can we create a system so if someone builds it exactly as we say, and moves the water as fast as we recommend, and does all the different pieces, it will produce a sustainable system that will generate an average of x-amount of heads a week?” But in order to make it simple, they first had to learn as much about aquaponics as they could. They did this the old-fashioned way: trial and error and lots of hard work.
Their current aquaponics system can produce around 3500 heads of lettuce a week running at full capacity. This much lettuce created an opportunity to start selling to local restaurants and colleges. It was through conversations with restaurant owners and commercial buyers that really pushed Emerge to the next level of knowledge and excellence. Selling good lettuce isn’t enough. They want to sell the best lettuce.
For those of us who are not very familiar with selling food commercially, it can require a lot of documentation and certifications. The team at Emerge worked hard to create food safety plans and all the documentation necessary and was rewarded by receiving the USDA Certification for their greenhouse and all of the produce grown there.
And then they poured all their knowledge about system design, sustainability, growth charts, pest control, flow rates, and a hundred other pieces and created a system that at last will answer the question they started asking over a decade ago:
How do we bring food to the people who can’t eat every day?
But it’s not just an aquaponics system. It’s years of work by dozens of people whose fervent desire is to bless as many people as possible with this gift. It's an act of love; love for Jesus and love for people, many of whom they might never meet. I am sure Josh speaks for all of them when he says: “We believe the Lord has given us this tool to bring to people to provide healthy food. A way to love people and to meet their felt need. We are there to bless them.”