Rising above arid deserts and grassy steppes are the magnificent mountains of Central Asia. They look down on a beautiful part of the world that is unfamiliar to many. Ask us about Europe to the west or Russia to the north, China to the east or the Middle East to the south and we could come up with some historical tidbits or more recent happenings we have heard in the news. And yet Central Asia sits in the middle of all these political and economic powerhouses and remains somewhat separate from them all.
Central Asia was part of the Soviet Union until its fall in 1991. At that point the five countries that make up the region, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, gained independence. Sadly, all the countries have struggled to advance at the anticipated socio-economical rate over the last 30 years (Canegie Endowment for International Peace). But, some recent political and geopolitical connections may provide some needed growth for the region (Brookings). One of the immediate challenges is an increasingly young population and millions needing jobs in the coming years.
The creation of jobs is vital for economic growth and stability, which is why it is exciting to hear from Isaac*, a small business owner in Central Asia who has built one of our aquaponics systems and is developing a business selling lettuce and basil to local restaurants, cafes and individuals.
Isaac completed the system in March of this year and had produce to start selling at the end of May. He appreciated that, “it was a simple way to launch a business and all the details have been worked out already. I don't have to think about the science too much, just build it and follow the manuals. The fact that the information is constantly being updated and I have access to ask questions and get help along the way is amazing. I'm excited to be able to give my feedback about how it ends up working and see how the next people to use it can learn from my experience, too.”
Central Asia is one of the many areas of the world that can benefit from the increase of aquaponic farming. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, about 60 percent of the region consists of desert land with rising mountain ranges to the south and east. These mountains block moist air from the Indian Ocean and contribute to very dry climatic conditions. Inadequate precipitation has led to heavy dependence on the Syr Darya and Amu Darya for irrigation. The region as a whole experiences hot summers and cool winters, with much sunshine and very little precipitation. The scarcity of water has led to a very uneven population distribution, with most people living along the fertile banks of the rivers or in fertile mountain foothills in the southeast.
Irna Hoffman of Leiden University has extensively studied agriculture in Central Asia. She notes that: “Notably arable land is scarce in the Central Asian region, but still, many people find employment in the agricultural sector in Central Asia and are engaged in farming.” In spite of this, “Many people engaged in farming are food insecure. Is it a paradox? No: Food security depends (among other factors) on whether (or not) the population can make effective use of land. Nevertheless, ordinary rural households continue to be highly important in supplying urban markets with fruits and vegetables.” (Voicesoncentralasia.org)
Isaac has joined these small household farmers with his system and produces about 50kg of leafy greens a week. Some of the benefits of using an aquaponics model in his climate are not needing to rely on rain or irrigation and being able to grow produce year-round. One of the opportunities Isaac sees for increasing profitability is stabilizing his supply and demand. “Since we have built it and started to grow, we are trying to continue to run the system and understand how much product we are able to produce. We have started to make sales but it sometimes is difficult to know exactly how much we can sell on a weekly basis. The system hasn't been any issue, just getting the sales cycle linked with the grow cycle.”
One of the greatest opportunities so far is the ability to employ a single mom and her son to help run the system. They not only are receiving a good salary from running the system but also learning life skills and understanding more about locally producing food which is important for the future of agriculture in the region. They might be able to run their own system and business one day and create even more jobs for their community. Small businesses like these are vital to strengthening Central Asia and providing opportunities for the next generation.
It was encouraging to hear from Isaac that he was able to find all of the parts for the system from local sources and that he didn’t have to order parts from far away or get specialty parts. For a few pieces he was able to find an easy substitute if they didn’t have exactly what he was looking for. Feedback like this is valuable to make sure we are providing the most beneficial and up-to-date information available.
We hope to highlight many more people like Isaac in the future. It is wonderful to hear from someone who is excited about what aquaponic farming can provide in terms of nutritious food and economic stability. Isaac hopes to help expand aquaponic farming throughout Central Asia. “I hope that the things I am learning along the way can be taught to others in the future that will build this system. I think this is one of the most exciting things about this project. I get to run a business, learn a system of aquaponics and create great produce but at the same time I am a part of the global project of seeing these food systems help people all over the world.”
*Name has been changed at the request of the interviewee