In 2016, Sameer A, an IT professional and avid reader, came across an aquaponics book. Intrigued by the concept of this farming method, the 38-year-old decided to try it out himself.
“The thought of growing food without soil and some fish in water was fascinating to me,” says Sameer, a Pune-based engineer who spent over a decade working in software companies and as an entrepreneur. He adds, “I went to a nursery to buy some mint, and try aquaponics out.”
To experiment with the concepts described in the book, he took two buckets lying in the corner of the roof of his bungalow, installed a water pump, and bought some pipes and some fish. After a week of planting mint in this set-up, Sameer found his efforts to be successful when fresh leaves began sprouting. “This is how the concert of ‘bucketponics’ came into being,” he says.
“The quick growth of the plant, the big and bright green leaves, and the smell of the produce were impressive,” Sameer says. “The book mentioned that fish excreta in water worked as a source of ammonia and nitrate, which are essential elements for plants to grow. This was proved right in my experiment,” he adds. From growing one mint plant, the urban farmer has gone on to cultivate 63 varieties of vegetables on his terrace farm through aquaponics, including spinach, tomato, cucumber, rice, corn, stevia and gourd.
“I used a few buckets initially,” he says, adding, “Then, I switched to trying drums of various sizes and shapes. It took one year to experiment with different habitats for the fish before I finalised a design of a double-decker tub made from Fibre Reinforced Plastic (FRP). I had it custom-made, and it can withstand the sunlight for 25 years.”
Refining his technique
Speaking to The Better India, Sameer says the vegetables grown on the upper tub, while the fish live in another tub installed below. The water from the lower tub is pumped upwards to water the plants, which again drains down into the lower tub for recycling.
Sameer has experimented with different types of fish to refine his technique. These include the catfish, guppy, rohu, katla, and koi. “Koi helps yield the highest amount of produce, but is expensive,” he says. Apart from fish, the entrepreneur-turned-farmer has also worked on methods to balance the water and nutrition content for the plants.
“I had no one to help me, which is why it took a couple of years to get the system to function smoothly,” he says, adding, “When I was not on the terrace looking after the plants, I spent time learning more about the process through books, videos, and online courses.”
The urban farmer feels that more people should grow their own food. “It is time that more food is grown inside cities and sold hyper-locally. Such practices will help prevent food wastage, and make fresh vegetables more accessible,” he says.
“Last year, a ten-year-old boy visited my terrace farm and tasted raw spinach that he plucked directly from the plant,” Sameer recalls. He adds, “He immediately remarked that he did not find it bitter. I told him it was because the green vegetable was grown organically in a natural environment, without using chemicals.”
‘A need for hyperlocal markets’
Sameer has started with six customers who have signed up on a subscription model. “They pay me Rs 600 per month for 250 grams of cherry tomatoes and any other vegetables they need,” he says.
To promote the idea of more such hyper-local markets, he also conducts food workshops online. Additionally, he reaches out to his 1,800 followers on Instagram every day at 9.30 pm to address their queries. “A few urban growers from Ratnagiri and Mumbai connect with me regularly, and I receive queries from across India. I have a business model ready. There’s a person in Mumbai who is ready to set up a rooftop farm. But I need an investor to create such urban farmers and markets,” he says.
Sameer says that for any queries on urban farming, or collaborations, he can be contacted on his Instagram page, Pluckit.