Nos Kunuku Aquaponics, the food tech revolution

WILLEMSTAD - Environmental awareness has created increased consumer interest in locally grown sustainable food production financially viable, it has also paved the way to restructure the development path post this global pandemic for a substitute for traditional agriculture.

Entrepreneur “Henny Barbolina”, owner and operator of Nos Kunuku project has been mindful of the fact that Curaçao is in need of environmental policies to protect its fragile agricultural resources, to create jobs and to educate generations about the importance of bringing climate-smart innovations into execution; inspired by his love and passion for growing plants, he knew in his heart that the island must become food self-sufficient.

Born on a Kunuku in Trai Seru (between Brievengat/Groot Kuartier/Matancia and Jongbloed), he finished his studies in Chemistry at the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands. His first job was as a refinery expert in 1989, however enchanted by Permaculture (sustainable agriculture ecosystems), he started a farm 10 years ago with so little means, he had back at that time as a hobby, an agriculture small business that offered naturally grown produce minimally processed no hormones or antibiotics or artificial flavor added.

While he was completing his training in farming in Aruba, he got introduced to the Aquaponics system, completely in disbelieve of this new technique he returned home and built his first system successfully, he went to the first Aquaponic training in USA for commercial systems and ended up in embracing this revolutionary technique on his farm.

At“Nos Kunuku”project, he utilized his expertise in modern farming, permaculture, regenerative agriculture(a technique that rebuilds the quantity and quality of topsoil, while also restoring local biodiversity)and offered training in modern farming and consultancy in agriculture projects.

The beauty of Aquaponic system is that you can go to a piece of land that is non-plantable, that is not viable for agriculture, yet still you can establish the system and make it work, Aquaponics is an ancient form of cultivation that originated with the “Aztecs” who performed this practice by raising fish alongside crops, they built artificial islands known as “Chinampas” in swamps and shallow lakes and planted them with maize, squash and other plants, canals navigated by canoe surrounded the islands and were used to raise fish, the waste from the fish fell to the bottom of the canals and was collected to fertilize plants.

The name “Aquaponics” derives from the combination of “Aquaculture”(raising fish or other aquatic organisms) and “Hydroponics”(growing plants in nutrient-rich water), it is both easy on the environment and easy on finances, it doesn’t use any chemicals and requires about 10% of the water used in regular farming, allowing food to grow without much space, the system is designed in a way that transports water filled with fish waste to the grow beds, water then is circulated through a biofilter that is essentially a colony of nitrifying bacteria which turn ammonia and nitrites into plant-nurturing nitrates, the beneficial microbes present in the system helps in converting the fish waste into nitrates that are easily absorbed by the plant roots, and the cleaned water is sent back to the fishpond, this recycling technique saves a lot of the water required to grow plants and the fish tank does not require regular cleaning, after setting it all up, one has to feed the fish and throw the favorite vegetable seeds on the bed.

Based on Mr. Barbolina, agriculture is considered as a national asset, nutritious clean/safe and affordable food is one of the basic requirements for healthy living, to guarantee food security the island must be self-sufficient, amid Covid-19, borders were closed, import was put on halt, the refinery was not generating any income for the government, no touristic activities and we experienced prices hike and food scarce out of lack of import abilities, to challenge this situation we need to think outside the box, with Aquaponics, vegetables appear to grow much faster than in a conventional garden, which reduces the harvest time, it can be as simple as a small tray of lettuce or herbs sitting above a 10-gallon tank of guppies, or as complicated as raising trout or tilapia in 1,000-gallon tanks with vertical tubes holding strawberry plants.

“Nos Kunuku” project is currently supplying supermarkets and hotels and also selling customers directly covering both B2B & B2C businesses, from Barbolina’s perspective, the government needs to protect the local agriculture by reducing import and providing direct investments in the sector which is in its early stages of development, paying attention to the small and medium entrepreneurs, facilitating their projects through training and financial assistance.

Curaçao doesn’t have a Ministry of Agriculture, without the full dedication of the government to establish the required infrastructure in order for agriculture to be effectively commercialized, it will not happen in the timeframe we require it to happen, he also added  that despite all this, each entrepreneur must educate oneself and seek experts assistance in this field to make sure it is done effectively, there should be a masterplan that entails control of all the 17 basic requirements for successful commercial agriculture, this masterplan should be made a national priority and executed independently from the government, a combination of open field and hydroponics farms can easily replace 50% of our import provided the infrastructure is professionalized. 

Regarding the availability of resources and support for entrepreneurs and startups of Aquaponics and organic agriculture on the island, Henny considers it as nearly nonexistent. I asked him about the biggest business management lessons he has learned from his project? He answered:
“Educate yourself or seek expert help from the early beginning, when everything is still on paper and modifications are made with a pencil, come up with a Proof of concept first & grow slowly in order to effectively learn during this journey”.

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