One of my American friends who has lived in Uganda for several years and worked on construction projects has a motto: “In Uganda, nothing is easy.” I came to Africa knowing I would face delays and difficulties, but I’ve found this motto to be truer than I expected. For example, the metal workers I hired to fabricate iron stands to mount the solar panels and pumps said they could do the job in 3 days. It took a month. They didn’t have the proper materials, so they had to wait for the iron bars to come from Kampala. Then the power kept going off in Gulu, so they couldn’t work. Finally, the truck I hired to transport the stands to Lukodi was stopped by the police for carrying too large of a load. The driver bribed the official and made me cover the bribe. :) Another time, we had the liners finally installed, the solar panels and pumps connected, and the plumbing just finished…we were ready to test the system! Flipping the switch, the pump started humming and the water started flowing; I was ecstatic until we noticed a leak. We tried to fix it ourselves with epoxy but failed. The liner company said they would come fix it. After waiting a week and half to the appointed day, they said they could no longer come on that day, failed to give me a new date, and refused to pick my calls. Sometimes people just don’t understand what I’m asking, even though we both speak English. I needed calcium nitrate (a fertilizer to kickstart the growth of the plants in the initial phase of aquaponics), so I went to all the farm stores I could find in Gulu, but none of them had it. Finally, some guy who happened to be in one of the farm shops said he knew someone in Kampala that could get it. After several phone calls to this lady, where our understanding vacillated from she could sell me by the kilo to she didn’t have any to she could only sell in bulk of 25 kg bags (I needed about 3 kg), I finally bought the 25 kilos, sent her the mobile money (in Uganda, it’s very common for people to send money through their phones. It’s similar to Venmo, but used even for business purposes. There’s just a small fee for sending and receiving), and told her to ship it on the bus. When the calcium nitrate finally got here, a farmer looked at it, and told me, “Oh, that’s what it is. I bought this by the kilo in Gulu last year!” Sometimes the people I hire don’t show up to work or leave halfway through the day before the work is finished. Sometimes the tasks are just hard. When we stocked the large fish ponds at CVI a couple months ago, we also bought the fish for the aquaponics and planned on transferring them when the aquaponic system was ready. I never guessed catching catfish from a pond could be so hard. I needed 200 catfish for the aquaponics, and the big pond had 600. We tried catching them with fishing poles (after fishing for 2 hours, I caught one catfish), casting nets, and entering the pond and dragging mosquito nets). After several days of trying, we’d caught 23 fish. I gave up and bought new catfish fingerlings. The man failed to deliver the fish on the appointed day, refused to pick my phone calls, then replied a couple days later apologizing that he had been busy and he would send the fish in 2 days. He packed the 200 fingerlings in a 10 L jerrycan, sent them on the bus, and after traveling 8 hours they were all still alive.
The main part of my research here in Uganda was to design and build an aquaponic system for CVI. I soon realized that I was woefully unprepared for the task. Sure, I worked on aquaponics for my senior capstone project, but that was on a team led by a professor. My role was mostly in engineering fluid computations. I didn’t decide what size system to build, what type of fish to use, the ratio of plants to fish, how many fish to stock or vegetables to plant, what flow rates to set, what and how much to feed the fish, what slope to create for the water to flow, what materials to use, or how to construct the grow beds. I tested the water a few times, looked at the plants, and understood the basic science behind the symbiosis of aquaponics, but I never really understood how fish and plants grow. So I spent my first few months in Uganda learning about fish, plants, and aquaponic system designs. The US fish experts would give different advice from my Ugandan fishery contacts, so I struggled to discern which guidelines to follow. There are several different variations of aquaponics. Eventually, I decided to build two independent systems and compare the two. The first system is called a flood and drain media bed design where the plants are grown in gravel and the water floods the grow beds then drains and repeats the cycle 6-8 times a day. The second system is called an integrated aqua-veggie culture system (iAVs) where the plants are grown in sand instead of gravel. The iAVs proponents claim their system is better than the gravel media beds, but there hasn’t been a lot of research on the topic, so I decided to compare the two.
The biggest struggle was the lack of power in Lukodi. Modern aquaponics requires pumping water and adding aeration for the fish. While solar technology has greatly advanced in the past few years, it’s still very expensive. I looked into other alternative energy options, but decided solar was still the best option. Nevertheless, I decided to skip aeration to reduce the power load and instead build bigger ponds with lower stocking densities than the aerated fish tanks normally used in aquaponics. I made countless fruitless trips to the Gulu pump store, but could never find the right solar pumps to use. Finally, Richard (the CVI director) connected me to a solar technology company in Kampala, and after I made a couple of trips to their office, we figured out which pumps, panels, and controllers to use, and they trained me how to install them.
Finding materials was also a struggle. I wanted to line the ponds so the nutrients in the water wouldn’t seep into the mud instead of going to the plants, but none of the plastic rolls sold in Gulu were wide enough. The Gulu Fisheries Officer directed me to a large agriculture company in Kampala that has branches in many African countries. They sold a large, heavy-duty fish pond liner. It comes in 7.5 m rolls, so I designed my ponds and grow beds to fit that width. However, every time I told them the size of my ponds and asked how much liner I needed, they replied that I needed much more than my math suggested. I was pretty sure I knew how to calculate surface area, and since the liner is sold by the meter, I decided to go with my calculations. It was a terrifying moment when the liner finally arrived and the technician started to cut it…the liner was just enough! Chemicals are very expensive and hard to find in Uganda. After searching in countless chemistry shops in Kampala, I was never able to find the reagents I wanted to use to test the water. Instead, I had to use a less accurate aquarium test kit available on Amazon and brought over by someone coming from the US. Finding the proper sand for the iAVs system has been a continual struggle. There are multiple tests you’re supposed to conduct to check if the sand drains properly for the vegetables to grow, so I jury rigged lab testing equipment with a jerrycan, basin, and some water bottles. All the sand in Gulu is full of clay, but iAVs needs clean sand to work properly. I tried testing sand from various places in Gulu and along the river where they take the sand from, but it was all dirty. If I wash the sand until it’s clean (a very slow process that requires a lot of pumping at the borehole), it drains too quickly. I’m still working on the solution to this sand problem…I’ll let you know how it turns out. :)
Hiring people to do work for me was also daunting at first. The CVI farm often hires people from the community to weed the fields, slash grass, and do other jobs, so I wanted to hire some boys to dig the fish ponds for me. This was back when I had typhoid, so it was all I could do to walk down to the farm and check on them a few times a day. There was no way I could wield a pick ax to dig through 1.5 meters of soil and clay. Initially, I had so many questions…where do I find the boys? How much do I pay them? Should I pay per day or contract? Do I have to provide them tea or lunch? How do I tell them what to do if they don’t speak English? How often do I check on them to make sure they’re working hard? Thankfully, the CVI staff helped me out with negotiating wages and translating and everything else. Now, I feel like I’m an old pro and hire people regularly. For unskilled labor, the going rate in Lukodi is 5000 shillings/day ($1.38). If the manual labor is very difficult (such as digging a hole all day), it increases to 8000/day. If they don’t take lunch but instead bring their own food, you add an extra 2000. The boys who came to dig I’m sure were all under 18…some looked like freshmen in high school or younger (I didn’t hire them for a second day…they weren’t strong enough yet to dig well). In the village, life is hard. Kids often don’t go to school because their families can’t afford the school fees.
Sometimes I make mistakes. This is my first time building an aquaponic system, and I often feel like I have no idea what I’m doing. I have to wait for people to pick my calls and reply to my emails to answer my questions. Sometimes I’ll find a problem and backpedal for days before finding a way forward. For instance, we had the liners, pumps, and plumbing installed, and I thought we were almost finished! But after I sent a picture to an expert in the iAVs system who’s been advising me via email, he replied that the grow bed was too sloped and the drain was too small. So I removed the liner, hired a mason to level the grow beds, and tried to add more drains. It was frustrating to go backwards when I seemed so close to finishing, but I know it’s better to have a quality system built correctly.
In school, I always worked on projects in teams. I miss bouncing ideas off my fellow classmates, discussing problems with them, and having someone double check my work. But the CVI staff have been supportive too. They’ve helped me find materials, catch fish, change water, and dig holes. They’ve taught me how to fix things when you’re lacking tools. There’s no wire strippers? Use your teeth. There’s no drill? Heat a nail in the fire and use it to punch a hole in the jerrycan. The pipe connection is too big? Light a bundle of grass on fire and melt the pipes to fit.
While building an aquaponic system in Uganda is not easy, I still love it. I love learning how Ugandans do construction. I love being outside working on the farm all day. I love solving problems and sourcing materials. It’s taken a long time, but the aquaponic systems are finally coming together. I thank God for His guidance and help all along the way. Since high school, my dream has been to work as an engineer in a developing country. Now that I’ve tried it, I know this is what I want to do for the rest of my life. However, sometimes I wish Staples would come to Uganda and introduce their “EASY” buttons. :)