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Aquaponics for all

#OCBCCares Fund gives a boost to Dr Lim Jia Yang's aquaponics project as he plans to take it to the next level.

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A medical doctor by day and "farmer" by night, Dr Lim was introduced to this method of indoor farming by his medical student.

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Aquaponics has a symbiotic relationship with the fishes in the tank as the waste acts as nutrients for the plants.

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Vertical aquaponics system with a fish tank below can be built if there are space constraints.

REARING fishes but not having to clean the tank - ever.

That sounds like the dream of every fish aficionado, and it is possible with aquaponics.

For the uninitiated, aquaponics is, in the words of enthusiast Lim Jia Yang, "pretty much like hydroponics, just plus the fishes, or any other aquatic animals".

Aquaponics is not a new technology - research shows that this method of farming existed about a thousand years ago - and the interest in growing fishes and plants in an integrated, indoor system has been growing. Riding on the coattail of the increase in popularity of hydroponics, according to Dr Lim, there are currently about 600 people in Singapore in this community on Facebook.

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Aquaponics has a symbiotic relationship with the fishes in the tank as the waste acts as nutrients for the plants and water is re-circulated back into the aquaculture system.

A medical doctor by day and "farmer" by night, Dr Lim was introduced to this method of indoor farming by his medical student, who was a hobbyist.

Dr Lim said: "What attracted me (to aquaponics) was that the system is relatively simple to set up with a small footprint. You can have a vertical aquaponics system with a fish tank below if there are space constraints and grow the crops in your balcony or basement."

Dr Lim said: "Besides saving space, this method of farming saves water too, using 90 per cent less water as compared to traditional farming."

The 33-year-old dabbled in this technology about three years ago via researching online and watching YouTube channels, and said that this setup, however, does have its unique challenges.

"To set up an aquaponics system, knowledge of fishes is a must. For example, you must not over-feed the fishes - which my son did once - as the pH of the water changes when the food rots, and it is better to have fishes that are hardier, such as guppies or goldfishes. You also need to add several nutrients such as calcium and iron in the water as they are not provided by the fish waste."

He added that a lot of the learning also depends on trial and error. For example, although the system is suitable to grow most crops, it is best to stick to leafy vegetables such as lettuce and kale, as compared to fruit plants, as the latter has roots that grow longer and hence clog up the pipes.

"However, this is a very good family bonding exercise. My son does the feeding of the fishes and my daughter watches on. It is an easy setup, more so for people who already have fishes, and the added benefit of growing vegetables organically via an autopilot system is another draw."

Dr Lim is now ready to take his pet project to the next level, as he is one of the recipients of the #OCBCCares Fund.

Launched in 2017, #OCBCCares Fund aims to drive ground-up action and engage the community to take action to protect our environment.

It is the first initiative of its kind to fund, in full, all projects that it backs, and looks to focus each year on no more than a handful of projects and will pay out a total of S$100,000 annually.

Applications are carefully assessed to ensure that they can achieve outcomes that include: The adoption of environmentally responsible behaviour or habits among residents in Singapore; resolution of pressing local environmental sustainability issues and; biodiversity conservation initiatives, including habitat enhancement, habitat restoration and species recovery.

An OCBC spokesperson said: "The MAG Aquaponics project ticks the boxes for the criteria of #OCBCCares Fund. If more households can start their own aquaponics systems, it can help supplement Singapore's plan to have home-grown food, contributing to one third of the country's food needs by 2030."

OCBC Bank Group CEO, Samuel Tsien, said: "In the course of our own environment conservation efforts, we at OCBC have learned that there are many individuals and interest groups who are very passionate about environmental sustainability. They have good ideas of how sustainability can be achieved in Singapore, but lack the funds for implementation.

"We want to play a role in helping them achieve their goals by providing funding to meet their needs. Through this fund, we hope that we can help bring environmental sustainability ideas from conception to fulfilment.

"We also want to encourage community involvement. We need the collective drive of as many members of the public as possible to promote passion and engagement amongst each other to do what is right for the community, for our environment and, most importantly, for our future."

Dr Lim will now implement his aquaponics farming method on a larger scale at the medical alumni complex, which is a clubhouse for doctors and healthcare professionals.

Dr Lim said: "I will be using the fund to build a proper miniature microfarm at the medical alumni complex. The vegetables - and the tilapias in the tank - can be supplied to eateries located there, such as Ka-Soh and Owl Bar. The profit made would go towards funding the operations, such as rent and staff salary."

Expansion on such a great scale does pose its challenges as calculations have to be done, for example, the ratio of fishes to crops grown. Constant checks on the water also have to be conducted to ensure there is no nutrient deficiency that will lead to the compromise of the crop's quality.

Dr Lim said: "I plan to get the whole system up and running by October. It will be a vertical growth tower with a fish tank about the size of the living room of a 4-room apartment unit. Technology will be relied on as the measuring system for pH value and water level for the tank will be linked to a Cloud. We will stagger the harvest, but collect about 150 heads of lettuce weekly for the eateries."

He added that restaurants should start growing their own vegetables and reduce reliance on buying it.

"Since embarking on this journey, I am more aware about the food that we eat and I appreciate the effort that goes into growing organic vegetables. Just remember to not be over-zealous and overfeed the fishes," Dr Lim said with a laugh.

  • This article is part of a series highlighting deserving causes supported by OCBC Bank