A 45-year-old expatriate ex-banker, Faris Farrag was inspired by the 25 January revolution and returned to Egypt to establish his aquaponics farm “Bustan” in his homeland. “We’re trying to address, in our own little way, the inefficiencies of agricultural water use in Egypt,” said Farrag.
Bustan is located in Sheikh Zayed, west Cairo, a few kilometers away from Hyper One. The first thing that came to mind when arriving at the beautiful place was how he managed to farm in the desert, but then he said, “you missed the olive trees. I had to plant olives at the beginning because it’s the only thing the land here would accept.”
The place is so beautiful, surrounded by the urban houses of Sheikh Zayed. The farm consists of several greenhouses full of artisan lettuce, organic herbs, and fish.
Bustan is the first major aquaponics farm in Egypt, a system in which fish reared in tanks exchange water with plants grown nearby. The idea is that the plants clean the water of fish waste such as ammonia, and in return, the fish fertilise the plants. “You feed the fish and the fish feed the plants,” said Farrag, explaining why he does not use any chemicals, unlike other farms.
Farrag continued, saying, “It is a more sustainable system than conventional agriculture. All water is recycled; the entire farm loses about 1,500 cubic metres of water a year—less than that used by one citizen per year.”
Since the laying of ground water was needed to fill the system of the large Nubian sandy basin beneath it, all he is doing now is refilling the amount he hardly loses from leakage and evaporation. Thanks to this water, Bustan manages to harvest 30-35 tonnes of Nile tilapia and about 80 tonnes of green vegetables a year, all in the midst of the desert. “We are the biggest producer of baby leaf in Egypt,” said Farrag.
Water issues in Egypt are complicated, not to mention the problem of arable land obtained by developers or illegal construction workers. In addition to the rapid growth of population, especially since the turbulent period following 2011, Egypt’s limited arable land began to contract as more and more homes were built on what was fertile soil. The Ministry of Agriculture reported 1.3 million cases of illegal land seizures, covering 60,000 acres. Moreover, now we are worried of the consequences of the renaissance dam, which will affect our quota of Nile water.
Nevertheless, aquaponics is a great solution for all the water scarcity issues that we will be facing in the future. The methods used by Bustan produce about 1,000% of crops per square metre of traditional agricultural methods; and because it reuses water, the system can operate almost anywhere, no matter how hard it is.
“Give me the top five lands that are not good for production and I will give you three or five times the production that you will get off that land,” said Farrag.
“When I started, I was the only one. I built everything here from scratch by myself; I bought all the materials from here in Egypt. In fact, Egyptian agricultural tools are very good. I built all of those greenhouses using them,” said Farrag.
“Now, I am not the only one; there is a network and we talk to each other. We’re trying to put more organisation between aquaponics farmers together. We cooperate with each other rather than compete,” he said. While aquaponics was unheard of in Egypt just a decade ago, there are now a number of new businesses opening up and expanding all the time. Farrag, for example, is currently looking for a second site, and is willing to expand and export to Germany, the Netherlands, and the Gulf.