This interview details Aquaponics Iberia, an indoor farming company based in Portugal. The interview is with João Cotter, Founder and CEO of Aquaponics Iberia.
What is the origin story of Aquaponics Iberia?
After some 10 years of doing unsuccessful and successful aquaponics experiments, traveling around the world meeting aquaponics systems and some of the most recognized experts, getting some tasty fresh salads and delicious grilled fish, it allowed to accumulate a considerable amount of knowledge and experience, as well as the motivation to build something truly impactful regarding food innovation and sustainability.
At the beginning of 2013, I started designing the business model and the technical design of the Fish n' Greens project, together with participating in some events and pitch sessions, at a very early stage of the project. But I already believed that a startup would come out of there sooner or later to implement it... During 2015, with the increase of aquaponics consulting activities and organizing aquaponics workshops in Lisbon University, I met my co-founder, Orlando, a very experienced person with recirculating aquaculture systems and aquaponics. We started participating together in some blue economy exhibitions in 2015, organizing training events together and developing some commercial scale aquaponics projects as well as R&D, improving technologies. It was at that moment, in early 2017, that we decided to formalize our activity and create the company, coinciding with our participation in the Climate-KIC acceleration program, important for the company's start-up phase.
What are some of the biggest challenges facing Aquaponics Iberia in the future?
There are huge challenges ahead! Those who dare to break new ground are the ones who face the greatest uncertainties. From the uncertain, good things and bad things can come.
Immediately, we need to secure funding for investment in the first large Fish n' Greens units. By itself, it entails a vast set of challenges, such as expanding the team with highly qualified resources, guaranteeing the best technology for a wide range of areas, complying with a vast tangle of legislation associated with food activity and many others. However, we must not forget that food is one of the most competitive industries and, in order to be successful, we must have fresh food of the highest quality, corresponding to consumer expectations, so we will have to know how to communicate, not being easy within the European Union, where it is still not possible to certify aquaponics vegetables as organic. Added to this is the Iberian prejudice against freshwater fish, even though we are producing extremely tasty, healthy fish rich in omega-3.
What is unique about Aquaponics Iberia compared to competitors?
In addition to some innovations in the Fish n' Greens project, in terms of the interface with local consumers, our technology in the aquaponic production process is the main differentiating factor. Unlike our competitors, we chose to use the balanced closed-loop system (BCLS), while most companies are opting for the decoupled system. BCLS is based in a symbiosis relationship between aquatic animals, microorganisms and plants. While finfish benefit from water quality improvement from nutrient removal by plants, these later use these naturally produced biofertilizers generated by fish. It is a circular biobased economy process, where water is fully recycled through biotic interdependent processes, where pesticides and medication are unable to be used, which deservedly favors organicity in the eyes of the consumer.
BCLS presents problems in the medium/long term, as fish growth, density/biomass and organic matter in circulation increase, also increasing the need for maintenance together with plant productivity problems due to root diseases caused by organic solid waste accumulation. Maintenance requirements increase production costs and production downtimes, eventually leading to a collapse of the productive system.
Companies solve this by running decoupled systems, where the water after being used by the plants does not return to the fish tanks. There’s more waste of water than in BCLS (10% of total volume daily average in decoupled vs. 1.4% in BCLS), but farmers can already manipulate the water used for the plants, treating and fine tuning it with additional fertilizers and using pesticides, since water is not returning to the fish tanks. At first glance, this appears to be a valid solution for the farmer. However, from the sustainability and consumer's point of view, the virtues of aquaponics are lost, as well as the trust that aquaponics can deservedly convey in a BCLS.
Our technological solution adds a new way out by taking aquaponics out of the previously described trapped situation and let the farmer get the best of it: sustainable/organic/productive. We turn BCLS aquaponics into a long term productive and cost-efficient system, while saving even more water. This is accomplished by ultra filtration of solid waste and processing it through an extra loop with aerobic biogesting converting most of it into liquid biofertilizer, which returns to the main loop through automation, according to plants needs. No more root diseases, no more intense maintenance requirements and we get more nutrient stability, better dissolved oxygen levels, better food safety and higher productivity.
How do you measure the impact of your company so far? (Revenue, Employees, Customer Quantity, Production Volume) etc?
The KPIs listed are quite suitable for a future stage of our company, which we hope will be very soon. For the Fish n' Greens project, the main KPIs will be the number of units (cities) installed, number of employees, revenue, number of customers, number of visitors, tons of seafood produced, tons of fresh vegetables produced, and we can also add environmental ones, such as reductions in carbon emissions, water saved per food produced and the reduction of wild fish catches (less overfishing). Just for the first large scale facility, we expect to reach 24 employees, 5M€ revenues per year, 120 tons/year of seafood and 400 tons/year of vegetables production, 590 tons/year carbon sequestration, more than 95% water savings (compared to conventional farming) and reducing almost 500 tons/year in wild fish catches.
Currently, despite not being the main reason for which we created the company, we are accounting for aquaponic systems installed in customers, number of workshops, number of trained people, number of schools with educational aquaponics projects, consultations carried out, implementation of technical improvements and new technologies through our R&D activity.
What have you learned that you wish you knew when you joined or started the company?
During the initial years of the company and even immediately before, we spent so many time preparing papers and meetings with the local Government, in particular the Ministry of Environment and the Ministry of Agriculture in order to change and adopt new legislation that would take in consideration fully closed recirculating aquaculture (aquaponics) and allow it to grow some fish species, like Nile tilapia, which is common in other EU countries, such in our Spanish neighbour. Despite all our effort and lost years, the legislation was republished but our intent was not considered, and Nile tilapia is still considered invasive and forbidden, against all science evidence we presented. We had to select other species and we learned that we cannot consider that we will be able to change the world. We have to work with the tools we have to contribute to its improvement, but it is an illusion, a waste of time and resources to think that alone we will make big global changes. It's like organic certification for aquaponics produce: only when aquaponics farmers are numerous enough and have some representation in the market will they be able to influence the EU to make a fairer transition towards a more sustainable certification food system.
How can people connect with you or learn more about Aquaponics Iberia?
Everyone can find us on Instagram, Facebook, Linkedin, as well as on our websites: www.aquaponicsiberia.com and www.fishngreens.eu
This May (13 and 14th) you can join us face-to-face, in English, for a full weekend dedicated to aquaponics training in our facilities, in Torres Vedras, Portugal (+ info: www.aquaponia.digital).
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