Something fishy in new Nepal farm


Grow vegetables faster, cleaner and with less water than conventional farming — it all sounds very fishy. And it is. Aquaponics combines rearing fish in tanks with hydroponics, which grows plants in water only.

Aquaponics works like this: fish poop and leftover bits of food in a fish tank are pumped into the plant-growing area, where bacteria convert them into nitrites, then into nitrates. The nitrates are absorbed by the plants as food and the water is recycled to the fish tank. 

“Aquaponics is the best way to save water and the environment because the same water is continuously circulated throughout the system,” says Bill Ashwell, CEO of Hope Nepal Bioponic Food and Aquaponic System. “Open farming consumes 10 more times water, yet aquaponics is more productive.”

Ashwell came to Nepal for the first time in 1993 to trek, and fell in love with the mountains and people. Since then he has returned many times to help with water projects. He sold his business in South Africa in 2005 and moved to Nepal with his wife Janet in 2005 to pursue his interest in Aquaponics.

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“I felt that setting up a business would be the most sustainable way to stay long-term and help Nepalis by demonstrating new technologies and creating employment.” HOPE Nepal Bioponic Food also serves as a training centre and demonstration farm showcasing the technology as it grows tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, strawberries and more. 

“In open farming you would probably need about six weeks for a lettuce plant to mature but with aquaponics it’s half of that. It grows faster because it is raised in a protected environment in a greenhouse, where you can control climate conditions, and also because the plant gets all its nutrition requirements from the fish,” says Ashwell. 

Adopting aquaponics would help Nepal to improve agricultural productivity and reverse its growing reliance on food imports, and it could provide food security during natural disasters like floods. But the system has particular challenges: the farmer has to know something about fish farming, plumbing and chemistry, as well as agriculture. Also, the start-up phase is challenging.

“People do have a strong desire to do this but they don’t know how to start and from where to start, and they don’t have time to learn all these skills,” says Ashwell, who believes nevertheless that the potential gains outweigh the losses. Because fish would suffer if pesticides or other chemicals were used in growing, aquaponics uses neither, making it one of the healthiest ways to produce food.

A system can be built in a heated greenhouse, at home on a rooftop, in a backyard or even indoors if proper lighting is available. “Nepal has a lot of opportunities and in order to embrace those one needs to have vision, good management and good practices,” says Ashwell.

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Karma Gurung apprenticed at Hope Nepal for three years. His vision is to install an aquaponic system on every rooftop of every house in the capital. “Kathmandu needs this system — there is a lack of water and people are compelled to eat vegetables grown with pesticides and chemicals,” he says. “Aquaponics would also be ideal in more remote parts of Nepal where water is even scarcer.”  

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