Out of a small section of warehouse space in West Oakland, Eric Maundu is growing a big dream.
He wants to make it possible for almost anyone to grow food in an economical, energy efficient and water saving manner.
Maundu runs Kijani Grows: Urban Garden Systems, a farming technology organization in West Oakland. He sells aquaponics systems as well as involving local teens in his urban agricultural projects. Kijani Grows is a for profit business that started off as a non-profit. “Kijani” is Swahili for the color green.
For years Maundu, a native of Kenya, worked on the probing question of how to farm food in harsh climates where rich soil and water were lacking. He uses aquaponics, a gardening system combining hydroponics (water-based planting) and fish farming. The process takes 90 percent less water than traditional farming. It uses gravel, not soil. It doesn’t attract bugs and produces two types of food – fish and plants.
Maundu, 47, started Kijani Grows out of his home in San Leandro. In 2012, he relocated to Oakland surveying the site under a West Oakland freeway overpass. His green plant beds were a sharp contrast to the surrounding land, which contained contaminated soil. Today, his move to the old American Steel warehouse on 20th Street and Mandela Parkway tackles another problem growing food in places where sunlight is lacking by using LED lighting.
He grows culinary herbs thyme, lavender, leafy parsley, baby beets, root parley and basil. Leafy lettuce like urugula, endive, baby red oak lettuce, mustard greens, butter lettuce, sunflower, jalapeno peppers, and baby carrots also spring from the gravel. The round black fish tank splashes with water from a white plastic pipe onto goldfish, edible blue gill and tilapia
Maundu never wanted to be a farmer. He grew up in an agrarian society in Kenya where he experienced first hand the intense labor associated with growing plants in drought conditions. Given the chance to go to college at Lincoln University, he opted for a degree in electronics and computer science. In 2009, he read research that inspired him to build his first hydroponic system using the technology for food production.
“I came from a place that’s very dry,” he said. “Seeing plants grow without soil completely changed my thinking. Walking around Oakland, it’s a bit like Kenya, dry and arid like a desert. People don’t have jobs. People don’t eat healthy. People feel hopeless in deep poverty. I was trying to address the food problem.”
Very quickly, Maundu realized it would be hard to have a significant business model simply growing food. For one thing, there is no farmland. The land would have to be rented. Utilities would have to be paid. He also needed to hire people. There was no way outside of a non-profit to turn food production into a viable business, he said. So for years, Maundu financially relied on a job in the high tech industry to feed his green growing curiosity.
“On the week I got my green card, I quit my job and went to Kenya,” Maundu said. “I used Google Earth to identify places to build a model farmland. The first gardens I built were piecemeal and tested on a small scale. When I got the chance to be more educated, I was there for five months achieving 20 percent of my project. It changed my life. I realized the things I took for granted like being able to grow food without water was a life-changing event to people who do not have water. It would impact many people’s lives.”
“When I went back to Kenya after not having been there for 10 years, things have changed a lot,” Maundu said. “One of the biggest changes in place was the lack of active adults. Things like HIV have finished up most of them. The generations you have left are orphans, women and grandparents having to take care of so many kids.”
“With very few adults, a lot of my programs were actually in [this] harsh environment, where I came to show how they could grow fresh food with just a little bit of water. To be able to grow fresh food, to be able to grow with fish, to be able to cook with solar where they won’t have to gather firewood, to be able to use the sun to produce clean water so they won’t have to scavenge for food — these are things that changed me,” he said.
“I still walk around Oakland thinking of the symbiotic relationships I discovered in Kenya and relating what I learned to living here,” he added. “Most people here are unable to grow farms successfully, given their busy lifestyles. They work all day and come back late at night, then do it again until Saturday. That’s not the life of a farmer. Farmers need to be next to their plants all the time. Plants are like pets. You have to give them constant care.”
The more he looked into farming the more he saw applications for integrating embedded systems – software using internet systems and mobile. He devised a way to remain connected to his garden without feeling so joined at the hip. A sensor component triggers a tweet when the water is too low or when an abundance of food needs to be harvested.
In October of 2013, Maundu was offered space at an unused rifle shooting range for his Smart Aquaponic garden. Teens at Castlemont High School in East Oakland became his helpers. The project is called Guns2garden. The teens are now growing carrots, lettuce, mustard greens, and raising goldfish along with some edible catfish there.
“They are eating their science experiment, so they can’t forget what they learned,” he jokes. Maundu also teaches a class at American Steel Studio assembling a miniature version of the urban garden system.
“To me, this has become more than just an interesting job. It’s a calling,” he said.