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Sac State grad works on resource shortage solutions


In the media: "Sacramento State graduate's aquaponics project as water-efficient farming alternative in drought," CBS 13

Related story: "STORC is a showcase for water conservation"

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Nelson Mmbando is a Sacramento State graduate on a mission to turn his senior thesis into a workable process for fighting water and food shortages in his home country, Tanzania.

Mmbando came to the United States seven years ago as an international student. He completed course work at Sierra College, worked for two more years to earn enough to study Environmental Science at Sac State, and earned his bachelor’s degree last spring. His senior thesis experiment was so promising that he is still working with faculty on the project.

The project is a large-scale aquaponics system, using recycled water flowing from an expanded A-Frame Deep Water Culture Column (ADWCC) prototype that he designed. The modest operation can produce approximately 120 heads of lettuce every six weeks.  The system won praise in the California State University’s annual This Way to Sustainability contest, and Mmbando was presented a Greenie Award at Chico State last March.

The initial A-frame structure that he built in a dog run beside his house cost him $120 and became the prototype for a larger A-frame footprint for his second version, outlined in a video that details the efficacy of aquaponics in producing a slew of produce and fish for a fraction of the water required for conventional farming.

That process should resonate in California and other places experiencing record drought conditions. “Using recycled water makes far more sense than pouring that resource into the ground that we’ll never get back,” he says.

Mmbando’s process generally takes five weeks from planting to harvest. “The plants go crazy,” he says. “Lettuce, basil, oregano, kale, tomatoes and several species of fish.” The potential yield in 12 months runs into the thousands at very little cost. (See his third video.)

The commercial and conservation implications are enormous for Mmbando’s homeland, which is plagued by chronic water and food shortages. That’s why he, his wife and young daughter will take a year off and return to Tanzania to create a commercially viable project to help alleviate those shortages.

He now has an aquaculture and organic farming company registered in Tanzania, UniTan Aquafarms, which stands for United States and Tanzania Aquafarms, since all the experiments started here. But his interest is to make sure both nations benefit from this fledgling enterprise. “Although not a new technology, it’s fairly new compared to traditional farming but shows a great potential of coping with exponential population growth,” he says.

Mmbando is passionate about implementing his aquaponics plan in Tanzania. “I’ve got 20 acres of land in an urban location,” he says. His timeline depends on raising the funds to make this happen. He’s currently looking for potential investors to get his organization off the ground.

UniTan Aquafarms’ focus is on eradicating hunger and improving access to food in remote areas, where access to natural resources such as water is very limited. Tanzania gets a substantial amount of sun, but its infrastructure is very poorly developed. Aquaponics will benefit the locals by reducing the need to transport food, since everything will be locally grown.

His goal is to show people here and abroad that his aquaponics process is not only economically and environmentally advantageous, but one that they can undertake on their own with a little help and guidance.

“I want to give back,” he says. “This is the future, not a hobby; it’s a cause for me because I believe that if you want something bad enough, you can succeed.”

He plans to come back to Sac State in 2016 to earn his master’s degree in environmental engineering. He believes that degree will enable him to be even more persuasive in spreading the aquaponics gospel both here and abroad.

Sac State environmental studies Professor Dudley Burton, who introduced this concept to Mmbando during a trip to Tanzania last summer, is a believer as well. “Nelson took the initiative to design and build his own,” Burton says. “I appreciate his independence and enthusiasm. He now has a foundation to do great things in Africa as well as here.”

For media assistance, contact Sacramento State’s Public Affairs office at (916) 278-6156. – Alan Miller