If you’re interested in starting a commercial aquaponics operation, the most important thing you should know is this: one person can easily run 2,500 to 3,000 square feet of aquaponics system, performing all the tasks required: planting, transplanting, harvesting, feeding fish, cleaning and replanting rafts, weed-whacking around the perimeter, performing regular required maintenance, packing and transporting your produce, including delivering to your wholesalers or selling at Farmer’s Markets, in a total of 40 hours a week.
Second: every 230 square metre of aquaponics system requires 370 square metres of a greenhouse (or more) to house it. Anyone who tells you that you can make a full-time living with 55 square metres of aquaponics or a 6-metre by 12-metre greenhouse is pulling your leg.
Having said that, a smaller system like the 55 square metre system just referred to is a great way to get started in commercial aquaponics. With a small, relatively inexpensive system this size, you can do your due diligence and gain experience and confidence while making some money, and without taking too big a risk. As you build your knowledge, experience, and confidence, you can then develop a commercial AP venture that will give you a full-time income, because you have eliminated as much of the uncertainty from the equation as possible.
The point is that when you do take the plunge and invest thousands of hours and tens of thousands of Rands in an aquaponics venture designed to support you and your family, you want to have all your ducks in a row. Starting a commercial AP venture at a small size gets the ducks lined up beautifully, and gives you lots of opportunities to adjust focus and direction as necessary to succeed.
Commercial aquaponics is a business.
To be successful, you need business experience or need to involve someone who has it. Getting all excited and carried away by the newness and coolness of aquaponics does not guarantee success; hard-headed business decisions based on experience and knowledge do.
A lot of aquaponics newcomers who lack business experience see their vegetable growing and fish eating, and believe that’s all that’s necessary: they don’t realize they’re slowly circling the drain. Some of the better-funded ones don’t even realize this until their second or third round of investors, because they’ve still got money in the bank; and they’re sure it will be profitable soon. Because there are no economic models for aquaponics yet, as there are for other businesses, the investors often get taken in by the excitement and hype too, until in the second or third year they realize they’ve funded a business that is set up to lose money and they bail out.
Don’t be in a hurry to throw your money away. All of these failures could have tested out their “great ideas” thoroughly for less than R150 000 in a pilot project, and realized they lost money in the real world.
The critical thing to understand here is the phrase “technology that had not been proven to be profitable”; because all these technologies grew beautiful fish and vegetables, they simply could not turn a profit doing so.
They looked great in the greenhouse, but they looked horrible on paper. The moral of this story? Don’t be a sucker for a good-looking aquaponics system or greenhouse!