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Social enterprises, as distinct from traditional private or corporate enterprise, aim to deliver products and services that cater to basic human needs. For a social enterprise, the primary motivation is not maximising profit but building social capital; economic growth is therefore only part of a much broader mandate that includes social services such as rehabilitation, education and training, as well as environmental protection. There is growing interest in aquaponics among social enterprises, because it represents an effective tool to help them deliver their mandate. For example, aquaponics can integrate livelihood strategies to secure food and small incomes for landless and poor households. Domestic production of food, access to markets, and the acquisition of skills are invaluable tools for securing the empowerment and emancipation of women in developing countries, and aquaponics can provide the foundation for fair and sustainable socio-economic growth.

Increasing public familiarity with aquaponics has seen a variety of social ventures being set up around the world. In the United States a number of social enterprises have started using aquaponics as part of a growing social movement focusing on using urban agriculture to increase food security and community cohesion. One of the first was Growing Power, which was founded by Will Allen in 1995 with the objective of using urban agriculture as a vehicle for improving food security in central Milwaukee and for the long-term strengthening of its neighbourhoods, and to give inner city youngsters an opportunity to gain life skills by cultivating and marketing organic produce. Growing Power provided facilities or land, guidance in food growing, and overall project maintenance, and the produce was either donated to meal programs and emergency food providers, or sold by the youngsters at local farm shops and farmers’ markets, with the stipulation that one-quarter of the proceeds be returned to the local community.

In 2010 Will Allen was recognized by Time Magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the world, and while Growing Power collapsed in 2017 under mounting debt, the legacy of the enterprise lives on in the form of other social ventures that were inspired to start similar initiatives. One such venture which acknowledges Will Allen’s influence is the Rid-All Green Partnership in Cleveland, Ohio, whose mission is to educate the next generation to not only learn to grow and eat fresh food, but also to operate and grow their own businesses in the food industry, ranging from selling fresh produce and fish to food distributors, to full-fledged processing and packaging of fresh food products.

The urban agriculture movement in the United States has been fuelled by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) Community Food Project (CFP) competitive grant program, which was established in 1996 with the aim of fighting food insecurity through the development of community food projects that promote the self-sufficiency of low-income communities. Since 1996 this program has awarded approximately $90 million in grants. One social enterprise which has benefited from this scheme is Planting Justice which built an aquaponics system on a vacant lot in East Oakland, California, which is run by former prison inmates. Twelve living wage jobs have been created, 2268 kilos of free produce has been given to the community, and the project has put $500,000 in wages and $200,000 in benefits back into the neighbourhood (New Entry Sustainable Farming Project 2018).

Trifecta Ecosystems (formerly Fresh Farm Aquaponics) in Meriden, Connecticut, aims to address urban food security by creating incentives for communities to grow their own food while also raising awareness about sustainable farming through education, workshops, and city projects. The enterprise employs six staff who provide aquaponics systems to organizations for educational purposes, workforce development, therapeutic gardening, and high-quality food production. The aquaponics systems range from commercial scale production facilities to small educational units for use in classrooms. In 2018 the South Central Regional Water Authority awarded a $500,000 grant to facilitate the creation of a series of controlled environment agriculture aquaponics systems, an urban farming technology platform, and workforce training programs aimed at improving food security.

The SchoolGrown social enterprise was set up in 2014 by aquaponics enthusiasts who felt that children weren’t getting enough hands-on experiences growing food and learning about their connection to the world about them. Situated next to the commercial aquaponics operation at Ouroboros Farms, California, the aquaponics ‘classroom’ is run by volunteers and used to provide training. Their main focus, however, is on spreading aquaponics systems to schools and communities around the United States in order to teach sustainable agricultural practices, environmental stewardship and resource conservation, and at the same time produce fresh and local food, thereby building a deeper connection between communities and the food they eat. The LEAF (Living Ecosystem Aquaponic Facility) is a (167 square metre greenhouse with a solar powered aquaponics system that was specifically designed for this purpose. Costing $75,000, which includes salaries for two part-time staff responsible for maintaining the system and harvesting, the greenhouses are funded by a combination of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) vegetable box scheme, local community or business sponsorship, and crowdfunding. Each LEAF is intended to be financially self- sustaining through the generation of revenue from the produce.

The examples above illustrate some of the different business models adopted by aquaponics social enterprises. Whether they will continue to thrive and grow or, like Growing Power, ultimately fail, remains to be seen. An in depth analysis of two aquaponics social enterprises conducted in 2012-13 revealed four distinct factors what were significant to their survival (Laidlaw & Magee 2016). Sweet Water Organics (SWO) began as an urban aquaponics farm in a large, disused, inner city industrial building in Milwaukee in 2008. It was funded primarily by its founders in order to develop creative capacity, employment opportunities and chemical-free, fresh and affordable food for the local community. In 2010 a new organisation, Sweet Water Farms (SWF), was split from SWO, with the idea that they would grow as a mutually supportive, cohesive hybrid organisation, including both a for-profit commercial urban farm (SWO), and a not-for-profit aquaponics ‘academy’ (SWF). SWF managed volunteer operations and hosted training and education programs at the Sweet Water urban farm, while developing programs on a local (Milwaukee and Chicago), regional, national, and international scale. Sweet Water had a loyal following among local restaurateurs and fresh food stores for its lettuce and sprouts produce, and sold its fish to a single wholesaler. However, the hybrid not-for-profit/for-profit enterprise model proved to be challenging, as both sides of the organisation struggled to identify their role in relation to the other. While each side had a different structure relating to their operational character, and although their operations frequently overlapped, their strategic planning and visions sometimes did not. After three years of operation, SWO had still not managed to make a profit, and in 2011 the Milwaukee municipal government awarded a $250,000 loan on condition that 45 jobs would be created by 2014. In October 2012, SWO had 11–13 permanent employees, but was still being sustained through loans financing and equity investment. By June 2013, as loan repayments fell due and the job creation targets were not met, the for-profit arm of Sweet Water went into liquidation, and SWF took over as the primary operator of the Sweet Water urban farm. Currently, SWF operates entirely as an educational and advisory enterprise run by volunteers and a small team of part-time employees, and no longer supplies restaurants with produce (Laidlaw & Magee 2016).

The Centre for Education and Research (CERES) in Melbourne, Australia, opened its aquaponics facility in 2010. The system was designed as a sub-optimised commercial system with the production capacity to support a single wage for the farmer who maintains it. Their wage varies based on how much he/she produces, with the vegetables being sold through the CERES Fair Food organic box delivery service. The scale of the operation does not generate a return that would permit the setting up of a fish-processing facility (Laidlaw & Magee 2016).

Stakeholders at Sweet Water Farms and CERES identified that the principal factor behind their survival was ongoing commitment, in the form of continued support of personnel with technical and business management skills combined with an enduring leadership, and the willingness of the stakeholders to remain involved and prepared to cooperate without strong financial incentives. The second factor was the local political context. While the city of Milwaukee supported Sweet Water both through policy initiatives and direct financial aid, which allowed it to expand its fixed assets and human resources, build market awareness and acquire a sizeable regular commercial customer base, the CERES project had little such support, beyond an initial grant, and it had struggled to generate revenue which would have allowed it to expand. Costs of compliance and licensing also made it difficult to engage with local markets in more than a token way, which dampened its motivation to market and sell the produce, and made it untenable for the operation to develop beyond a small part-time income generating enterprise. The third factor was the availability of markets for urban aquaponics produce. While the urban aquaponics is attractive to a customer base that is increasingly responsive to issues of food security and ethical consumption, such as in Milwaukee, this was not the case in Melbourne. The final factor was diversification. Both CERES and SWO/SWF benefitted from translating social and technical experimentation into a range of training and educational services. SWO/SWF, being a larger concern, obviously had greater capacity for developing these services, and these proved vital in sustaining the social enterprise when commercial plans failed to materialise. The viability of aquaponics social enterprises therefore depends not only on stakeholder commitment, thorough market analysis, clear governance structures and a robust business plan, but also on external factors, such as the local political context and regulations (Laidlaw & Magee 2016).

Copyright © Partners of the [email protected] Project. [email protected] is an Erasmus+ Strategic Partnership in Higher Education (2017-2020) led by the University of Greenwich, in collaboration with the Zurich University of Applied Sciences (Switzerland), the Technical University of Madrid (Spain), the University of Ljubljana and the Biotechnical Centre Naklo (Slovenia).

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