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How to get started with aquaponics


80% of entrepreneurs starting a business fail within the first 18 months (Forbes) – this is a scary statistic for anyone looking to start a new aquaponic venture. In this series we shall cover principles that will increase your success rate and reduce your risk for failure. You don’t have to be part of the 80% that fail!

Invest what you can afford to lose

This statement is profound and can be summarised in two words, ‘start cheap’. In our aquaponic journey, we found that the vast majority of people are taking risks and chasing profits but neglecting the core principles that will ensure the longevity of their venture. Aquaponics is an industry that is riddled with business risks that you need to consider and then reduce.

Consider the following smart ways (“aquaponic hacks”) to start off with:

DIY projects

We shall discuss two of the most popular DIY aquaponic systems, the gravity-based NFT system (made of PVC) and the CHOP aquaponic system.

NFT stands for Nutrient Film Technique. The NFT system is ideal for anyone and everyone on a tight budget. As with most systems, there are a couple of things that you need to consider to optimise your system and increase plant growth:

NFT system should only have exposure to diffused light. This means that you should not leave your system in open sunlight – diffused light will keep your water at a stable temperature and prevent your plants from being damaged. Please read the section on lights and plants as well as the importance of water temperature control.

A NFT system can get you going to experiment with aquaponics. Photo:

PVC sizing is important to avoid blockages in your system

Consider the root systems of your plants. Plants with large tap-root systems are more likely to lead to blockages in your system. On you will find a video guiding you in the process of constructing your own NFT system.

The CHOP (Constant Height One Pump) system is the most popular system among beginners as it is arguably the most efficient way to run an aquaponics system. This system, including it’s variant (Chop #2) is explained in detail by Murray Hallam who leads the industry in promoting commercial aquaponic systems.

The picture below illustrates the typical CHOP system design (image by

The CHOP system was designed by Murray Hallam of Australia.

Aquaponic starter kits

Several companies specialise in developing ready-to-go systems that are perfect for your initial experimenting. These systems range in size and price. If you are not sure where to start, search on Amazon for an aquaponic starter kit for a small investment:

Experiment and adapt

With this mindset, flexibility and adaptability are a competitive advantage. You succeed not by becoming too fixated on a single goal or outcome, but by being responsive to changes in the environment.

By starting small, you could have more than one experiential system, collecting data and analysing performance. The secret is optimisation in your country and climate – what works in Canada will not necessarily work in Africa. Consider light, humidity, legislation and temperatures in setting up your experimental systems.

“Greenhouse design – considering light” is an article that we wrote after we struggled to understand why certain greenhouse designs can only be found in certain climates; we didn’t take climatical differences into account. Understand what you do before you branch out and invest in something new – you might just find your niche in obtaining that in-depth understanding.


“If you don’t have an ecosystem of people you can tap into for support, to help out with, say, finding talent or just making contacts, it’s 20 to 30 times harder to get your business off the ground.” – Bryce Keane, co-founder, 3beards.

It is interesting to note that when looking at aquaponics, we are building an ecosystem, and the same principal should be applied to your business.

Grow an organic network by reaching out to aquaculture farms, plumbers, botanists and any other persons who could add value to your venture and life.

We started our business by reaching out to an aquaponic farm in South Africa, and they influenced some of the business decisions that we have made. They raised concerns and advised us when we needed guidance in our decision making, just like parents who are looking after the best interests of their children. Please support them by visiting their website;


Build an ecosystem with purpose

In this last section, we don’t want to advise you to start with certain plants or species as the purpose behind your system should be the driver here. In this decision, it is also very important to understand what plants will thrive in a mature system versus a new system. Plants that carry fruit tend
to thrive in mature systems (for example tomatoes, cucumbers, and eggplants) where your leafy greens tend to thrive in either one (kale, spinach, lettuce, and herbs) due to the nutritional demand.

Microgreens can also be grown in aquaponics, explains Jeannette Molefe from Kleinskuur Aquaponics.

Let us break the intentions down in more detail:


When your intention is to experiment with a small-scale commercial system, it would be wise to incorporate your envisaged fish and plant species. This will not only allow for comparable data, but it will ensure that you cross certain of the red tape in establishing your venture – in South Africa for an example we have to obtain numerous fish permits to farm with Nile Tilapia. This will make the transition from experiential farming to commercial farming smoother and it will promote informed decisions to be made.


When your intention is to feed your family, in any shape or form, it creates room for easier alternatives. Fish species like goldfish, catfish and koi make for excellent aquaponic fish species as they are hardy and can usually be obtained without the necessary red tape. These fish have different points of attraction – koi for example can be an investment if you invest in an expensive breed with the idea to ultimately sell your fish.


Purposeful design, experiential farming and an investing mindset (“invest what you can afford to lose”) makes for success rate far above the 20% mentioned in the introductory paragraph. Apply the principles discussed above and you will increase your chances of success drastically. Make that profitable aquaponic venture a reality

This article was published on Visit the site for many more interesting articles on sustainable living.

Nile Tilapia is one of the best fish species to farm with commercially, as they are fertile, hardy, and grow fast.

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