Aquaponic Gardens Come to Castlemont

Engineer helps Castlemont students turn a shooting range into a high-tech garden.


Eric Maundu teaches Castlemont students about aquaponics.

Rick Saez

Eric Maundu is too busy to feed his fish.

At his workshop at American Steel Studios, the engineer-turned-gardener teaches classes on building aquaponic gardens, self-contained systems in which aquariums full of fish nourish plants with their waste. He makes and sells aquaponics kits for home and educational use. And once a week, he bikes to Castlemont High School to help disadvantaged students turn an old shooting range into a high-tech garden.

Like a cobbler whose children go barefoot, Maundu found himself neglecting his own aquaponic garden.

Then he realized something: “I have a powerful computer in my pocket all the time.”

He rigged his fish tank/garden with an automatic fish feeder and sensors that ping his smartphone if there’s a problem, and then connected it to Twitter.

“My computer feeds my fish,” he said. And the fish feed him, producing more salad than he can eat most days.

It’s the perfect metaphor for Maundu’s life at the intersection of farming and technology. Born to a family that had struggled for generations to raise crops in arid eastern Kenya, he came to Silicon Valley for a more comfortable life as a software engineer.

But he found himself studying his family’s land back home via Google Maps. He designed low-water gardens on his computer in San Leandro, then flew back to Kenya to build them. When he returned to the Bay Area, he started his aquaponics company, Kijani Grows; kijani means “green” in Swahili. It’s a for-profit company, but Maundu has never limited his goals to revenue.

“The impact of being able to grow food in the desert changed my life,” he said. “I started noticing a lot of similarities between places like Oakland and Kenya.”

Maundu, who grew up on the tough streets of Nairobi, feels a strong bond with the kids at Castlemont. “A lot of these kids have nothing they can do,” he said. “I started without any hope like them, and then mathematics changed my life.”

Maundu taught his students to design gardens on computers. Together they cleared barrel after barrel of old ROTC uniforms and other junk out of a disused shooting range. Now traditional garden beds are ready to plant outside, and aquaponic gardens stand ready inside the firing range—just waiting for the necessary funding to put in grow lights. The range will also hold a fab lab, where students will use high-tech machines to create gardens for other schools and the wider East Oakland community.

What they will do with their gardens is up to the kids, Maundu said.

“We were talking about growing vegetables, things for the farmers market” that takes place each week on campus, said senior Patrice Cunningham, 18, during a long after-school work session.

Maundu looks forward to seeing food spring forth in this desert, too.

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