A Very Finny Story

Oakland-based startup Back to the Roots debuts a self-sustaining countertop fish-tank farm.


Nikhil Arora and Alex Velez

Chris Duffey

A midnight-blue fish swims back and forth inside a plastic tank. End of story? Not by a long shot. The fish’s natural waste products, upcycled into plant-pots fitted across the tank’s top, fertilize edible plants growing in those pots. Cleaned by the plants, the water returns to the tank.

This is AquaFarm, the latest brainchild of best-buddy entrepreneurs and 2009 UC Berkeley grads Alex Velez and Nikhil Arora. Their startup Back to the Roots began with a sustainable oyster-mushroom farm and grow-your-own-gourmet-mushrooms-in-coffee-grounds kits.

“As we grew our mushroom farm in Oakland, we learned a lot about the whole urban farming space and kept hearing buzz around this new, sustainable way of farming called ‘aquaponics’, ” says Velez, who recently received a Hispanic Heritage and National Football League Award in recognition of his leadership abilities.

Touring the large-scale Milwaukee aquaponics farm Growing Powers last year left the pair “totally inspired and in awe,” Velez remembers. “They have huge tanks with hundreds of tilapia growing incredible amounts of food—all without any soil. That tour was the first time we really understood what aquaponics was and how incredible a farming system it is.”

Aquaponics uses 90 percent less water than traditional farming, can produce up to five times the yields, and requires no chemical additives.

“We started thinking: How can we help everyone else experience this same excitement around connecting to their food in such a sustainable, fun way?” Arora adds. “We started looking around for home-sized aquaponics units, and realized the smallest ones cost hundreds of dollars and were really bulky. We decided to see if we could develop the world’s smallest aquaponics system and bring it into every kitchen and classroom, bringing the science of aquaponics to families across the country.”

They recruited local businesses to help: The bio inputs in AquaFarm kits come from Hayward-based Kordon; the tanks are manufactured by Union City–based Jatco Inc.

“It’s a totally zero-waste, closed-loop ecosystem,” Arora says, “right there on your kitchen counter.”

To get your own AquaFarm ($59.99), visit www.backtotheroots.com.

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