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We have a lot of exciting aquaponics projects at work here in Cambodia. We have experimental grow beds at the Tuk Vil farm, where we are testing KEM (Khmer Effective Microorganisms) in sustainable aquaponics systems to see how their presence alters the rate of growth of plants. The grow beds are all identical in their set up: they each have a cement pot of about 40 fish underneath, which feeds water in a circuit that flows from the container up to the bed itself where the seeds are planted in gravel.


Gravel is the first growing medium we used as an alternate for soil. Since gravel does not absorb water, it improves the flow of the system while allowing plants to take in more water for themselves. However, it is expensive to buy and transport gravel, making this option less accessible for villagers who typically live on less than one dollar per day. Since our aquaponics systems are meant to act as interventions for this population, other, more accessible and sustainable mediums became necessary to find. Luckily, we have recently had a breakthrough here at Community First in the discovery of a new growing medium that is locally available in abundant quantities and for almost no cost. It also already exists in all the villages that we are working in. This new growing medium is rice husk.


Rice husk, the exterior to rice, is the outermost layer of the rice paddy grain, and it is separated from the rice husk in the milling process. Cambodia is one of the largest exporters of rice in the world, meaning that this resource is already in the villagers’ hands, quite literally. Once it is dried out it can be used as fertilizer, but also as a growing medium in and of itself. Our own experiments using aquaponics systems with the rice husk instead of gravel have shown that plants grow considerably faster in the rice husk than in either gravel or soil. Rice husk barely absorbs any water, nor does it rot. This means it does not have to be replaced often, and water can filter through the rice husk to the plants’ roots more efficiently. This also means that water does not have to be brought through the system as often, which saves both water and electricity.


We are currently conducting growing experiments at the Community First lab, growing tomatoes and pineapple in the rice husk medium. In just a few weeks, we have watched tomato vines grow several inches; this is a much faster rate than observed in both gravel and soil grow beds. Combined with the KEM that we are currently testing at Tuk Vil, we hope to see great improvements in growing speed and therefore crop yield, by using only all natural enhancing methods. Keep on the lookout for more formal updates about our breakthroughs and findings coming soon!

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Community First’s goal is to create local solutions to the global problems of poverty by connecting changemakers from throughout the world. Meet the students of California State University, Los Angeles (CSULA) and how they’re doing their part in turning the challenges of poverty into academic opportunities and professional achievements.

The project was started in late 2014 as a graduate engineering project in the Mechanical Engineering lab under Professor Sam Landsberger. The objective is to build a self-sustaining one-tank aquaponics system at CSULA. The experience gained on this project will be very valuable to Community First as they develop aquaponics solutions in rural Cambodia.  The formal project kick-off included from left to right: Professor Sam Landsberger, Robert Alvarez, Robert Shalgian, Christopher Carlo, Meenu Singh, Measrainsey Meng (all project members), Thomas Hurst (external advisor) and Victoria Hurst (Donegee Media).

Project kick off at CSULA

The team members are bringing expertise in mechanical engineering, electrical engineering as well as excellent software skills. The system they are building is based on a Constant Height One Pump (CHOP) design using an Intermediary Bulk Container (IBC). Two workstreams are progressing in parallel: The fish tank and grow bed are being assembled with the piping and pump system. The sensors are being sourced, tested and integrated to the Arduino based control system. A solar panel system will later be added to the system.

Team & Arduino Controller

From right to left: Measrainsy Meng, Christopher Carlo, Robert Shalgian, Robert Alvarez, Meenu Singh and external adviser JP Mainguy.

The ability to monitor continuously the state of the aquaponics system is a key objective of this project. The team is integrating sensors to measure the following parameters: Water temperature, water level, water pH, dissolved oxygen, ammonia. The Arduino controller will display the parameters of each sensor and allow a user to monitor easily the status of the aquaponics system (the initial breadboard is shown on the picture).

The Los Angeles Arboretum has expressed interest in this project and we are very excited about building an aquaponics demonstrator for the public. The CSULA team is working with them to duplicate their system in the vegetable garden area of the Arboretum. It will be accessible to the visitors interested in home gardening and aquaponics. Here is the location where the unit will be installed:

Team at LA Arboretum

From right to left: Pierre Mainguy (Community First, President), Richard Schulhof (LA Arboretum, CEO), Robert Alvarez (CSULA), Measrainsey Meng (CSULA), Tim Phillips (LA Arboretum).

This project is scheduled to continue through CSULA winter and spring semesters.

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Introduction to Cambodia’s inland fisheries

The objective of Community First aquaponics project is to provide individual families without resources the means of farming fish sustainably for their own consumption and for sale on the market. Although we intend to develop solutions applicable in any country, it is important to understand the local environment. Here is what we found during our initial investigation in Cambodia.

Cambodian inland fisheries are among the world’s largest and most diverse, accounting for about 12% of the country GDP. The Tonle Sap provides 400,000 tons of fish per year, valued at about $300M [1]. Today, fish and fisheries are central to the life of the country, just as it was in the ancient Khmer empire.

The lower mekong basin provides the ideal environment for fish to grow at an accelerated rate during the rain season. Cambodians celebrate the water festival (Bon Om Teuk) during the full moon of October or November, when the flow of Tonle Sap reverses its course to flow north into the great lake. This marks the beginning of the fishing season. The next three months are crucial as people must catch, preserve and store fish for the dry season. Fish is a major part of the Cambodian diet with an average consumption of about 2kg per person per month representing about 6,300 riels per person per month. However the catch fluctuates with the seasons. The catch of the Tonle Sap dai fishery in 2003/2004 was about half of that in 2002/2003, so the price of the most common fish, trey riel, rose more than threefold.

At the beginning of the rain season, when the fish swim upstream into the flooded plain of central Cambodia, they naturally settle in the rice fields. In addition to fish, these fields are home to a large number of other animal species such as crabs, shrimps, clams, snails and insects. Traditional rice farming incorporates fish in their production.

Rice fields occupy about 23,000 km2 in Cambodia, 83% of which is rained wet-season lowland rice, allowing settled agriculture because blue-green algae grow in the flooded paddies and fix atmospheric nitrogen, which then becomes available as nutrient for the rice: thus repeated cropping doesn’t rapidly depletes the soil of this primary nutrient. Fish and other aquatic animals contribute to the fertilization of the fields: they remain in small ponds in the dry season, spawn during the rainy season and fry or larvae colonize adjacent paddies. Brood stock were traditionally maintained by farmers (Heckman, 1979). Fish fry are also carried into rice fields when they are flooded by or connected to natural river systems.

In rice field fisheries it has been estimated that up to 100 kilos of animal protein are produced per hectare and per year, amounting to about 40% of the value of the rice produced (Guttman, 1999). Systems for rice-fish culture have been developed and rained lowland and irrigated rice ecosystems offer potential for future improvements in yield (Gregory, 1997). However, increased use of fertilizers and pesticides is damaging the environment of rice fisheries. In addition, dykes and floodgates used to control water flows may isolate rice fields from natural waterways, preventing fish colonization and reducing the input of nutrient-rich silt.

Community First - Aquaponics and Fish Farming in Cambodia  - Rice Fields

Fishery production depends on a healthy environment. Today the lower Mekong basin is subjected to a number of stress factors. Catches of the larger species have declined and, as more and more people fish each year with increasingly efficient gear, there are signs of over-fishing of even the smallest species. The rain fed rice fields offer a less favorable environment as it used to due to the combined impact of controlled waterways and usage of fertilizers and pesticides. As Cambodia develops, infrastructure buildup and population growth will impact traditional rice fish farming. Several programs are addressing these issues around the Tonle Sap by Cambodia’s Fisheries Administration (FiA) which intends to establish 1200 Community Fish Refuges (CFRs) in 75% of all communes by 2019 [2], [3].

Women play an important role in inland fisheries and are involved, with other family members in local fishing, processing and marketing. Women dominate marketing of fish products throughout the country. Khay and Hortle (2004) found that 90% of sellers in fish markets in Phnom Penh’s 29 main fish markets are women. Small markets are the primary supplier of fish to cities or towns, providing significant employment opportunities for women in and environment where they can manage their own businesses.

Fresh Water Fish Species:

The lower Mekong basin has a great variety of fish of all sizes. The most common is the trey riel (cirrhinus lobatus, cirrhinus siamensis). Now this small fish represents about 50% of the catch in the Tonle Sap. The smallest fish of all is the rice fish (oryzias mekongensis) which is 2cm or less. There are two types of fish in Cambodian rivers and lakes: White fish need clearer water and although they migrate inland to the flooded plains during the rain season, they swim back with the current to the large rivers at the beginning of the dry season. Black fish on the other hand, can sustain drought an stay on the floodplain. They can tolerate the acidic waters due to the vegetation decomposition.

Black fish used in aquaculture:

  • Striped snakehead (channa striata, trey roh)
  • Giant snakehead (channa micropeltes, trey chhdao)
  • Walking catfish (clarias batrachus, trey andaing)

White fish used in aquaculture:

  • Cat fish (pangasius hypophtalmus, trey chhlang)
  • Red-tailed tinfoil (barbonymus altus, trey kahe)
  • Black spot catfish (pangasius larnaudii, trey pour)

Fish species from abroad have been introduced in Cambodian aquaculture such as the Tilapia (oreochromis niloticus).

Fish fry is produced by 13 government hatcheries which sell in bulk to middlemen for use in aquaculture. Carnivore snakeheads which have a high commercial value must be fed with live fry and it takes 5 kgs of fry to produce 1 kg of fish product. Other fish fed on dried pellets are more affordable to raise since dried fish is commonly available in Cambodia at a very moderate price.

Aquaponics Fish Farming

Rice is not the only crop which can be combined with fish farming. The ancient Khmer traditions of growing vegetables along with fish is still in use today and Community First went to two villages in the suburbs of Phnom Penh to find out. We went to Tompung Boeung where vegetables are grown on floating beds in small lakes which also contain fish ponds delimited by fishing nets. The plants clean the water for the fish which in turn provide the nutrients to the plants, both benefiting from each other. The vegetables and the fish produced are sold to the local markets in Phnom Penh. The picture shows the production of basil in another village called Thnaot Chrum. Vegetable grown in the floating beds we visited were morning glory, water lilies and basil.

Community First - Aquaponics and Fish Farming in Cambodia -FloatingGardens

The village chief told Community First about the floating beds, saying that he and his parents before him had always practiced this culture. He remembered his grandmother telling the kids the legend of old ancestor Ta Pon which used to come to the market with his carrying stick loaded with fish and vegetables from his small pond and garden (Ta Pon means “old carrier” in Khmer). The villagers were surprised to always see him bringing such bounty to the market, while they had to walk long distances and work hard to produce as much. They decided to learn from him and this is how the floating gardens were created. It is likely that the floating gardens have been at the center of the Angkorian economy, providing a balanced diet of vegetable and fish to the large population of the Khmer empire.

Community First - Aquaponics and Fish Farming in Cambodia -VillageChief

Unfortunately, the floating gardens around Phnom Penh are under threat as the city is growing fast. When we visited Tompung Boeung, it was already surrounded by bulldozers and trucks and may disappear within a year or so to make way to a new residential area.

The technique described above is known as aquaponics, where fish and plants are grown in the same symbiotic environment: fish eat food and produce waste (mainly ammonia), which is degraded into nitrates by naturally growing bacteria, which are pumped out of the fish tank into the grow bed plants. The control of this “nitrogen cycle” is made possible by new technologies, now widely available and affordable. Nowadays aquaponics systems can be very compact and are suitable for a single family.

A basic aquaponics system consists of a fish tank, a grow bed with plants, and a water pump. Air pumps and bio/mechanical filtration components as well as sensors and controls ensure the correct balance of water in the system. Community First is working with professor Sam Landsberger and his team from CSU Los Angeles to develop a pilot suitable for use in developing countries.

Community First - Aquaponics and Fish Farming in Cambodia  -CSULAPilot

Aquaponics fish farming is well suited to the needs of rural communities in Cambodia:

  1. Family-size units can be installed at home
  2. It is a complement to other fishing activities, not a replacement
  3. The amount of training required is moderate
  4. The system can be attended by women and other family members
  5. It supplies additional fish for family consumption or for sale
  6. It supplies vegetables for family consumption or for sale
  7. Women can sell fish and vegetables through their existing commercial network
  8. Higher value fish and vegetables can be added to the mix as needed
  9. It provides an additional source of income which is sustainable over time
  10. It promotes all natural farming, without pesticides and fertilizers

Community First has identified aquaponics as one of their lead initiatives to sustainable rural development in Cambodia and elsewhere in the world. Two projects will be completed in Cambodia in 2014: in the Siem Reap Lotus Farm and in Bakong in collaboration with the Apsara Authority.


[1] Hortle et al. An Introduction to Cambodia’s Inland Fisheries, Mekong Development Series No 4, Nov 2004. EFEO-SR 597 MRL, ISSN 1680-4023

[2] TCO – Rice Field Fisheries Enhancement Project http://tcocambodia.org/photo-gallery/rice-field-fisheries-enhancement-project-2012/

[3] WorldFish – Rice Field Fisheries Enhancement Project.http://www.worldfishcenter.org/ongoing-projects/more-fish-cambodias-rice-fields#.U8Dz5Y0kFe4

How you can help


  • $5 will fund a gardener’s seed stock
  • $10 will fund a gardener’s fish stock
  • $750 will help a family start an aquaponic farm which will help them fund medical expenses and reclaim their health


  • If you find this article and our cause interesting, please help us spread the word and further our mission by sharing it with the links below!
  • For more information on Samatoa, check out their website or like them on Facebook.

Get Involved

  • The month of August 2014 marks the beginning of our Aquaponics builds. We have three builds coming up in Siem Reap, one at Samatoa, one at the APSARA Authority, and the final one will be a chinampa style build at Golden Silk.
  • If you have any knowledge of the use of lotus in an aquaponics set-up, chinampa-style aquaponics, or are simply interested in tracking our progress and results, sign up for The Exchange, our nonprofit social networking platform, and share your insight or comments!


Did you know that in Asia, when you join your hands together to greet people, you’re actually mimicking the 

shape of a lotus bud? Lotus has long been a powerful and revered symbol in Cambodia and throughout Asia. This aquatic plant rises above murky waters, and gives rise to the most beautiful flowers. Varying in colors depending on the variety, the sacred lotus (Nelumbo nucifera) is used in a variety of ways: as part of religious rituals, it symbolizes purity and rebirth; and it can also be used in culinary preparation.

But perhaps one of the most unusual features of the sacred flower is that it can be turned into fabric which preserves the many amazing properties of the flower itself. When broken and pulled apart, the stem (rhizome) of the flower reveals a fine and delicate fiber which, when juxtaposed to others, combines together to produce a continuous fiber which can then be woven into fabric.

IMG_0541This ancient craft was most likely practiced throughout Southeast Asia, but it has survived unaltered in Myanmar where the communities living on the floating villages of Lake Inlé have preserved it. Traditionally, this fabric would be dyed in bright orange and its use would be restricted to the highest ranking monks.

Today, this ancient craft helps Southeast Asia’s poorest communities make a living by producing eco-textiles for the world’s high-end fashion. By connecting the world’s poorest with the world’s wealthiest, the lotus flower is empowering villagers.

Samatoa (‘Fair’ in Khmer) founder Mr. Awen Delaval has revived this ancient craft in Cambodia, near the ancient temples of Angkor. Today, the Lotus Farm welcomes tourists from all over the world to learn about this incredible fiber, and how it can help entire communities move out of poverty. Learn more about Samatoa’s work in this interview:

In 2014, Community First and Samatoa will be joining forces to develop and study the virtues of the plant in its aquatic environment, and how it can provide an all-organic and natural water filtration system. Today, you can visit this ancient craft being revived in Siem Reap City at the Lotus Farm by Samatoa, check them out on Facebook!


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