Inside the home-based aquaponics farm shortlisted for Shell Global’s Innovator Awards

After eight years of research, the father-son duo behind S&R Aquafarms are on the cusp of commercial-scale

Founders of S&R Aquafarm Syazwan (L) and his father Hj Suni (R) at their home-based farm in Tutong.

Syazwan Hj Suni couldn’t believe his luck when S&R Aquafarms was called up not once but twice to the stage at the Shell LiveWIRE Brunei Business Awards last month.

His aquaponics business – set up with his father eight years ago in their backyard in Tutong – had bagged the Most Innovative Enterprise and third place in Sustainable Business.

Aquaponics has an almost intuitive appeal. At heart, it’s a system that rears fish – usually in a tank – whose excrements are collected and pumped into a separate tank where vegetables are grown hydroponically; their roots submerged in water.

The fish waste, containing high concentrations of ammonia, attracts bacteria who feed and convert it into nutritious nitrates, acting as a natural fertilizer for the plants to grow. The plants, in turn, filter the water, returning it fresh to the fish tank. It’s a closed-loop – an all-in-one system. Scientists say aquaponics represent a symbiotic relationship, seen naturally in the ecosystems of lakes and rivers teeming with vegetation and aquatic life.

Installing a man-made aquaponics system that makes commercial sense is another matter altogether. Because set up costs are substantial and specialised knowledge in growing both fish and plants is a must, aquaponics has yet to take off in a meaningful way in Brunei. So Syazwan and his father were in for an even bigger surprise when they received notice last week that they were one of 21 international businesses shortlisted by Shell Global for the LiveWIRE Top Ten Innovators Awards.

“To be recognized alone is a huge achievement for us,” said Syazwan. “We’ve spent countless hours, experimenting, learning trying to make these systems work,” added his father. “When we started in 2011 winning awards wasn’t on our minds. But now are gaining the confidence of being able to set up a commercial aquaponics farm.”

Farming hobbyists for a decade

Syazwan’s late brother, who worked for the Department of Fisheries, was the first to kickstart the family’s exposure to growing produce. He kept a small aquaculture operation in their backyard farming prawns and freshwater fish like tilapia.

The fish were reared in 1,500 litre tanks but their wastewater, which collects at the bottom, had to be discharged daily, and new water pumped in.

Syazwan, who then had just graduated with a degree in tourism management from Curtin University in Australia, decided to pass time by researching uses for the fish wastewater.

“The amount of water going to waste was huge, about 10% to 20% (of the total tank) daily,” said the 30-year-old, who works a full-time at the Brunei International Air Cargo Centre. “Eventually, I found that the water could be used to grow vegetables, and borrowed one of the fish tanks and paired it with a grow bed to plant cherry tomatoes.”

Hj Suni, an oil and gas executive who describes himself as naturally curious, was always keen to support his sons, even when the returns from their farming ventures weren’t immediate.

The first tiered aquaponic system built by S&R Aquafarms. Syazwan also builds and consults for those looking to get into aquaponics.

“We’re not getting rich off it, and it’s been eight years,” he says jokingly, estimating that they’ve spent more than $10,000 since starting. “But when you know something is important – as is food security for Brunei – and you have the passion, you just do it, even though the rewards are not immediate.”

Their initial aquaponics system in their backyard was 20×22 feet growing mostly lettuce, tomatoes, lettuce, chilies and gourds.

The experiments continued; wanting to keep his farm chemical and pesticide-free, Syazwan began planting companion crops that would keep pests away from his main produce as well as using a natural, antibacterial oil pressed from the Neem fruit. Shortages in micronutrients such as iron, potassium and calcium for the plants were identified and supplemented.

Five years later he would add another system, about 10 feet larger, infront of his house to be able to plant more than 1,000 sprouts altogether.

Finding a niche

With a relatively small setup, Syazwan needed to find more high yielding, high value crops that had yet to be supplied by traditional farming methods in Brunei.

“After looking at what restaurants and cafes were using I realized that herbs were the answer,” he said. “So we began planting oregano, dill but it was basil (sweet and purple raffle) and different kinds of mints that we had the most success cultivating and were the most demanded.”

Basil and mint varities fetch $30 to $50 a kilogramme, and on months without too much rain, he could yield close to 20kg of each variety, supplied directly to eateries including Keoja Hotel, Bello, Verve and CoCo cafe.

A $40,000 greenhouse

By taking business courses under Shell’s LiveWIRE programme recently, Syazwan had to map out more strategically what steps he needed to make S&R Aquafarms finally turn commercial.

He admits that his output fluctuates too much, which he identifies as being largely due to rainy weather, which causes downy mildew, a fungus infection caused by prolonged leaf wetness.

Both setups at his house are covered only with a mesh to control the effect of sunlight, but they do not offer much protection from rain. Syazwan has been trialing planting in a mini-greenhouse, and believes constructing a full-sized version holds to key to taking their output to a higher, more consistent level.

“We have a plot of land nearby (in Penanjong) where we can develop (a greenhouse),” said Hj Suni. “We need this to be able to have the quantity to be able to supply to the public through markets and shops, instead of being limited to just eateries. The market is there – Brunei still imports these herbs from countries like Australia. If we produce it, Bruneians can get it fresher and the (carbon) footprint of having to send those crops here will be saved.”

Syazwan says clearing land and building 40×100 feet greenhouse with an aquaponics system will cost $40,000. Once operational it will be able to house over 10,000 plants – and if sustained – will be the only active commercial-scale aquaponics operation in the Sultanate.

“We’re currently looking into ways now to finance (the new farm),” said the 30-year-old. “What I’m proud of is that we did not give up. After all the challenges, all the research put in, we can see that there is a path forward towards commercial sustainability.”

The final top 10 for the Innovators Award will be decided by public vote. To vote for S&R Aquafarms click here.