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Why I breed and sell these creepy worms

Dr. Freddie Acosta worms at his house at Airport View Estate. ON 10/04/2017 PHOTO; JENIPHER WACHIE

What makes a hobby when you are 40 and looking for an economy-positive activity to pour all your passion into?

“My childhood memories led me to agriculture,” Dr Freddie Acosta of Strathmore Business School says. That was his choice.

Four years ago the lecturer, originally from Manila in Philippines, set forth to operate an integrated farm that would function at optimum levels.

Acosta’s farm can be described, in one word, as a micro-ecosystem. The evidence is visible at his backyard, extending into the front yard, of his single-storeyed maisonette.

“I started with a small backyard farm,” he says. “I bought two rabbits: a male and a female.”

Acosta constructed a hatch with several levels of wire-meshed bases.

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“The rabbit’s droppings and urine all end below the hatch – on the ground,” he says.

He then bought 1kg of earthworms from Jomo Kenyatta University of Science and Technology (JKUAT) and started a vermiculture farm right below the hatch.

The waste from the rabbits, he says, needed to be utilised. Introducing earthworms – excellent consumers of rabbit poop – into the ecosystem was hence inevitable. The worms would in turn produce enriched organic fertiliser which Acosta would either sell or use to grow his own plants. He did exactly that.

“Look at these,” he says, pointing at a vertical farm straddling the walls of his backyard. “I don’t use inorganic fertilisers to grow such healthy crops. I mix soil with the vermicus produced by the earthworms. These give the plants every nutrient they need.”

When he is not applying vermicus directly to the soil Acosta mixes 5kg of the organic fertiliser with molasses and good bacteria (which he buys from a Japanese company) then stirs to create a “highly enriched liquid fertiliser” which he sprays on his plants.

Acosta has been meticulous at making sure that the fertiliser produced by the earthworms is rich with the three basic nutrients that plants need to grow: nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium.

He says: “The earthworms feed on rabbit waste. However, knowing that the fertiliser the earthworm produces is based on what you give it, I introduce organic waste from my kitchen – bread crumbs, vegetable cuttings, ugali – into their environment.”

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Earthworms are hermaphrodites. When two mate both of them reproduce. At every generation earthworm population doubles.

“They are pretty prolific,” Acosta says; a fact that he can afford to laugh at. “If you don’t have ready buyers they may end up just dying: the worms have a lifespan of between 12 and 18 months.”

But Acosta’s aim was not to rear an earthworm for it to just die and exit the ecosystem. And so, he introduced a predator into the ecosystem.

“I brought in catfish – a carnivorous type of fish – to feed on the earthworms as they continued to reproduce.”

He improvised the pond – currying 10 cat fishes. Instead of digging the pond – work that needs more energy and engineering logistics – he erected a vertical wall from the ground and surrounded it with impervious polythene.

“I wanted to use readily available material to achieve the same results. It was very a­ ordable to get the work done,”?Acosta says.

The catfish in his pond feed on earthworms and water plants like Azola and dark weed. He regularly harvests earthworms and feeds them to the fish.

“When the fish reach maturity it ends in my plate. Or maybe I will sell. Fish is a very healthy protein for human consumption.

Plus, I am confident of my fish’s nutritional value: it is 100 per cent organic,” he says.

Acosta?replaces the pond water every so often. The water, rich with algae and nutrients from fish waste, irrigates the plants growing all over his home – on walls, in cans, from the soil.

“The plants I have in the backyard, and front yard, serve two purposes: they provide food for human consumption and also for the rabbits.”

At this point the cycle is complete. “Nothing goes to waste,” he says. Freddie is against use of chemicals in agriculture. He is an advocate of organic farming. “Nature, on its own, is able to regulate nutrient flow in a functioning ecosystem. Chemicals, in most cases, destabilise a natural ecosystem. Chemicals have also been found to cause illnesses in human beings.”

What started as a hobby for?Acosta has turned out to be an integrated model of farming that the father of seven uses to teach his students as well as visitors on a mission to understand the concept with the intention to replicate it into large scale.

“A lot of the money I am making from this farm is from consulting for prospective farmers. “I teach technology and innovation at Strathmore. This farm is a key part of innovations in agribusiness,”? Acosta says. Practically, he needs to intrws backyard.

The farm can survive just by recycling the waste the household generate. However, ones in a while, he will buy food pellets for the rabbits, “just to diversify a little their source of nutrition.” The backyard farm, in spite of its size, earns?Acosta money.

“I sell one kilo of earthworms at Sh2,500. A kilo of vermicus goes for Sh50. I sell rabbit meat at Sh600 per Kg,” he says.

Visitors pay him Sh1,000 to have a close look of the farm. Students – those who want to learn from his wisdom – have to part with Sh5,000. Not forgetting that he too derives his food from the farm.

“Rabbit meat is among the best white meats in the world. It has near zero fat content and it is very nutritious. I am happy knowing that the rabbit I eat has been bread in an organic ecosystem,” ?Acosta says.

Since he recycles every waste back into the ecosystem, one would expect a putrid smell around his home.

However, the air within the home compound is among the freshest in a city that is chocking with industry smoke and fumes from motor vehicles. Even his neighbours cannot smell the millions sitting at his backyard.

“This system is presided over by good natural bacteria. There is a balance in oxygen and carbon dioxide levels because the plants act as carbon sinks.”

The ‘hobby’ has proved successful.

?Acosta has since bought about a quarter of an acre in Kitengela where he wants to replicate the system so that he can utilise its potential to create wealth.

In his opinion, if every Kenyan created an integrated system like his, there would be plenty of food – with minimum production costs – to feed all Kenyans and even beyond.

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For instance, he says, earthworms alone would easily make someone a millionaire. One kilogram produces 2kg in a month. These increase exponentially – 4, 8, 32, 64, 128, 256, 512, 1024 then 2048 by the time 12 months are over.

“Within a year, for a farmer who started with just 1Kg of earthworm, they could make Sh5, 120,000 because each every Kg of earthworm is worth Sh2500,” Freddie says.

The amount of revenue a farmer generates from an integrated ecosystem would vary depending on their skill and dedication, he adds.

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