Urban Farming, Kijani Grows, Aquaponics, fish, plants, symbiosis, biomimicry, American Steel, West Oakland, oxygen, environment, environmental science, education, schools, interviews

Inhabitat: So tell me about your work here at American Steel Studios.

ERIC: I build gardens like these. This is the smallest one I’ve ever done with an aquarium on the bottom and a garden on top.

Pretty much you can use chicken poo or cow poo or any kind of waste to grow food. I used fish waste. I have rocks on top and I culture bacteria, which is what breaks down the fish waste and it turns it into plant nutrients. The plants take it, and then the water goes back to the fish when it is clean. It is a symbiotic relationship between the fish, the bacteria, and the plants with one helping one another. My only input is my food to my fish.

Inhabitat: What else can you tell me about your small gardens?

ERIC: This is the smallest garden I’ve ever built, [they] are actually going to be kits for schools. The idea is I’ll cut them all with CNC cutters, so kids will actually assemble them. I’m running a five-day program called “one school one garden” in the South of Market Street in San Francisco in about three weeks or so.

Each kid, basically, gets a wooden kit that I put together, and they do everything. In the five-day program: the first day I like to explain it doing computer editor design, so I sketch art, talk about design and actually design the gardens out of pieces. Then the next day, we put the garden together and start developing the biology and the chemistry. The third day, they actually build Bluetooth controlled electronic kits. I can build one of these from scratch and the kids can assemble them.

Inhabitat: How old are these kids?

ERIC: These are like preteens. I’ve had even really young kids before actually, about five or six. I just simplify the kits a little bit while I do all the complicated stuff and then show them what they need to do. But on the third day they will actually build the electronics from scratch. The fourth day they will actually do all the programming. And then on the fifth day it’s sort of an option day; it might be more programming or more software or more hardware. But the whole idea is, even though I do gardening, I focus more on just software and electronics.

Urban Farming, Kijani Grows, Aquaponics, fish, plants, symbiosis, biomimicry, American Steel, West Oakland, oxygen, environment, environmental science, education, schools, interviews

Inhabitat: Tell me more about your electronics?

ERIC: These are Linux computers and what I do is put sensors inside the growbed. This one has magnets that spin and when the water flows, I can actually see how fast it is going. Basically I can have a bunch of other sensors that tell me [things] like when the water is full or not. I also have infrared beams that actually shoot inside the soil and I can tell the level of the water, when there are leaks, and get all the data out on the Internet. I get animations like these. The whole idea is I build these gardens that are computer controlled.

Inhabitat: Oh, so you’re building Rasberry Pi type stuff?

ERIC: No, Raspberry Pi is actually a toy.

Inhabitat: Haha

ERIC: I’m building from scratch. The Raspberry Pi is designed so that people who don’t know how to program can learn how to program. This is my own custom build sensor. So I have an infrared beam, I shoot a light on the water and it bounces back so I can tell at any one time what the water level is. Then [I turn] these into full-blown internet computers. Basically, instead of a keyboard I put in these sensors, and instead of a monitor I put in a LED switch.

I can talk to it and see what it is doing because I’m turning things on and off. It is also connected to the Internet, so as soon as you get one it will automatically show up on a map based on where you are. I’m hoping one day, in a very short while I will actually have many of them coming all over the world.

Urban Farming, Kijani Grows, Aquaponics, fish, plants, symbiosis, biomimicry, American Steel, West Oakland, oxygen, environment, environmental science, education, schools, interviews

Inhabitat: Where do you have gardens already set up?

ERIC: The first one is actually a garden I have in Guatemala right now, and I have one in Castlemont High School with a computer too.

What I actually wanted to show you was how the gardens work. If I click on one of the gardens it could show me exactly where the water is. I can actually tell when the water starts flowing [and] how fast it is going. The whole idea is I have all these sensors in the garden and I can animate and visualize them.

This is a different garden I have working in San Mateo, so you see the blue shows me that [it] is draining. This one is actually one of the big gardens I have. These small ones are two by four feet while this is four by eight feet. So this is actually [a] 600-gallon fish tank that somebody has in San Mateo. It’s actually a really old couple that [has] this garden, but I monitor and control it for them from here.

Urban Farming, Kijani Grows, Aquaponics, fish, plants, symbiosis, biomimicry, American Steel, West Oakland, oxygen, environment, environmental science, education, schools, interviews

Inhabitat: What can your sensors tell you about your gardens right now?

ERIC: There are things I can do with the cameras and sensors together. Every 10 seconds I’m taking a snapshot of my sensors so that it creates a curve. I just caught an oxygen problem just by looking at this. It only happens at a certain time at night, when my plants are a certain size, and when the temperature is a certain [degree] during summer.

It’s a problem that lot of fish die at night in rivers and ponds and I’ve actually been able to recreate that environment in my garden. […] I [can] understand these broad kill problems, where fish are dying because I was able to recreate the same problems in nature. The next step here is can I get solutions for them?

I actually use the garden project to help me build this “Internet of Things.” One application of it is gardening, but I could very easily take my sensor array and put it into a river or a lake or other places that I can really start telling people okay we’ve seen this happening over and over again. This means your fish are about to die or the plants need more water. How do we use everything for more than just small garden projects is what I’m trying to build up.

Urban Farming, Kijani Grows, Aquaponics, fish, plants, symbiosis, biomimicry, American Steel, West Oakland, oxygen, environment, environmental science, education, schools, interviews

Inhabitat: Right now you are scaling up and then you are planning to sell these?

ERIC: I’m looking to [build] gardens I can sell for $50. […] But what it really allows me to do is get all the software working, because the software does not matter if the garden is big or small. It [also] allows me to make more because they will all be coming from Computer Numerical Control cutters […] I just get the boxes, cut them up with a CNC cutter. So you would just go on the Internet, choose I want this cut, and then you basically have it.

Inhabitat: What made you decide to grow your garden in a warehouse?

ERIC: Honestly I fell in love with the artwork, at the very least that was my first introduction to American Steel. The real reason I moved here was also because I’m out of the prototyping stage so I need to get into production.

I have this thing because when I started my gardens I started in Kenya. I come from a very dry place, from almost a desert, so everybody thinks you can’t grow food there. I was actually able to get some really good alternative farming methods like this.

When I came here, I noticed Oakland was a lot like Kenya in the sense it is hard to grow food. One of my biggest pushes is trying to grow food where people can’t. I think I can actually have a productive farm inside American Steel. We’ll actually be building a big farm in front of my office on top of the concrete because I think I can do it anywhere. It fits in my model of people shouldn’t go hungry because they don’t have a place to grow food. It’s possible to grow food anywhere.

This is one of the most industrial places you can come to. There is no soil and even if there is, it probably is contaminated with things that have been on the ground between all this metal and paint stuff. Not the kind of place you would expect. But I think for me, it’s the ideal environment, because as each day goes by there’s less and less places in the world where you can grow food.

Urban Farming, Kijani Grows, Aquaponics, fish, plants, symbiosis, biomimicry, American Steel, West Oakland, oxygen, environment, environmental science, education, schools, interviews

Inhabitat: What’s your background in farming?

ERIC: I grew up [on] farms. My grandparents were farmers, my parents were farmers, and in Kenya I just spent a lot of time [in] farms. What it taught me when I was very young was I wanted to do nothing with farming and that’s how I started computer engineering, electronics, and computer science because I wanted to do nothing with farming.

Inhabitat: What made you decide you wanted to get back into farming?

ERIC: Just global hunger. As I grew up I just learned more about problems, especially problems in places like Africa. […] I come from a really dry place, I realized that technology could change farming. I could grow plants without necessarily having to farm in the traditional method.

Where I come from, it does not rain in Kenya a lot, and the soil is really crappy. The country I come from is more than 80 percent desert. So when I learned about things like hydroponics and aquaponics, I realized that these technologies can actually [let you] grow food where people cannot.

The first time I made it happen, it was a plant growing in a closet and I was like “oh even plants can grow without soil.” That was my first experience to apply modeling and simulation to recreate things in nature in a non-standard environment.

The other thing is how can I do it so I can use materials and things I can find in a third world country. I understand enough about technology that I can apply it in places like Africa. A lot of my first hydroponic planters [were] based off sand. I told people “hey you have no soil, but guess what you can actually grow food in sand.” You have no water? Okay, here’s a way you can use recycled water.


Urban Farming, Kijani Grows, Aquaponics, fish, plants, symbiosis, biomimicry, American Steel, West Oakland, oxygen, environment, environmental science, education, schools, interviews

Inhabitat: What would you say is the best part of your project?

ERIC: The best part of my project is it’s more than gardening. I’m trying to see if I can understand what’s happening here so I can actually reuse it to solve all the problems in the world.

Even though I’m using this for gardens, I can actually use this [sensor system] for anything. […] [S]ensors that tell me how hot it is today or even if it is windy. […] I can choose to change the color of the LEDs based on the temperature. If the air quality is bad then LEDs could change the color or if it is going to rain tomorrow.

Inhabitat: Are there any other projects you’re working on?

ERIC: I teach some High Schools including Castlemont High School in Oakland. I’m actually converting a shooting range into a commercial green house based on what I’m doing here in a project called “Guns to Gardens.” The High School has a riffle range from the old military programs and I’m converting that into my biggest computer controlled garden.