From farming to fish, a local engineer looks to foster micro entrepreneurship in Central America

From gang violence to pervasive poverty, there's a wide range of problems in the Central American farming community where Canton resident Don Leach does charity work. But many health issues in those communities are traceable to a single factor: the local diet of corn, beans and little else.

"It really begins to strike you that this diet can't be the healthiest in the world," Leach says. "We began to notice stunted growth in the children. We talked with the doctors at the clinic and began to realize that many of them are anemic. They're full of parasites. A lot of that is because of the rural farm living and the inability to have good, nutritious food."

So Leach's daughter Michelle, also a Canton resident, applied her engineering expertise to creating an inexpensive solution. Michelle earned her Ph.D. in biomedical engineering from the University of Michigan in 2013, after which she did post-doctoral work in the University Hospital's plastic surgery department.

"I was working on million-dollar devices that were only ever going to benefit a couple of millionaires," she says. "It wasn't the level of impact I was looking to have on the world."

So Michelle doubled down on her work with her dad's nonprofit, Bridging International Communities (BIC). She's traveled to Central America more than 10 times over the past five years to work on a variety of projects through BIC. She says the poor diet in the community she works with is partly due to the fact that for many locals, farming corn and beans is "what you've always done, it's what your parents did and nobody knows how to do anything else."

"Part of [the solution] is teaching people to grow other things, but there's also a huge land shortage here and a water shortage," she says.

Michelle decided to address the latter issue by designing a cheap, simple and efficient aquaponics system –a self-contained agricultural system that combines growing plants with raising fish. Michelle describes the resulting system, dubbed Oasis Aquaponics, as "a big inflatable doughnut with fish in the middle and grow beds sitting on top." A solar-powered pump moves water and fish waste from the central fish tank into the outer ring of the system. There, bacteria growing on a biofilter break the fish waste down into fertilizing nitrates that permeate a gravel grow bed. The plants in the grow bed help to purify the water and it is circulated back into the fish tank. The system measures eight feet wide by four feet high.

"It's very small and you can plant plants a lot denser inside a system than you could in normal dirt because it's constantly replenishing the nutrients," Michelle says. "You don't get the depletion zone that you get when you plant in dirt."

The system is made out of the same PVC plastic as most pool toys, and as a result it will have a relatively low retail price of $100. But it took Michelle a few prototypes to hit upon the current design. Michelle worked with Jackie Hernandez Giron, a local agricultural engineering student whom BIC had sponsored to go to college, throughout the prototyping process. Early designs were fashioned out of plastic barrels, and Michelle and Giron have spread about 60 such units around Central American communities over the past two and a half years.

However, the barrel systems were small by design. To increase the system's yield, Michelle built Oasis' second iteration out of brick and mortar. But with a price tag of $200 to $250, that version was far too expensive to be a viable solution in the poor communities Oasis is targeted at. Don recalls when Michelle came up with her solution to that problem.

"She called me up and said, ‘I've had my "Aha!" moment. I realized I can do this with a plastic swimming pool,'" he says.

Michelle is currently using a $1,000 grant she won from the Ann Arbor Awesome Foundation in September to build five prototypes of the new inflatable design. She plans to bring the new systems to Central America in January, where they'll be used to farm tilapia and tomatoes. 

If that trial proves successful, Oasis could be in for a much bigger funding injection. In October, Oasis was named one of eight finalists in the Biomimicry Global Design Challenge (BGDC). The challenge, sponsored by the Biomimicry Institute, asks participants to address problems in the food system using design principles found in nature. As a first-round finalist, the Oasis team is currently receiving mentorship through the challenge's biomimicry incubator, and the project will be in the running for a $100,000 final grant next year. (*Because of heavy gang activity in the community the Leaches work with and the possibility of a major cash award, we refer to the location only as "Central America" in this story by Michelle's request.)

The Oasis project is just one example of a growing trend towards social entrepreneurship. For others, look no further than the other seven finalists in the BGDC. Some more established social entrepreneurs have attracted attention from the U.S. government. Founders of Malô, a Malian enterprise that aims to address malnutrition by producing fortified rice, met with President Obama in 2013 for a conference organized by Feed the Future, a government initiative to fight world hunger. 

Michelle sees Oasis as a way to encourage micro-entrepreneurship among the Central American locals she works with as well. She says a single Oasis system growing tilapia and tomatoes could yield about $1,000 of income per year–a considerable sum to the farm families she works with, who bring in around $2,000 in a typical year.

"We're hoping people will see aquaponics as a way to not only feed themselves, but as a way to form a small business," she says. "A lot of the youths in particular don't have their own land and their parents already have these tiny little plots. Subdividing them just doesn't make sense anymore."

If the big BGDC grant or other major funding comes in, Michelle says she'll start spreading the system in the areas she knows in Central America.

"There's going to be a big learning curve as far as the distribution goes, so it makes sense to start in a place where we already have contacts and understand what's going on," she says. "Hopefully we'll learn a lot so we can start to spread out to other places."