Black Future Month // 2-16-11 // kijiji grows, agri-artists

Posted on February 16, 2011

This summer, as I led a group of San Francisco youth in a culinary arts program, we had the good fortune of visiting kijiji grows, an Oakland based urban agricultural project. Kijiji is spearheaded by Keba Konte, a visual artist and entrepreneur based in the East Bay — and Eric Mandau, a computer scientist, originally from Kenya, East Africa. Using aquaponics, a farming technique where plants are grown without soil, using fertilizer harvested from fish waste. The growing plants and the living fish have a cozy symbiosis; the gravel or dense rock in which the crops grow acts as a filter for the water in which the fish swim. As the water moves from tank to plant bed, so too does the excreta, fertilizing plants along the way.

Kijiji Grows from Jill Replogle on Vimeo.

Farming without soil allows for more plants to be grown in less space. Tables like the ones Kijiji uses allow for entire farms worth of crops to grow in the confines of the city. Rooftops. Parking lots. Classrooms. Back Yards. All viable sites for the urban aquaponic farm. Here founders Keba and Eric discuss the technique and international implications of a system like theirs.

When my summer group visited kijiji’s West Oakland headquarters, Eric discussed the effect of a successful implementation of aquaponics, on a large scale, in a community such as ours. To begin, aquaponics farms serve as wonderful science and mathematics classrooms, demonstrating the practical application of theoretical concepts from basic arithmetic to high level chemistry. Additionally, West Oakland residents, who face joblessness in record numbers, would find new industry in a network of urban farms. They’d also have unprecedented access to fresh fruits, herbs and vegetables — which would be organic, locally grown, seasonal and culturally relevant. The provision of inexpensive nutritious food always and always has a positive impact on the health and well being of communities of color. Historically, where hunger, joblessness and physical health are improved, the rate of violent and petty crimes decrease. The ripple effect of innovative farming is the #Black Future of science. Thickwit celebrates Eric Mandau, Keba Konte and their growing vision of kijiji grows.

When deciding with whom to pair kijiji, I had a bit of a conflict. One goal of Thickwit’s look at Black Future Month was to sidestep some of the traditional, at times overworked icons of Black History. Often crudely essentialized, George Washington Carver, is a staple of nearly every Black History Month program in the country. Somewhere, today, a little brown girl with her hair in knockers is struggling to get her one line about “The Peanut Man” right. Often discussed in brief, the nuanced details of Carver’s story are rarely shared. An intensely spiritual scientist, he was often mocked for his morning walks through the Alabama woods, where he’d talk to nature before beginning any exploit in the lab. Something must have worked right though, because his revolutionary idea of crop rotation saved the south’s farmlands from ultimate demise, which in turn saved the country’s economy from ruin. He was not interested in the peanut for peanut sake, nor the sweet potato for novel reasons, both crops were cheap and easy to farm — a benefit for black farmers who suffered the brunt of any economic downturn. Part of Booker T. Washington’s faculty at Tuskeegee Institute, he was seen by many as too passive, not militant enough for the shifting times. But Carver was focused, inventing uses for all sorts of crops, not just the legume and tuber for which he is best known. He helped to pioneer biodiesels and fuels and even worked with Henry Ford for a bit, attempting to make a motor fuel based in soy. As a scientist who focused on improving economy, education and physical well being of black folks for over four decades, we honor the good doctor Carver.

As innovators who move beyond a peanut/sweet potato simple narrative, but continue the work of Dr. George Washington Carver, we honor the #blackfuture of kijiji grows.

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