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‘Ohana > More OhanaSpring 2014 IS Magazine

Backyard Ahupua‘a

Using aquaponic farming to strengthen communities.

By Alia Pan

In a Waimānalo neighborhood where rows of new homes line the street like pastel-colored Easter eggs, Ilima Ho-Lastimosa’s home is hard to miss.

Driving up, the first thing you see is a profusion of tomatoes, basil, parsley, Hawaiian chili pepper, and native Hawaiian medicinal plants. The plant beds are on tables arranged in a U-shape around an above-ground pool filled with golden tilapia. The suburban farm continues along the side of the house with a narrow yard that looks like a small jungle with a grove of banana trees, kalo (taro), and ‘uala (sweet potato). The kalo leaves and ‘uala vines hang over the sides of their planters. The banana leaves reach up to shade their home.

Ho-Lastimosa is an early adopter of backyard aquaponic farming. She grows enough produce to feed her family while teaching her children an unusual farming lesson: how to use fish to grow food quickly.

Fish Fertilizer

Aquaponics is a method of farming that relies on a symbiotic relationship between fish and plants. In these closed systems, wastewater from a tank filled with fish is pumped into growing “water beds” filled with plants. The plants take out the nitrates and ammonia from the wastewater; the purified water is then pumped back into the fish tank.

The nutrient-rich water from the fish acts as a powerful plant fertilizer. Plants in aquaponic beds can grow up to six times faster than plants grown in conventional garden beds. Ho-Lastimosa’s kalo, for example, is ready for harvest after six months; traditional wetland kalo takes nine months to mature. Aquaponic units vary in size, from small fish tanks for inside the home to pool-sized tanks that feed row after row of produce.

Community Fish Ponds

For Ho-Lastimosa, aquaponics is not just about getting bigger vegetables faster. Her ultimate goal is to build healthy communities that work together. One of her main priorities is to encourage families in her community to eat more fruits and vegetables. Ho-Lastimosa works as the gardening facilitator at Blanche Pope Elementary School, where she’s found that her students are very skilled at encouraging their parents to try aquaponics.

“Kids are the best assets,” she says. “They don’t complain, they enjoy it, they learn how to clean and cook the fish, and they eat the vegetables. The kids teach the parents and the parents are going to do what the kids like.”

A Sustainable Future

Ho-Lastimosa is also a co-founder of Ho‘oulu Pacific, an organization that helps families use aquaponics to raise enough food to feed themselves and sell any extras. With co-founders David Walfish, Eric Martinson, Keith Sakuda, and Scott Shibata, Ho-Lastimosa plans to build 50 more systems for families in Waimānalo and hopes to expand the program across the Hawaiian Islands and the Pacific.

Striving to move Hawai‘i toward food security, Ho‘oulu Pacific is made up of activists, entrepreneurs, and researchers and professors from the Oceanic Institute and the University of Hawai‘i.

“We can feed ourselves,” Ho-Lastimosa says. “Right now, we are overly dependent on the outside world for our food. I know that our küpuna used the ahupua‘a to feed themselves. Every household could have an aquaponics system – it’s a choice that we need to make.”

By providing agricultural training and supplies to families, Ho‘oulu Pacific fosters and promotes community-building. Collective growers meet every month to get technological support and agricultural advice from experts. Ho‘oulu Pacific also provides families with health counseling, nutrition education, and entrepreneurial guidance from a network of community partners.

Coming Full Circle

Island communities feeding themselves is a time-honored tradition in Hawai‘i. The ahupua‘a system divided the island into pie-shaped wedges that ran from the mountain to the ocean. Each ahupua‘a had enough fresh water, agricultural land, and ocean access to feed and sustain a thriving community.

Ho-Lastimosa reimagines this system as a community of aquaponic farmers. She hopes to bring our island community back to its self-sustaining roots and reduce our dependence on imported food.

To find out more and support Ho‘oulu Pacific, please visit

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