Friday, January 28, 2011

What I've been up to #1: Fish Farming

As a Rural Aquaculture Promotion volunteer fish farming is the bread and butter of my work routine. In a typical week I'll have perhaps 3 or 4 meetings with different farmers or groups of farmers in my catchment area (all the villages within approximately a 25km radius). In a typical meeting I bike out to the farmer's village and spend the day helping that group/farmer with whatever fish farming task they are currently working on.

Some farmers are interested in digging new ponds or renovating existing ones, so I help them survey their land, measure out an appropriate area, and dig the pond to meet our R.A.P. specifications. We promote hand-dug ponds measuring around 10m x 15m x 1m deep (a nice balanced size that is relatively easy to dig and still has adequate fish-holding capacity). We also try to promote ponds with thick, sloped walls for added strength, and with screened outlet pipes to keep the pond from overflowing in a rainstorm. Such a pond might take an individual farmer a few weeks to a month to dig - it's much easier when working as a group. I try to help these groups think about how to efficiently divide and manage labor so they can finish the digging quickly (my record was a group that met at 6am to dig a small 10mx10m pond, and had the whole thing finished by 10am!).

With makeshift eye black liberally applied, its time to hop in the muck and dig a new fish pond!

Other farmers want to learn or review feeding practices for fish in their existing ponds. In this case I'll go out with the farmer on foraging expeditions to collect termites, quality plant leaves, animal manure (to fertilize plankton in the water), and other choice food sources. My goal is to help that farmer establish a routine for feeding and maintaining his ponds.

Well-maintained fish ponds: thick walls, lots of fish food, and clear of weeds

Still others have had fish for several months already and are interested in harvesting and selling them. This is a good opportunity to stress business and management skills like advance advertising, good recordkeeping, and creating and following work plans. Then of course I'll help out with the actual pond harvest, since I can never avoid an opportunity to get muddy and fishy :-) Finally, I've ended up helping a lot of farmers measure out and dig long furrows to carry water to their ponds and gardens.

The many ways of harvesting fish from a pond: using a modern seine net; making a traditional Bemba reed fish trap; baling out water to catch the fish by hand; and....telekinesis?...No, the people on the bottom right are customers waiting to buy harvested fish

Because my site is so far away from any town or large marketplace, there's not a big enough market to promote fish farming as a legitimate, full-time business. My farmers can make a bit of extra side income selling amongst themselves in the village, but my main focus is on using fish farming as a means of improving family nutrition. Judging by the abundance of children in my area running around with thin hair and rounded bellies it's clear that getting sufficient protein is a challenge for many people. Thus a set of fish ponds is an easy and attractive option (whenever you want fish for dinner, just go to the fish pond and fish out a couple!) for families looking to spruce up their diet.

All in all I've got about a dozen formal groups - complete with chairman, treasurer, etc - and another couple dozen individual farmers who I meet with on a regular basis. In total they have about 200 - 250 fish ponds, and harvest about 10 kilograms of fish from each pond. Much of this was done already before I even arrived, so I can't take credit for all of it :-) There's certainly much room for improvement - work still to do for the two volunteers who follow me - but I'm happy to say that my fish farmers are off to a good start!


  1. Wow, sounds quite busy!!! Keep it up! :-)

  2. When you come back to the states SOME day you'll need to give a little talk about this venture. I would love to hear more about it and be able to ask questions. It sure seems like satisfying work. I hope you know that you are making a real difference there. Never doubt it.

    Mark Loehrke