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Passion beyond normal: fish ponds

Raising fish to feed the orphans

Chiunda, Malawi - In this green village of flowering trees and shrubs, bordered to the West by the majestic Zomba Mountains, the bicycles were the first tip-off that something had gone well. It wasn’t the condition of the bikes; many had chipped paint and fenders that rattled. It was the number of them. Dozens of people were out riding.

And in this part of rural southern Malawi, about an hour north of Blantyre, that was unusual. Owning a bike means there’s enough money to feed the children, buy them clothes and pay school fees—often a struggle here.

The reason for this relative wealth lies in plain view along the road: a series of 47 fish ponds, owned by 32 farmers. They serve as a major source of income and nutrition for the majority of people in Chiunda, population 225.

"Because of our fish ponds, all of these people bought bicycles, and most of us have cell phones,” said Agnes Kanyema, 59, a retired schoolteacher. “Two of us even have televisions in our houses! But most importantly, we don’t starve anymore, and we don’t have boys going into town to find more work. They find employment here, and it is better for them.”

The success in fish farming here and several dozen other villages stemmed from an idea by researchers with WorldFish. In 2003, they studied past efforts to start these ponds, learned why other projects failed and determined that they could do much better. They found that existing fish ponds in Malawi yielded an average of one ton of fish per hectare per year, compared to up to 20 tons per hectare per year in Asia.

They laid out three basic principles: One, teach farmers how fish farming could be an integral part of their operations, including becoming a new source of fertilizer and irrigation for crops. Two, make the project sustainable by giving 1,000 small fish to each farmer, who would then pass on 1,000 small fish to other farmers after the fish had repopulated. And three, show farmers that fish not only provide a great source of nutrition for themselves but also can fetch a high price in the market if they learn to grow large fish with proper feed.

Then they found a partner—World Vision, an international humanitarian aid organization—and defined who primarily would benefit: those affected by the AIDS epidemic, particularly the legions of orphans left behind. WorldFish scientists saw the program as a new way to give economic and health benefits to those affected by AIDS.

"The key issue for us was supplying high-quality protein to families,” said Dr. Daniel Jamu, the regional director for WorldFish in eastern and southern Africa. “But it was also important that we increase the yields of the fish ponds, so they could help HIV-affected households earn money.”

The positive results came swiftly: In roughly three years, the project, on average, doubled the income for 1,200 families affected by HIV and AIDS in Malawi, as well as greatly increasing fish and vegetable consumption among people in rural communities. Families increased their fresh fish consumption by 150 percent, boosting their intake of protein, calcium, vitamin A and micronutrients. In 2005, the World Bank cited the program’s success, giving it a US $20,000 Development Marketplace award for offering a cutting-edge solution to pressing social and economic concerns.

In Chiunda, the project not only helped the diets and livelihoods of families but also played an important role in bringing people closer together. Villagers formed the Mawila Fish Farmers Club, set a membership fee of 300 kwachas (US $2.25) and then helped each other.
It is hard work to dig fish ponds, which are a meter deep and occupy an area of about 200 square meters. But people here and elsewhere joined together to dig each other’s ponds.

"We had 30 members out digging together, and they would build three ponds in two weeks,” Kanyema said outside her house. “We work from morning to sunset. Females do all the cooking, men the digging.”

The help doesn’t end there. “One day there was a very heavy rain. One of my ponds was damaged,” she said. “When people saw the problem, they came in large numbers, and all of us repaired the pond.”

Asan Chiunda, the chief of the village, which is named after him, stood next to one of his ponds, which he had just drained. Two boys were loosening rich dirt with their shovels; they would eventually take the nutrient-rich soil to the chief’s maize fields. Because of the fertilizer and better irrigation, some farmers now are harvesting three plantings of maize a year instead of two.

"The village is changing because of these fish ponds,” the chief said. “People have money now. They have enough food. Some even have new roofs with iron sheets!”

But the villagers know they must keep close watch over the ponds—especially monitoring the source of water, which comes from the nearby Zomba Mountains. Joseph Nagoli, a senior research analyst at WorldFish, said that villagers now are trying to make sure others don’t cut down trees for charcoal on the mountains, which creates erosion and depletes the water source.

"People are really understanding why they need to conserve the forests on the mountain,” he said.

The other issue is the frequent hardships experienced by the villagers. Kanyema, the former schoolteacher, was preparing a funeral on the next day for a woman named Mariana, who died of an AIDS-related illness in the nearby village of Kapito. Kanyema said the woman, who was not yet married, left four orphans. All were moving in with a relative in Chiunda village.

"We will do our best for those children," she said. "We now have to come together to talk about how we can help. But we know that we can help them—because of the fish."

Relevant to this story
Impact Assessment: "Development and Dissemination of IAA Technologies in Malawi" (CGIAR Science Council)