Marcelino Pereira and his family rarely used to eat fish. “It’s very difficult to get fish in this area. We are waiting for fish from the ocean to be sold here, but fish traders don’t often come.”
In their inland village of Lacoliu in Baucau municipality, perched high in the mountains, fish is only available in the local market once or twice a month.
Since becoming a fish farmer in 2014, Marcelino now grows and harvests enough tilapia for his family to eat frequently. “Before, we didn’t even have fish once a year. Now, at least twice a week we eat fish,” he says happily.
Supporting rural households to adopt freshwater aquaculture is a key focus of the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs-funded Combatting Malnutrition and Poverty through Aquaculture in Timor-Leste (COMPAC-TL) project, which aims to improve access to nutritious foods and increase incomes for rural households.
“Before, we didn’t even have fish once a year. Now, at least twice a week we eat fish.” – Marcelino Pereira, fish farmer
In Timor-Leste, malnutrition is chronic among the population. Around 58% of children under five are stunted (too short for their age) and 45% are underweight (WHO 2016). Contributing factors include inadequate protein intake, lack of dietary diversity, extreme poverty and emphasis on staple foods (especially rice).
Following a farmer field school approach, the training program includes sessions on pond construction, preparation and fertilization, stocking, water quality management, feeding including using integrated fish-vegetable farming, and marketing. The project provides fingerlings and ongoing extension advice to the participants, who use their own resources to establish and manage their ponds.
The training encourages farmers to eat fish regularly for good nutrition. Marcelino explains, “we learned that fish is rich in nutrients and the nutrition is good for children and pregnant women. Those are the things that encourage us to grow fish.”
After attending the training, Marcelino started growing vegetables such as spinach, orange-fleshed sweet potato, carrot, watercress, beans and eggplants on the dykes surrounding his ponds. “This way we have more variety of food available to us,” explains the 38-year old father of eight.
Marcelino is happy he can make an income from fish farming, by selling his surplus fish production to local villagers and fish traders. “It’s easy to earn money from growing fish,” he says.
With his profits, Marcelino has bought a coffee and coconut milling machine and opened his own kiosk selling storemade food and sundries. In the future, he plans to expand his ponds, integrate pig and chicken farming, and start producing Genetically Improved Farmed Tilapia
(GIFT), a faster-growing tilapia strain developed by WorldFish.
Another key focus of the project is helping rural fish farmers like Marcelino find a market for their produce.
In Timor-Leste, roads are few, and the ones that exist are frequently washed out. Public transportation services are limited and expensive, creating high transaction costs. Without contacts or networking skills to find buyers, fish farmers often rely on individuals coming to their farm to buy fish.
To help overcome these barriers, COMPAC-TL has supported eight individuals to become fish traders, creating much needed links between producers and markets. Beyond buying farmers’ fish, the traders also provide extension support to the farmers and access to input markets.
Fish traders receive training on aquaculture, post-harvest handling of fish, marketing, and the nutritional benefits of eating fish. To share the intial risk of becoming a trader, the project subsidizes the costs of scales, aerators and large plastic bags, which they need to buy and keep the fish alive during transport.
Since January 2016, Octavio Mendoca Oliveira has been working as a fish trader in the mountainous region of Maubisse. He purchases live fish from many farmers at $5/kg, which he holds in ponds near his home, before reselling for $6/kg.
“I can help my farmers to connect them to the market. They have a lot of produce… but they cannot bring them to the market,” the 32-year old explains.
Octavio sells the fish in local markets and to restaurants, and has arranged to supply 500kg to a supermarket in the capital city Dili, a three-hour drive away. He also plans to sell fish to local schools for inclusion in the government’s free school feeding programs, which itself struggles to supply adequate protein to students without the fish supply.
Farmers like Estanislau de Araujo, from Horaikiik village in Maubisse, appreciate Octavio’s work. “It’s good to have Octavio because we just wait in our place then he comes… it’s good for us. We don’t spend any money on transport to sell it in the market,” explains the father of three.
In Timor-Leste, where malnutrition is chronic, aquaculture has huge potential to improve the lives of inland communities. Helping households grow fish and connecting them to markets will encourage greater fish consumption, contribute to better nutrition and provide much-needed income.
WorldFish is the technical and research partner on the project, which is implemented by MercyCorps
(lead) and Hivos
, in partnership with local NGOs Prospek and Fraterna.