The first public-private-partnership (PPP) model tilapia hatchery has opened in Leohitu in Timor-Leste, boosting the country’s production of GIFT fingerlings and paving the way for the aquaculture sector’s sustainable development.

In recent years, more and more rural households in Timor-Leste have taken up fish farming driven by increasing knowledge of a locally-tested and proven approach to growing fish and better access to quality genetically-improved farmed tilapia (GIFT) seed.

But with demand for GIFT seed continuing to outstrip supply, access to quality seed has remained a limiting factor.

Now, a new PPP-model hatchery has been established at Leohitu village in the west of the country, which will narrow the demand-supply gap of seed and pave the way for the sector’s development.

“I’m very happy because the fingerlings are close to my farm and it’s easy to get them to my pond,” explains Jorge dos Santos, 58, of Leohitu village. “Before, it was very difficult to find fingerlings because I had to travel far from here.”

Fish farmer Jorge dos Santos, 58, of Leohitu village, Timor-Leste. Photo by Kate Bevitt.

The public-private-partnership model

The Leohitu hatchery was inaugurated on 7 June 2019 by the Secretary General of the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries (MAF), Cesar Jose da Cruz, and the New Zealand Ambassador to Timor-Leste, Philip Hewitt.

Over 150 participants attended the event, including the President of Bobonaro municipality, representatives from several government departments as well as various international and national non-governmental organizations (INGOs, NGOs), and fish farmers.

The PPP-model hatchery will produce and disseminate GIFT monosex fingerlings all year round from the broodstock received from the government hatchery at Gleno that was opened in 2016. Ongoing technical support will be provided by the government and WorldFish.

GIFT is a fast-growing strain of tilapia developed by WorldFish and partners for over 30 years, which is farmed in over 14 countries.

“What excites me about the Leohitu hatchery is the community spirit and sense of partnership between the private sector, the government and the community,” said Philip Hewitt, New Zealand Ambassador to Timor-Leste, at the event.

“This kind of dynamic, where each is supporting the other, is needed to ensure this hatchery is sustainable.”

Leohitu GIFT hatchery inauguration on 7 June 2019. Photo by Kate Bevitt.

The hatchery was constructed as part of the NZD 5.1 million Partnership for Aquaculture Development in Timor-Leste (PADTL) project (August 2014–August 2019), which is implemented by MAF and the CGIAR Research Program on Fish Agri-Food Systems led by WorldFish and funded by the New Zealand Aid Program.

The hatchery was planned and built within six months (November 2018–April 2019), which included rehabilitating the existing eight ponds; constructing a hatchery building and incubation system; and training (in-country and overseas) of the hatchery staff.

“The hatchery has already produced 1.7 million eggs and for an investment of USD 30,000 we think that’s a great return,” said Ambassador Hewitt.

As part of the PPP model, the hatchery construction costs were jointly shared by the project and the hatchery owner, with the two-thirds coming from the project and the rest from the owner.

Aquaculture for nutrition

The PADTL project works to support the sustainable development of aquaculture to help combat malnutrition in the country, where one in two children under five are stunted.

“Protein from fish, meat, eggs and milk is still lacking in Timor-Leste. Take the school feeding program, for example. How can kids consume protein from fish if there’s no fish?” said MAF Secretary General Cesar Jose da Cruz at the event.

“The ministry’s mission is to increase the production of key protein sources like fish to enhance food and nutrition security. Aquaculture can help to do that.”

Joao da Silva is showing the technique to harvest tilapia eggs. Photo by Jharendu Pant.

Improving access to and the availability of quality input (seed, feed) and services (extension, market) is a prerequisite to the scaling of aquaculture in Timor-Leste.

“WorldFish, in collaboration with MAF, the Market Development Facility and other partners, plans to continue supporting the roll out of PPP-model hatcheries across Timor-Leste,” said Dr. Jharendu Pant, Senior Scientist, Sustainable Aquaculture, WorldFish.

“This will help towards achieving the National Aquaculture Development Strategy (2012—2030) targets, which aims to boost fish supply from aquaculture to 12,000 tons and reduce undernourishment by increasing per capita consumption of fish from 6.1 to 15.0 kg by 2030.”

‘I want to help develop the sector’

The hatchery is owned by the We Lekun company run by 35-year-old Joao da Silva, who has hire six staff members to manage its daily operations.

“I got involved in the hatchery because I want to help develop the aquaculture sector and support farmers by sharing seed and fingerlings,” said da Silva, whose family has been farming fish for the last 30 years.

Until now, fish farmers have only been able to source GIFT fingerlings from the government hatchery in Gleno, a 1.5-hour drive southwest of the capital Dili.

But most fish farmers will not travel a long way to get 1000 fingerlings as transport is expensive and the fingerlings can get stressed and die on the bumpy, pot-holed roads.

“This hatchery is here now [in Leohitu] so local farmers no longer need to journey far to get fingerlings,” said da Silva.

The business is expected to turn a profit within six months, underscoring the sustainability of the PPP model.

“I hope to continue the business in the long term and help young people to find jobs in this sector,” da Silva said.

Connecting communities with fingerlings

Since 18 April 2019, when the hatchery started the first breeding cycle, 1.7 million eggs have been produced, which would produce around 0.5 million fingerlings once nursing is complete. This first batch of fingerlings were all bought after the inauguration event and will be delivered to buyers in a few weeks’ time.

Each year, the hatchery is expected to produce over three million monosex GIFT fingerlings. These will be sold for a modest price to local fish farmers and other NGOs.

The private GIFT hatchery at Leohitu, Timor-Leste. Photo by Kate Bevitt.

A number of INGOs, including Catholic Relief Service and Mercy Corps, who are willing to support the scaling out of aquaculture across several municipalities to address poverty and malnutrition, have already purchased or committed to purchase fingerlings from the Leohitu hatchery.

“We’ve bought 7500 fingerlings, which we’ll distribute to 35 households [involved in fish farming] in Viqueque, Ossu and Baucau municipalities [in the east of the country],” says Olgario da Costa, Project Coordinator of local NGO Fraterna.

Fraterna can testify to the quality of GIFT seed, having partnered with WorldFish on the  Combating malnutrition and poverty through aquaculture project (2014–2016) that trained over 1500 fish farmers across six municipalities.

“The GIFT seed is of very good quality and much better than other types of fish seed that are available.”

“The PPP model is good because NGOs can act like a bridge to connect the communities that need fingerlings with the hatchery. So, when they need fish seed the NGO can support them to get good quality seed.”