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Aquaculture and Food Security in the Africa Region: the Dilemma of the Remote Rural Fish Farmer

John Moehl1

Aquaculture has been promoted in the Africa Region for more than four decades because of its professed positive effects on family nutrition and income. With this aim, multi-and bi-lateral donors, in collaboration with a wide variety of NGOs sponsored aquaculture, specifically fish farming. As a result of these interventions, there are now thousands of small fishponds scattered across the African landscape. These are accompanied by many testimonies that document aquaculture's positive dietary and economic impacts on smallholder integrated farmers; benefits including a ready source of high quality animal protein (often in protein deficient areas), a non-cyclical non-traditional source of cash for essential family expenses (e.g., for education, healthcare, etc.), risk reduction and diversification, improved resource use and even an enhanced professionalism among farmers leading to increases in production from the whole farming system.

These widely spread farms frequently received support from an aquaculture extensionist; a specialist who obtained his or her training through donor-funded fish culture development projects, who operated out of a donor-supported government station using transport maintained by donor resources. Commonly, these farmers adopted aquaculture for a variety of reasons, adapting the technologies to their own needs. Although they produced what was considered by most as sub-standard yields, they relied heavily on subsidised public sector support.

This scenario changed in the 1990s when there was a dramatic decrease in external support to aquaculture and, at the same time, significant efforts at national levels to tighten belts and work within shrinking budgets. Dedicated aquaculture extensionists were often molded into generalist extension services, government infrastructure was quasi-abandoned and overall public sector services became erratic. In many countries in the Region, this “transitional”austerity stage led to a new view of aquaculture where the private sector was encouraged to assume ever-increasing importance whilst Government targeted producer associations and commercial enterprises; both considered as more achievable targets as outreach programmes became less and less able to reach out.

At the same time, the scattered rural fish farmers assisted in earlier periods continued to raise some fish, but now effectively in the absence of any public assistance. Many of these isolated farmers lacked the ability to coalesce into a critical mass capable of “pulling down”scarce Government support and became solitary farmers with fishponds; fishponds that continued to be a part of their farming system and to provide some food and cash income.

While national programmes evolved to develop private hatcheries and feed mills to address the chronic constraints of poor access to high quality seed and feed, the remote rural fish farmer did not benefit from these improved inputs as he/she could not overcome the density-dependant factors that limited access to “new”aquaculture programmes, as well as the distribution of improved production inputs. These out-of-the-way fish producers had become in many ways disenfranchised actors, no longer the beneficiaries of developmental efforts. Yet, these secluded fish farmers were often numerous and, in the aggregate, produced a considerable quantity of fish for home consumption and local markets.

John Moehl, FAO

A hole in the forest or a family resource? Remote fishponds may not be well managed but they can be important sources of food for the family and even offer some fish for sale

Herein lies the dilemma of these isolated (programmatically) farmers who raise fish. How can they receive support and how can they be monitored such that their harvests are considered in national databases?

In many cases, the hard truth is that apparently they can't, at least not directly! Their principal recourse would be to form producer organisations that could lobby for necessary assistance. But, their seclusion makes this clustering difficult and, moreover, the relatively extensive technologies practised by many of these farmers mean that they have comparatively little to gain from access to improved factors of production and markets -the main benefits many producers should derive from group participation.

The best case realistic tactic within prevailing resource restraints is to try and account for (monitor) these individuals through some standardised system of sub-sampling similar to a frame survey, combining this with efforts by Government to reach these far-flung fish farmers through mass media as countries become more and more connected.

There are tens of thousands of remote rural fish farmers (or farmers with fishponds) in Africa, detached from service providers and markets; many self-reliant and enthusiastic fish raisers. Although fish may be very important in their family economy, they are by and large outside the formal structure of the sub-sector. Their isolation can lead to exclusion but national programmes need to remember this group of stakeholders, even if they are not able to provide many meaningful services.


Sixth from left, J. Moehl (Regional Aquaculture Officer of Africa) during a recent visit to FAO HQ in Rome with FIRI Service Chief Jia Jiansan and FIRI officers

1 John Moehl
FAO Regional Office for Africa
P.O. Box 1628, Accra, Ghana

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