Waste not, want not
Integrating aquaculture with local systems of smallholder agriculture in southern Africa creates a valuable fish crop from little more than farm and kitchen wastes
Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world. Food security is precarious for its population of 12.1 million, as this crowded land is prone to both drought and flooding. Malawi’s main natural resource, agricultural land, is under severe pressure from rapid population growth, and slash-and-burn cropping has degraded much of the soil. Limited resources and the low fertility of farms are serious constraints to building the country’s food security.
Many Malawians are subsistence farmers who must meet all of their household food needs with less than a hectare of land. Many face hunger every day as they try to make one harvest last until the next. Often the food runs out, leaving what Malawians call the “hungry times.” A leading cause of infant mortality is malnutrition.
“Sub-Saharan Africa is the only region of the world where per capita fish consumption is
declining,” observes Daniel Jamu, the WorldFish Center regional director for Southern and Eastern Africa. “It is clear that the availability of fish harvested from capture fisheries is insufficient to support the growing demand and need for fish protein.”
The answer, says Jamu, is to complement capture fishery catches by integrating aquaculture into local systems of smallholder agriculture. Under integrated aquaculture-agriculture (IAA), farmers set aside a small portion of their land for fish farming.
“In a country like Malawi, where landholdings are small, fish farming has an additional benefit in that you don’t need much land to produce additional income,” Jamu adds.
Famine Mitigation and Food Security Through Integrated Aquaculture-Agriculture in Southern Africa is a project led by WorldFish and funded by the OPEC Fund for International Development. It has helped farmers organize associations, provided training in agriculture, and offered credit for the tools, supplies and hired labor that associations needed to dig fishponds, stock them and begin integrating aquaculture with their traditional agricultural pursuits.
With the project, WorldFish and its partners have built on their earlier success with IAA in Malawi and extended it to Mozambique. Recycling crop, animal and kitchen wastes to feed fish, and applying pond water and nutrient-rich silt to terrestrial crops, makes the entire farming enterprise more efficient and profitable. An impact study conducted in Malawi in 2004 found that farms that adopted IAA were 10% more productive than conventional farms and 50% more input-efficient, retaining more nitrogen in the soil. Farm incomes rose by 28%, and fish consumption in IAA farm families rose by 160%, reducing child malnutrition by 15%. During drought, IAA farms were 18% more productive.
IAA allows fish farmer associations to produce some 1,500 kilograms of fish per hectare per year, providing high-quality protein for their families and often surplus fish to sell. As some 30% of fish farmers in Malawi are women, income from their ponds helps empower them and raise their prestige in their rural communities.
“Fish in the pond is like money in the bank,” comments Jessie Kaunde, a farmer in the village of Mangwengwe in Zomba District of Southern Malawi. A 47-year-old widow whose three grown children now live elsewhere, Kaunde manages her small but diversified farm on her own, albeit with some help doing the chores from her three grandchildren who live with her. The ducks that Kaunde keeps on the bunds of her ponds provide manure to fertilize the ponds and encourage the growth of algae upon which the fish feed. They also eat mosquito larvae and the snails that harbor the bilharzia parasite. Surveys have shown that fish farmers, even those who frequently wade into their ponds, suffer fewer waterborne diseases than do other farmers.
Many IAA practitioners grow vegetables such as cabbage and tomatoes and other valuable cash crops such as banana or guava on or near pond bunds to take advantage of seepage. Water stored in fishponds is available to irrigate these crops as well as maize and cassava when necessary. Under drought conditions, the bottoms of drained ponds often retain enough moisture to sustain a crop of rice, maize or vegetables planted there. Pond sediment makes good fertilizer. Research conducted by WorldFish has shown that using pond sediments instead of expensive chemical fertilizers as a top dressing for maize boosts productivity.
WorldFish and its partner institutions — the fishery departments of Malawi and Mozambique, World Vision International, the OPEC Fund and, early on, the United States Agency for International Development [PF1]— have trained over 200 extension staff and researchers in IAA methods. A WorldFish impact study shows that, between 1999 and 2004, the number of fish farmers in Malawi grew by threefold. The success of aquaculture in Malawi has prompted WorldFish and its partners to aggressively expand the initiative to include 26,000 farming households in Malawi and neighboring Mozambique and Zambia, with the goal of providing benefits to 134,000 people. IAA work has also begun half a continent away in Cameroon. To build self-reliance, WorldFish encourages farmers to innovate and solve production bottlenecks on their own. Farmers have started to exchange tilapia fingerlings to reduce inbreeding and thereby maintain fast growth.
“Many poor farmers in Malawi and elsewhere in sub-Saharan Africa are starting to view aquaculture as an easier and cheaper alternative to raising cattle,” reports Jamu. “Fish provides essential proteins, minerals and vitamins, in addition to income.”
IAA has strong potential to boost agricultural productivity in sub-Saharan Africa. If fish farming were adopted on only 1% of the almost 250 million hectares in the region identified as suitable by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 3.75 million additional tons of fish could be produced annually. This is four times the catch from all capture fisheries in sub-Saharan Africa.