As a young boy, Lazarus Ruzindana’s remembered his father hand-digging a small pond near their home in the sloping valley village of Nyakiju, Muyumbu – located in the Kabale District of Uganda. He had packed the pond with stones and clay and during the rainy season, it became a humble oasis for raising fish – not intensively, but in balance with vegetable, grain and livestock production. Fish provided diversity on the farm, and helped maintain protein levels for his family during the politically and economically unstable times following independence from the British.
Lazarus grew up and only received a grade-six level education; however, he mastered the ABCs of integrated agriculture, and in 2005, began drawing from the ripples of pond inspiration to supplement his family’s diet and income – transforming the pond from his childhood into an innovative aquaculture system.
Aquaculture is the farming of fish, mollusks, crustaceans, and aquatic plants, that requires the farmer to add feed, and perform other interventions to increase species production. The practice can take many forms. From large-scale systems that often require greater inputs (feed and fertilizer) and spit out negative effects, like the spewing of waste effluent into waterways, to small-scale systems that make more efficient use of existing resources. Integrated aquaculture can convert plant and animal waste into high quality fish protein, and yield pond mud for use as fertilizer to improve soil quality on crop land.
With a system of five ponds (each about 50 meters squared), that were slowly hand-dug through the community effort of people living in Nyakiju, Lazarus is amongst approximately 2000 other small-aquaculture farmers in Uganda (FAO, 2013). He produces about 1500 kg of the Nile tilapia and North African catfish per hectare to feed his family and sell direct to the community. He also supplies other fish-producers in the region with the ‘frys’ (young fish). It’s nearly a closed system at Lazarus’s farm. He grows and harvests the food, a combination of dried green leaves and corn, and only purchases blood-clots from the local butcher in Kabale to include for protein. The waste effluent is harvested by community members and dried for use as fertilizer in gardens.
Today Lazarus’s approach of small-scale aquaculture offers an oasis of potential for addressing high rates of malnutrition and protein deficiencies in Kabale and beyond.
According to the Kenyan author, Wangari Maathai, “Anemia caused by a deficiency in iron takes the lives of twenty thousand sub-Saharan African women each year, and half a million children die because of an inadequate supply of vitamin A. Both nutrients are found in fish” (2009).
Of course, the tragedy is that local fish is already available in the local Kabale market, harvested from Lake Victoria; however, the price averages between 30,000 – 50,000 Ugandan shillings – keeping in mind that the average monthly salary here is 100,000 shillings. Why are prices so sky-high for locally produced food sources? Let’s refer, again, to the liberalization of fisheries in Uganda. When the government signed onto the IMF’s Structural Adjustment Policy in the late 80s, the fishing industry intensified for export and suddenly small-farmers and producers were at the mercy of the global market prices, unable to purchase what had transformed from a traditional local protein source into a ‘luxury’ food. The SAPs has led Uganda into “an economic order that continues to place commodities first and communities last” and face the following reality today: the over-fishing of Lake Victoria, the inflation of prices for a local, healthy protein source, and an increasing nutrition crisis amongst children, youth and mothers (Maathai, 2009).
The depletion of Lake Victoria and resulting “fish scarcity” has forced the government to turn to more sustainable efficient practices of harvesting. Who better to propose solutions to the ‘scarcity’ caused by mismanagement of resources by national and international institutions – than local small-farmers like Lazarus?
Lazarus’s farm in Nyakiju, inspired by family tradition and appropriate technology, has became an example for local and regional food security. Lazarus has yet to receive any substantial backing from the government – he laughed and tossed his head when questioned about support from agricultural extension. Though he’s not alone in Uganda, as numbers of small fish-farmers are increasing, and some are managing to consolidate resources to develop processing capacity – drying, salting and diversifying their products for sale. Lazarus is still hopeful to locate an investor – to expand his business and be able to offer more employment to community members.
Small-scale sustainable aquaculture holds potential at the local and regional level to improve the diet and income of small-farmers, offer local employment to young people, and increase the supply of a healthy protein source to a population hungry for change. It’s a small-scale solution to problems caused by larger institutions. Lazarus’s story is an example that solutions to hunger and malnutrition need not cost millions of dollars, nor be be tied to international governments and institutions (who have their own set of economic interests)…
People living at the heart of poverty are not impoverished of ideas. A pond can transform into a productive aquaculture system – diversify food systems, feed communities and increase food security.