Patrick Apoya took a page out of the late South African leader Nelson Mandela’s book when he sought to expand his SkyFox Ltd. aquaculture business to Sierra Leone with a little help from his friends. In the words of the iconic Mandela: “It always seems impossible until it’s done.” Having had success in other West African countries, the SkyFox CEO ventured into Sierra Leone, where fish culture was mainly practiced at the subsistence level, and little progress had been made since the 1970s.
Apoya, a water resources expert and co-founder of SkyFox, gained a foothold in Ghana and neighboring countries three years ago with the support of the Securing Water for Food (SWFF) program, funded by USAID, and the governments of South Africa, the Dutch and Sweden. Headquartered in Accra, Ghana, about an hour and a half flight south of Sierra Leone, the pace of aquaculture development in Sierra Leone had been slow even though there had been attempts for decades.
“The main obstacle was the unavailability of the necessary inputs such as improved fish feed and fish fingerlings (juvenile fish about the size of a finger),” he said. There was also a lack of necessary basic aquaculture skills, especially when it came to the commercialized catfish industry, a more viable and nutrition-loaded sector than tilapia farming. But, added Apoya, “The opportunity was there. It simply needed the right direction, emphasis, and know-how to establish domestic fish production that would feed the population and help irrigate crops with nutrient wastewater from the tanks.”
The opportunity was there. It simply needed the right direction, emphasis, and know-how to establish domestic fish production that would feed the population and help irrigate crops with nutrient wastewater from the tanks.
To address these issues, under the SWFF project, SkyFox partnered with Njala University in Bo, the second-largest university in Sierra Leone. The mission was to provide improved catfish fingerlings. Previously, the emphasis had been on farming tilapia in earthen ponds. Tilapia has relatively small amounts of beneficial omega-3 fatty acids, the main reason doctors recommend eating fish frequently.
Before the SkyFox partnership with Njala University, there was not a single producer of improved catfish fingerlings in Sierra Leone. Many private investors and fish farmers had no access to the basic inputs needed to create an on-going business. Additionally, SkyFox re-engineered the lining of the aquaculture ponds with geotextile material, improving them for commercial production. The company also improved the fish feed.
“The results have been amazing,” said Apoya. “We followed up with training the customers/end-users on pond management and offered continuous monitoring and support.”
The growth performance, which was achieved within five months, is generally attributed to the management process and field extension workers at SkyFox, as well as the improved fish feed, said Apoya. “The entire community and other neighboring communities are expressing an interest and want to be part of the project,” said Apoya, who added that the average weight of the catfish had increased to two kilograms, a benchmark never previously achieved.
Apoya said a key factor to success was the continuous engagement with the Sierra Leone customers/end-users of the SkyFox/SWFF efforts to improve the quality of fingerlings and fish food.
“This really proved to be very important since this was the first time communities were involved in culturing catfish, which is very different from that of tilapia farming that they had practiced for so long,” said Apoya.
Apoya, who is also experienced in sanitation issues, said SkyFox takes a market approach to deliver development goals that yield better results in a more sustainable manner. “This was the motivation behind the establishment of SkyFox as a social enterprise. We continue to trust our philosophy based on the results to date,” said Apoya. He added that the strategic advice from SWFF technical assistance has been especially valuable in shaping the SkyFox business to this point in Sierra Leone, Ghana, and elsewhere.
In the first stage, Apoya said the SWFF team helped optimize our aquaculture value chain through a calculated mix of helping supply up to 60 percent of the effort’s fingerling requirements and providing partnerships with third-party hatcheries to fill the gap.
“SWFF also provided a financial model that helped us make strategic business and financial decisions,” Apoya said.
In the countries SkyFox is present, there are different variables depending on available resources, landscape, and local tastes, for example, between Ghana, where SkyFox is headquartered, and Sierra Leone. “Unlike in Ghana where farmers did not have access to the aquaculture infrastructure for fish production due to the high cost, the farmers we work with in Sierra Leone were lucky to have received earlier support from USAID to construct large ponds for fish production,” said Apoya.
However, the challenge faced in Sierra Leone was the lack of knowledge in the field and in proper water management, and the inability to afford improved feed. “We, therefore, facilitated financial linkages for the farmers to procure fish feed, trained them on aquaculture management practices, and provided them with simple technologies for efficient management,” said Apoya.
Apoya quoted one fish farmer in Sierra Leone as saying, “SkyFox came to our rescue at the right time when we thought fish farming was going to die, and we have never seen this type of fish size.”
USAID, Sweden through the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida), and the Governments of The Netherlands and South Africa invested $34 million in Securing Water for Food (SWFF) to promote science and technology solutions that enable the production of more food with less water and/or make more water available for food production, processing, and distribution.
This story was developed through the SWFF Social Impact Storytelling Initiative which was established to document innovator journeys and social impact as they work to improve the way water is being used for agriculture. #socialimpact #innovation #agriculture #water