The hilly area between the savannas and the desert is both starved for adequate water and the region needs yearly about 500,000 tons more fish. Fish is a staple of local diets, and there is just not enough produced. A group named SkyFox, Ltd., and is fostering a for-profit social innovation to help solve this problem by innovating in fish production, marketing, and crop irrigation. It involves farmers—hoping for more than just subsistence—buying shares as one would through a brokerage, being guaranteed a fee for their products, and gaining earnings.
To use an old phrase, the effort is, in essence, “Killing two birds with a single stone” by providing food and water; and, with a little luck in the market, more cents in the pockets of farmers. Why is this important?
The program is led by Dr. Oliver Ujah, an agricultural economist, and works in Ghana, Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Burkina Faso. The company is looking to expand into Liberia, Nigeria, and Côte d’Ivoire by 2020. During the dry season, said Ujah, the land is not productive and the farmers have little to do. “Previously, they didn’t have the capacity to tap into the water for agriculture. They do now.” Though a relatively new initiative created just a year-and-a-half ago, Ujah says there are already 47,000 beneficiaries in Ghana alone. “It can be a even greater success with sufficient financing,” he adds.
“Previously, they didn’t have the capacity to tap into the water for agriculture. They do now.”
The innovation involves creating hilltop, geo-textile surface aquaculture ponds which are capable of raising 3.5-4.5 tons of catfish and tilapia twice a year. SkyFox provides the infrastructure, and training, as well as the fish fingerlings, working with cooperatives. When it’s needed, the nutrient-rich water from the fish is filtered downhill and used to irrigate crops during the dry periods, thereby serving a dual purpose.
“One of the challenges for the poorer households is they cannot invest in agriculture infrastructure for production,” said Ujah. “Additionally, they have difficulty getting the necessary permits. We cut through the bureaucracy for them.
“Agriculture has tremendous potential for the people of this region,” he added. “People can buy just a single share, but even that guarantees them about 22 pounds (10 kg) of fish to market at the end of each production cycle.”
SkyFox is finding that even the most impoverished farmers are purchasing shares with hopes of adding more going forward. If a group of farmers buys 10 shares together, the program doubles it. Ujah said the program was exploring micro-financing opportunities for farmers as well as raising money through the Ghana Alternative Exchange. SkyFox works with the farmers through Village Savings and Loans Associations (VSLAs) and farmer-based organizations (FBOs).
“While we guarantee the farmers a base price for their efforts, we encourage them to find markets themselves and increase their earnings,” said Ujah. “We provide them the technical assistance to do this.”
“The farmers can earn up to 20% on their investment if they settle for our minimum guaranteed price but can realize anything between 30-35% if they opt to retail directly to consumers. We are currently working to make it possible for our beneficiaries to add value to their output.”
“We’re currently scaling up to expand to other West African countries,” said Ujah, who is Nigerian but moved to Ghana. “Our program is on the move.”
USAID, Sweden through the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, and the Governments of The Netherlands and South Africa invested $35 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.