Fishing for Success in West Africa

SkyFox works with investors to bring smallholder farmers into West Africa’s lucrative fish market.

The West African region, covered in hilly grassland and savanna, is known for its semi-arid climate and vast coastal waters. The region’s rich fishing waters attract some of the world’s biggest commercial vessels from Europe and Asia.

But the same environment that attracts large corporations offers limited economic opportunity for local farmers. Growing crops requires money to construct and manage irrigation systems, as well as government permits to access bodies of water. Without investors, locals find it almost impossible to provide for themselves and their families through agriculture alone.

There is, however, a large demand for fish in the West African market—making fish farming a very lucrative opportunity for local farmers.

Community farmer Cecilia Poku saw the potential of fish farming to help her family. After her husband passed away a few years ago, Cecilia had trouble keeping up with her household finances. Her husband used to farm and provide for the family. Her small community of Atsigode, Ghana, offered few opportunities to earn money besides farming. While Cecilia knew the basics, she wasn’t enough of an expert to start out on her own. With six children, expenses were quickly adding up.

We’re empowering people in the region to be financially independent.

Fortunately, a friend referred her to SkyFox—an organization specializing in social business development. SkyFox works with big investors to include more locals in the fish-farming market by giving them access to its integrated aquaculture and crop-production systems. The systems use aquaculture ponds at the top of hills to provide nutrient-rich water to up to 25 acres of crops at the bottom of the hill.

SkyFox mobilizes investors to finance the construction and management of these systems, and then leases them to groups of hardworking farmers. Groups of up to 30 work together in teams, and SkyFox assigns an expert to train and guide them throughout the production cycle.

Once the man-made ponds are up and running, SkyFox connects the farmers to fish distributors so they can quickly sell their product. The farmers don’t make an upfront financial commitment. Some pay a leasing fee to the investors, but only after the production cycle has ended, and they’ve sold all their fish and crops.

After Cecilia connected with SkyFox, she joined a group of 25 women leasing their own system. The women in the group hailed from nearby communities and had also heard about SkyFox from friends and neighbors. They had various levels of farming experience, but were able to quickly set up their operation with the guidance of a SkyFox expert.

Cecilia’s group was very successful with their initial venture. In a single growing season they produced vegetables including cabbage, tomatoes, and peppers. Additionally, the group’s system farmed almost two tons of catfish. They quickly paid off the system’s leasing fee while still making a profit.

SkyFox is currently implementing this initiative in Ghana, Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Burkina Faso. “We’re empowering people in the region to be financially independent,” says Dr. Oliver Ujah, a Managing Partner and the Project Manager at SkyFox. “Most farmers have very few job opportunities in the area. We work to empower them economically.”

The initiative has benefited women in particular. While many women in West Africa become farm laborers to support their families, few own small businesses. Women in Ghana “do a lot of work in farming but don’t receive much help in learning how to run a business and make a profit,” says Mr. Patrick Apoya, SkyFox’s CEO.

Cecilia’s earnings, for example, allowed her to pay for her family’s health insurance and her children’s education. She continues to work with SkyFox and encourages other women in her community to join.

So far, SkyFox has set up 400 groups made up of over 12,000 farmers. These hardworking local farmers have produced over 82 tons of catfish over the past two years.

Currently, SkyFox is managing to break even financially. Through the Securing Water For Food grant, they have been able to scale the initiative to make it profitable for the next three years. They also plan to expand into Liberia by 2019. With increased funding, Patrick predicts that SkyFox can “create unlimited opportunities for people to participate in the life-changing and lucrative aquaculture industry in Africa.”