Teach a Man or a Woman About Aquaponics, Feed Him or Her for a Lifetime

If you can raise guppies in an aquarium, you can produce whiskered catfish for dinner tables in poverty-stricken areas across Uganda.

That was the “wild idea” Henry Mugisha Bazira, a water resources expert in Kampala, had five years ago. “I looked around—chickens and hogs were raised, why not fish?”

But that was only half of the equation.

The second part was using wastewater from various-sized fish tanks to nourish gardens or grow-beds of sand and gravel. The water is filtered and returned either manually or automatically to the fish tanks.

The process is called aquaponics, and it has led to a small industry for Bazira’s team at the Water Governance Institute where he is the director, and, in essence, the program’s father.

“The mission is to see aquaponics expanded throughout Uganda,” said Bazira.

The Institute is backed by a globally funded program, Securing Water for Food (SWFF), a consortium of organizations that includes USAID, and the governments of Sweden, Netherland, and South Africa.

One could say the program is a twist on the old Chinese proverb: “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.”

“Teach him about aquaponics, and you feed him for a lifetime,” said Bazira.

His Water Governance Institute’s challenge extends to helping farmers market the fruits and vegetables, as well as the catfish and tilapia grown in the tanks.

Bazira came up with the idea nearly ten years ago and perused the internet learning everything he could about aquaponics. The program began gaining traction four years ago with an initial grant as seed money.

Today, Bazira wants to spread the technology, the know-how, and equipment (installations), as far and wide into poor areas of Uganda as possible. He unfolds the program in areas where the poverty rate is more than 50 percent.

His Water Governance Institute’s challenge extends to helping farmers market the fruits and vegetables, as well as the catfish and tilapia grown in the tanks. One problem is keeping the fish alive.

“Farmers tend to overfeed them,” he said, “And they go belly-up in the water.”

As a water resources expert, Bazira saw there was a desperate need in his country for quality fruits and vegetables which were expensive in the market. Additionally, due to over-fishing, the cost of fish had risen beyond the means of most people.

For Bazira, his business is all about scalability, and he feels he has reached that critical mass regarding clients to move to the next level.

The fish tanks come in various sizes; but, thus far, the cost-benefit ratio, said Bazira, favors the larger tanks where fish have a better chance of survival. From the brood stock, he separates the males from the females, using mostly males in tanks because they tend to grow faster.

The tanks range in cost from $4,500 for the largest, to $1,500 for the popular mid-size prototype. However, a small installation can be had for as little as $850.

The project has grown exponentially.

In the first year of scaling the project, there were eight growers, the second 32, then 64 and at the close of last year, there were 148 installations, Bazira has ambitions goals for 2019, hoping to see it grow to 500, even 1,000 installations.

What keeps Bazira up at night?

“My nightmare is the bigger picture. Starting with a promising innovation but because of system errors and skills transfer problems, it fails,” he said. “The innovation works. But it can fail if you don’t get people to understand how viable it is.”

What is his dream?

“I want this to be a smart innovation. I visualize where someday growers will be able to control the techniques of the innovation with their mobile phones from their homes,” he said.

USAID, Sweden through the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, 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