refugees seek economic inclusion by growing crops via aquaponics with WGI

Water Governance Institute Promotes Economic Inclusion for Refugees

There are about 1.4 million refugees in Uganda, most of whom are from nearby countries who have fled political conflicts. Henry Mugisha, with Water Governance Institute (WGI), believes he has part of the answer to feeding them.

A few years back, Mugisha was perusing the internet and became fascinated with aquaponics, a system that combines raising fish in tanks with hydroponics (growing plants) in a symbiotic environment. Recently, Mugisha’s interests and the refugees’ restricted diet (consisting of mostly corn, beans, and rice) came together when he entered an innovation challenge sponsored by the Global Resilience Partnership (GRP). 

With 400 entrants, WGI was among the top 16 winners, and this month journeyed to the United Kingdom to pitch his presentation to a large group of potential donors and venture capitalists. WGI’s innovation was to bring aquaponics to the refugee communities, utilizing Mugisha’s know-how and transferring that knowledge with the aid of other humanitarian actors in the region. 

In other words, instead of just a diet of carbohydrates, refugees—from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Somalia, South Sudan, Rwanda, Burundi, and Eritrea—could also have fish and fresh vegetables to ward off typical diseases often ignored in the camps, such as scurvy, marasmus, kwashiorkor, and rickets. However, just as important, the refugees would have a means to learn how to use technology and commercialize its bounty, giving them the opportunity to raise and sell fish and vegetables in camps that have a scarcity of water. Currently, the refugees don’t have permits to work outside their communities. 

“Teach him [a man] about aquaponics, help him own a tank, and you feed him for a lifetime.”

Mugisha also has hopes of scaling his business by cooperating with the Uganda National Farmers Federation, comprised of 116 farmer groups with a total of 1.8 million individual farmers and Gulu University that is working with 14,000 farmers who would purchase the aquaponic units. “We also want to serve the communities hosting refugees,” said Mugisha. “Often, host communities see what’s provided for the refugees, and they feel left out. We want to transfer our knowledge and skill to them as well.”

Aquaponics calls for building fish tanks of varying sizes depending on whether it is for subsistence, semi-commercial or commercial purposes. The fertilizer rich wastewater from the fish tank is irrigated onto a crop growing in nearby sand/aggregate garden plots; it is filtered and eventually recycled back into the fish tank. This circular movement of water in aquaponics is repeated several times until the water is considered unfit for fish survival and replaced with fresh water.

“We realize with refugees there is little chance for investment in our installations,” said Mugisha. “However, working with humanitarian organizations, we hope to succeed with donor support.”

WGI received early backing for its aquaponics innovation from the Securing Water for Food (SWFF) program, which is supported by USAID and the governments of Sweden (through Sida), the Netherlands, and South Africa. “I am hopeful that our innovation will also receive support when we pitch to GRP Investing in Resilience Forum in London,” added Mugisha. 

The GRP is a partnership of more than 40 public and private organizations across academia, think tanks, development agencies, NGOs, grassroots community organizations, and the private sector. The goal is to create a resilient and sustainable future for vulnerable people and places. When Mugisha first looked into aquaponics, a thought came to him: If one can raise guppies in an aquarium, it is logical one can produce catfish and tilapia for dinner tables across Uganda. “I looked around. Chickens and hogs were raised. Why not fish?”

Today, from his office in Kampala, Mugisha oversees a growing business with unlimited potential in a country where the poverty rate is about half the population. He has installed more than 200 aquaponic units. In essence, 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.” However, Mugisha might well turn that saying around slightly: “Teach him about aquaponics, help him own a tank, and you feed him for a lifetime.”


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.