In May 2013, a group of women from the fmcg industry boarded a plane bound for Kenya. Their mission, organised by Farm Africa, was to dig a pond the size of an olympic swimming pool for a group of budding fish farmers from Bumala called the Afula women’s farmer group.

They would do it the hard way. Armed with picks and shovels, the group laboured away alongside the Afula women under the blazing African sun. Things weren’t any easier once the sun went down, courtesy of a mammoth thunderstorm on day three that turned the site into a mudbath overnight.

“We were all a little daunted and worried about whether we would be able to dig the pond in the time we had,” admits Sainsbury’s brand director Judith Batchelar, one of 14 women on the plane. However, she adds, “as soon as we saw the energy and enthusiasm of our Afula friends, it was clear that we’d complete the pond.”

And, after four days of hard graft, they did. The foundations were complete. Not that the hard work was over. Even after days of backbreaking digging, there was still plenty to do. The Afula group had to take those foundations and turn them into a thriving fish farm teeming with tilapia that would deliver a successful harvest and create a long-term legacy, for both them and the wider residents of Bumala.

“We had already achieved a lot by digging the pond in such a short amount of time when they left,” says Helen Nakiala, chairwoman of the Afula group. “What we had to do then was lime and stock the pond, make sure the fertiliser was in place, and fill the pond.”

This was done, quickly. However, other challenges have presented themselves over the year, not least when additional fencing and string netting were required to protect the tilapia in the pond from various predators, including bats that would swoop down from the night sky and carry off the fish.

Harvest Time

A year later and it was time to harvest the pond. Saul Odenyo, an expert on fish farming who runs an aqua shop that supplies the Afula group with fertilisers, fish feed and nets, and trains them in fish farming techniques, says the farm produced 238kg of fish, which sells locally for 280 Kenyan shillings per kilo, making total sales of 66,822 Ksh (around £455). After costs, including feed and lining, the fish farm netted a profit of 50,222 Ksh.

In a move that emphasises their long-term dedication to the project, the women reinvested 31,400 Ksh of that profit straight back into the business, tripling the size of the operation to three ponds. The remaining money was split evenly among the 16 members of the group.

“We are very, very happy,” says Nakiala. “This is the best harvest we have had. Compared with what we have had previously from our individual fish ponds, this is much better. We have got a lot of big fish and we look forward to a big sale as well. The main thing we want to do now is restock the three fish ponds.”

A good harvest also means a lot to the wider community.

“Many more people, especially women, will be attracted and be encouraged to join our group or form their own,” adds Nakiala. “They will want to learn from us how to practise good fish farming that can produce huge fish that fetch better incomes.”

The need for that best practice learning is emphasised by the fact that traditional fishing methods involve travelling 20 miles to nearby Lake Victoria and pulling in nets for hours to catch a handful of fish. But the effect of the pond goes beyond that.

“The thing we are so excited about is that we will be able to use the profits to buy essentials like books, so our children will be able to go to school,” says Nakiala.

“We will be able to use the profits to buy essentials like books, so our children will be able to go to school”

“Our diet will improve, so will our health. And the pond has had a major impact on the community. Because we are group members, we visit each other regularly and evaluate progress on the group pond and also our own ponds. We also support each other on a whole range of issues, like sickness in our families, school fees, and we visit old people, especially widows.”

Clearly, an enormous amount of work has gone on since the 14-strong group of women from the UK boarded the plane for the return to Heathrow, but Nakiala says the way they kickstarted the project was inspirational.

“We realised our pond would be successful when we started digging with the women from the UK and felt the incredible energy, good feeling and determination to succeed. We also saw good reasons for coming together as a group to help each other. It really helped us to work together as a team to get the best result.”

In a message to the 14 women from the Afula group, Nakiala says: “Our success is your success. God bless you for travelling so far last year to help us dig this pond, which we cherish, and which will now provide us with food and income for many years to come.”

They will continue to have the support of UK fmcg companies, and not just from those involved on the original dig. Two other Farm Africa supporters, marketing specialists Cosine and exotic vegetable producers Barfoots of Botley, went to visit Bumala halfway through the harvest to see how the operation worked, and left determined to continue to support the efforts being made.

“I’m thrilled the legacy has been the construction of a quality fish pond that has delivered such spectacular results after just 12 months,” adds Batchelar. “But what makes me really proud is to see the women making such a confident statement in the viability of their fish farming by reinvesting and expanding their business. Long may it continue.”

Mission accomplished.

To find out how you can support Farm Africa’s work to end hunger in Africa, please visit the Food For Good website.

Images: Farm Africa – Eleanor Whiteman