What makes a good fish farmer? In fact, what qualities should the best fish farmer in the country have? Our aquaculture Fellows, Sharon Nzula and John Erick have the answers to this question. Sharon and John Erick work for Lattice Aquaculture, where they have been at the vanguard of organizing the Best Fish Farmers Competition, a national award sponsored by the Dutch Embassy in Nairobi.
In April 2023, they crowned Vincent Oduor and his team at Aquaculture Barn Limited as the best fish farmer and Swabrine Aluoch as the top aquaculture student.
“This competition not only recognizes the best-performing fish farmers, it is also designed to motivate smallholder farmers who, despite the sector’s shortcomings, are working very hard to ensure that we produce more fish. It is the idea that if we look around us with enough interest and objectivity, there are plenty of opportunities and we can solve the food insecurity problem,” said John Erick and Sharon.
They see the competition as key to appreciating and enhancing innovation among farmers and rewarding good work regarding production volumes or scale of operations. They place a lot of importance on the farmers’ stories, looking out for passion and drive to make an impact in the sector.
The winners were picked from a pool of 600 entrants, made up of both fish farmers and aquaculture students from across Kenya. The judging criteria sort to answer three important questions: Is the farmer solving a problem? How sustainable is their solution? How passionate are they about their work?
“We started by putting out a call for participants for the competition on social media platforms. This campaign ran for over two months. We then picked five finalists, selected by a versatile group of jurors. The jurors were picked from across the aquaculture value chain in the country and beyond,” they said.
Sharon Nzula (far left) and John Erick (second right) pose with the award winners and the rest of the team from Lattice Aquaculture.
But that was only the beginning. The judging team then had to visit the finalists to confirm that they indeed have farms, and that they were doing the actual projects they submitted for judging.
“We then took short 3-5-minute-long videos where the finalists showcased their talents, played these videos during the actual event in Kisumu, and asked the audience (composed of over 100 aquaculture value chain actors in physical attendance and over 200 joining online) to vote for them,” said Sharon and John Erick.
“What impressed us about Vincent’s farm is that it is youth-led; it has a clear vision regarding its role in food security, job creation, and youth empowerment. The youth group, led by Vincent, is leveraging technology to produce fingerlings that they sell to neighboring farmers. They also train groups of smallholder farmers in Aquaculture Field Schools,” said Sharon and John Erick.
Swabrine, on the other hand, is a fresh graduate from Karatina University who is passionate and proactively bringing change to her hometown in Siaya. They were impressed by her speech and the confidence she showed, and the innovative ideas she has for the aquaculture sector.
The best farmer gets 1,000 kgs worth of fish feed from Skretting, a leading quality fish feed producer globally. They also get fully paid training at the Aquaculture Academy, a leading pioneer trainer of on-farm practical aquaculture best practices in East Africa, based in Kenya. The runner-up gets 650kg of feed and an AquaCare package for water quality improvement on their farm. Number three receives 350kgs of feed and free training at the Aquaculture Academy.
For the top student, the awards are free training and an internship opportunity with one of the partners who were part of the competition, while both runners-up also attend free training.
“Fish farmers often lack access to affordable quality inputs like feed and fingerlings. In addition, many also lack practical skills that would enable them to turn their fish farming enterprises into profit-making businesses. Relevant, practical, and objective training, such as what we offer at the Aquaculture Academy, is needed to change the mindset of the farmers, and drive the shift to truly commercial aquaculture ventures. Even smallholder farmers can be businesspeople, given the right tools,” said Sharon and John Erick, speaking about the rationale behind the choice of awards.
In future, they hope that they can roll out the competition to the rest of East Africa, therefore helping to champion sustainable aquaculture in the region. They believe that taking ecosystem approaches in their interventions to the challenges faced by fish farmers is the best place to start. This will ensure that different stakeholders in the aquaculture sector stop working in silos and start meaningful collaborations that will move the sector to the next step.
Sharon and John Erick credit the African Food Fellowship with equipping them with the right skills and knowledge to embrace a systemic approach in their work in the aquaculture space.
“As food systems leaders, we understand our responsibility in the fight to make our nation and region more food secure and do so sustainably. The African Food Fellowship enables us to appreciate the entire food system. Some of the cool tools and frameworks we are introduced to have enabled us to become better systems thinkers who can objectively analyze different scenarios from an informed point of view,” they said.