HAITI – I’ve been into raising fish all my life. As a kid I caught fish in Michigan lakes and hurried home to transplant them into the spring-fed ponds in my grandfather’s gravel pit. Years later, I raised feed minnows, crawfish, rainbow trout and other game fish there. When I visited Haiti the first time in May of 2009, I was surprised that there wasn’t a vibrant fish farming industry. In spite of ideal weather, plenty of water, willing workers and lots of hungry people, there was no fish farming or fresh fish for sale in the markets. In the following years I learned why: no fingerlings, no feed and no expert support.
I was determined to raise fish in Haiti, so in early 2011 attended a four-day aquaponics workshop in Wisconsin. Aquaponics is a symbiotic blend of aquaculture (fish farming) and hydroponics (gardening without soil). I met a guy in the class who had installed an aquaponics system in the mountains of Southern California. He was struggling and attended the workshop to learn more. Later that year he gave up on raising fish because the mountain air was too cold to facilitate rapid fish growth. I offered to buy his system and he gave us a super good deal and agreed to help us set it up in Haiti. We match-marked all the pieces, dismantled the system and shipped it to Haiti where we reassembled and installed it at Zanmi Beni, our home for abandoned children.
We raised tilapia and veggies for about a year and it worked great. The children loved seeing the fish grow, and enjoyed occasional fish dinners and fresh veggies, but the system didn’t produce enough food to warrant replicating it in other Haitian locations.
Our vision grew into something we named “Teaching a Nation to Fish.” We wanted to jump start a nationwide commercial fish farming industry that, besides being a source of made-in-Haiti, high quality protein, would create lots of new jobs in fish farming as well as support businesses like ice-making, fish processing, fish restaurants, marketing and delivery.
We decided that the best way to stimulate the new fish industry was to build a high production hatchery, produce large numbers of top quality seedling fish and offer technical support to want-to-be Haitian fish farmers. We located a world class tilapia hatchery expert in Florida who joined our team and then asked our donors to help us make an investment in a tilapia hatchery. Through the benevolence of our partners and the grace of God—it happened.
The hatchery was a huge success, producing as many as 500,000 fingerlings a month, most of which we planted in lakes and reservoirs all over Haiti. We also grow some tilapia to maturity and provide regular fish dinners for our hungry kids and staff as well as supplying an on-site fish restaurant. Our hatchery managers taught a course at Paul Farmer’s agriculture school and we offer guidance to anyone showing an interest in commercial fish farming.
The photo at the top of this blog shows evidence of our larger vision now becoming a reality. On this past Saturday, our biggest client, Taino Aqua Ferme, put the first of twelve giant cages into Haiti’s largest lake. We are supplying Taino with 85,000 fingerlings a month that will grow to maturity in the cages. The operation’s first phase will produce 20,000 pounds of fresh tilapia a week and employ many Haitians—and this is just the beginning!