When Adam and I applied to serve in the Peace Corps last year (our application timeline), we originally selected to be Environmental Education volunteers in Panama. Since we were in Australia, we couldn’t take the Spanish language test to meet the requirement, so we said to place us anywhere. Two weeks later, we open the portal to find that we were under consideration to serve as Rural Aquaculture Promotion (RAP) volunteers in Zambia.
Zambia? Well, I know that’s a country in Africa, but where, exactly? And aquaculture? Me, the girl who refused to eat fish until just a few years ago? The girl who has only been fishing a few times and couldn’t bring herself to take the floppy thing off the hook without shrieking? I don’t know if this program is for me.
However, we looked into it further and learned how successful fish farming has been, how satisfied the volunteers are, and how good the training is. Ultimately, we decided that we would be happy to work in fish farming, no matter how random it seemed. We did accumulate experience in sustainable agriculture and permaculture throughout our travels; those skills could be transferred to grow fish, right? Peace Corps reviewed our application and essays and chose this program for us for a reason. So, why not?
Since I didn’t know much about the program going into it, I thought I’d write more about it to share exactly what RAP volunteers do.
Rural Aquaculture Promotion Program
At the moment, Zambia is home to the only aquaculture program that Peace Corps offers in the world, though there were such programs in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly known as Zaire. I recommend this memoir of an RPCV’s service: Ponds of Kalambayi). The three other programs in Zambia are Community Health Improvement Program (CHIP), Linking Income, Food, and the Environment (LIFE), and Rural Education Development (RED).
Most of the Zambian population lives in rural settings. Agriculture is the largest sector, but many people rely on subsistence farming. Less than 10% of households have adequate food during the hunger periods and most people lack nutritional diversity. Given these difficulties, many development organizations are focused on food security in Zambia. Fish is an excellent source of protein and essential fatty acids, but being a landlocked country with logistical difficulties, Zambians must rely on freshwater fish produced locally or caught in rivers. Fortunately, Zambia is a wet country; rainy season dominates 4-5 months out of the year, depending on the region, so many areas have suitable land for sustainable fish farming. Fresh fish, as opposed to dried, is a hot commodity, making it a lucrative business opportunity. Raising and selling fish can supplement farmers’ incomes in addition to other crops like maize, peanuts, cassava, and soya. Taking care of fish takes up less space and requires less physical work than said crops. Further, diversifying crops provides a safety net in case a season’s harvest is wiped out due to disease or drought.
According to the RAP project framework, the ultimate goal is for rural communities in Zambia to sustainably improve nutrition and livelihoods securities. The objectives are threefold:
1. Small holder farmers will adopt improved technologies and management practices to increase fish production and productivity.
2. Small holder fish farmers will apply basic business skills to increase incomes from fish farming.
3. Increase knowledge, skills and practices of women of reproductive age and/or key household decision makers to increase dietary diversity of households, including fish.
The Peace Corps Volunteer Role
My title is an aquaculture extension agent. In conjunction with the Department of Fisheries, I transfer knowledge as the liaison between researchers and farmers who put the findings into practice. We volunteers live and integrate into the communities in which we are serving, so we should have a better understanding of the village than perhaps those who live in the capital. The villages choose to receive a Peace Corps volunteer, so Peace Corps does not just place volunteers anywhere. Volunteers go where they are wanted.
We work with small-scale farmers in rural areas as opposed to commerical fish farmers. One challenge that rural areas face is that educated people opt to leave the village for towns to work rather than going back to the villages, furthering the economic divide. As extension agents, Peace Corps volunteers try to fill that gap by teaching farmers best practices.
So we are teachers, mentors, encouragers, and capacity builders. Unlike some aid organizations, Peace Corps volunteers provide knowledge, not money. Even if buying 200 fingerlings might not be expensive for us ($10 USD), we cannot buy them for the farmers because it is not sustainable. Plus, when farmers invest in their supplies, they are more likely to be conscientious, maintaining the pond for a fruitful harvest. The goal is for the farmers to learn, teach others, and continue the practices after the volunteer has left. This would be a good time to insert that “teach a man to fish” quote.
Training was a mix of theory and practicums. Some topics we learned about include:
- Fish anatomy and physiology – types of fish farmed in Zambia, reproductive cycle
- Site selection – choosing the best area to dig a pond
- Pond staking – outlining the dimensions of the pond with stakes and string
- Pond preparation – creating and managing a bloom, stocking
- Pond management – fertilization, general maintenance, fish feed
- Integration – Incorporating fish farming with livestock and agriculture, such as growing rice or banana trees, to efficiently utilize resources and diversify income.
- Business management – Marketing, record-keeping, increasing profits
After learning theory in the classroom, we went out to put it into practice. We staked ponds in local language with our host families, got dirty with digging (only managed to make a dent with all 37 of us, while a farmer could probably dig the whole thing himself in a few days), transported fingerlings and stocked the pond, harvested (and ate!) fish, etc. We learned a lot and I feel confident in the basics of creating and managing a successful fish pond in an ideal situation, but unfortunately, there will be limiting factors in the village, so we have to be innovative and make do with what is available.
So, What do RAP Volunteers Do?
This widely varies village by village, PCV to PCV. Some communities are amped up to dig, but some are more hesitant to get used to the idea. There is no typical day of work in the village, but here are some examples of RAP work:
- Hold meetings to teach fish farmers theory or practice (e.g., pond staking, formulating fish feed)
- Visit individual farmers to check on ponds
- Attend a workshop on integrated fish farming
- Help a farmer market their fish before a harvest
- Assist a farmer on harvest day – collecting fish with a net or draining the pond, organizing people and delegating tasks
- Speak with people who are interested in fish farming by sharing the benefits and assessing land and resources to determine if aquaculture is suitable for that person
- Build a school fish pond with students and incorporate science, business, and nutrition lessons
- Assist farmers with keeping records to analyze profits
- Arrange transport for fingerlings and stock the pond
- Create a fish farming group or cooperative
- Write a grant (purchase fish nets, a press to produce oil and fish feed from sunflowers, host a workshop)
- Renovate existing ponds to maximize efficiency and create stronger structures
- Assist with dam construction projects or siphoning systems to get water to ponds
- Mediate water rights disputes and help people gain access to water
- Advise on intakes and furrows
- Teach nutrition and health benefits of fish at the clinic or with women’s groups
Our Fish Farming Work during Community Entry
Community entry is the initial time period when our focus is to integrate into the community, build relationships, sharpen local language, and assess the community’s resources and needs so that we can do our best work going forward. We aren’t required to implement programs or do a ton of work during this period, but since there were already motivated people wanting to work with us, we began consulting with farmers and also held an introductory fish farming meeting.
Now that it has been two months in the village, we realized that what we learned was a good introduction, but there are so many exceptions and skills to learn. The pond designs we learned were for ideal situations, but there are a lot of realities to consider. For example, village politics limit most people from accessing a furrow, so people don’t have water for making a pond. The only place to buy fingerlings is a three-hour bicycle ride away, so transporting them may be limiting for some people due to young fish being so fragile. One challenge is the lack of initial capital and resources. Investing K100 ($10 USD) into a new venture is scary for people. Most do not have that amount of money lying around and in fact struggle to scrap it together to purchase fingerlings. They know how to farm the land, but they need to have trust in us as well as confidence in themselves to try out fish farming. So a lot of our work now is convincing people of the benefits in raising fish. The farmers we’re working with at the moment already have fish ponds that are in dire need of renovation, but we are also guiding them through the process of building new ponds so that they can learn best practices that’ll make renovations easier.
Initially, I was concerned since I have zero fish farming experience. How can I possibly teach people how to fish farm — people who have been living in this land for millennia and know it better than I ever will? These concerns were lessened during training, but they are still there. Other volunteers assured us that most of what we need to know is covered in training. We are not only here to teach fish farming practices (Peace Corps goal one), but to exchange culture (goals two and three). We are also expected to work on secondary projects that fulfill the needs of the community. Volunteers usually do work in HIV/AIDS, malaria, nutrition, women’s empowerment, etc., so there is plenty of work to keep busy. And I’m slowly coming to terms with the fact that I won’t be “productive” some days. It’s great how motivated most PCVs are, but we must remember that we are volunteers and we can choose our definition of a meaningful service. Echoing from all of the advice from fellow PCVs, don’t compare sites because they’re all different. Make your service your own.
Read more Peace Corps related posts.