Tough tilapia fill Kenyan stomachs and pockets

The day before she left for Nairobi, Susan Thompson was rushing around Whitehorse trying to find malaria medicine. She’d forgotten about it.

The day before she left for Nairobi, Susan Thompson was rushing around Whitehorse trying to find malaria medicine.

She’d forgotten about it.

And she still needed to pack.

“I’m usually so organized, but I’ve been busy at work,” she said, taking a breather at a local coffee shop.

The territorial fisheries biologist is heading to Africa for two and a half months, trading Yukon scales and fins for tilapia fry.

It’s her third trip to Kenya, and Thompson is fulfilling a fishy promise.

During her first trip in 2003, some Kenyans approached Thompson, who speaks Swahili, and asked her to help them start up small fish farms.

So, after doing lots of Yukon fundraising, she returned in 2005 with money, nets and a good idea — she offered each interested farmer $150 in micro loans to buy tilapia fry and a couple bags of fish food.

And she oversaw the creation of their ponds, helping some of the farmers dig them by hand.

“I promised them I would come back and see how they were doing,” she said Monday.

Thompson had given each of the 21 novice fish farmers a self-addressed, stamped envelope, but has only heard from six of them.

One of the farmers is already harvesting the fish and selling them, she said. And he’s using the money to put his daughter through school.

But it wasn’t all good news.

Tilapias eat everything and anything, corncobs, compost, even chicken manure. And shallow, murky water doesn’t faze them.

But the roads in Kenya are another story.

A number of farmers lost their fry on the lengthy trip from the hatchery to their farms.

“The roads are awful,” said Thompson.

By the time the tilapia fry made the bouncy trip back by rickety bus or bike, almost all of them were dead.

The farmers who live close to the hatchery are doing well, she added.

But many of the others haven’t been able to stock their ponds yet.

And the heavy rains and flooding in Kenya haven’t helped, she said.

“I might have to rent a vehicle for a day and help them stock the ponds when I get there.”

But before transporting tilapia, Thompson is going to set up a small office in the Whitehorse-sized city of Kakamega, the farmers’ nearest centre.

“I’ve hired a young Kenyan student who I put through marketing and accounting college,” she said.

“And most of the farmers like him and trust him.”

Thompson communicates with her young employee via email regularly, and has learned that another 40 to 50 Kenyans are eager to set up fish farms with the help of her micro-loan project.

Finding enough money to support these new hopefuls may prove difficult, although a few of the initial farmers have said they’re ready to begin paying back their loans, said Thompson.

“And if they understand that others can’t borrow money until this core funding is replaced, this may be an incentive,” she added.

Thompson, who’s continued to fundraise and is supported by the Rotary Club of Whitehorse, also plans to flesh out the funding this time around.

There are no fish in this part of Kenya, and introducing fish farms is not just an economic boon for the region, it’s also healthy.

“There are lots of kids there who’ve never eaten fish before,” said Thompson.

“They’ve never had meat.”

Everyone eats big bowls of porridge dipped in cabbage broth three times a day. “It’s starchy and filling, but has no food value,” she said.

So tilapia will add much-needed protein to the local diet.

But once harvested, people have to make sure they cook or sell the fish that day, so it doesn’t rot, she added.

While in Kenya, Thompson hopes to bring all the farmers together for a weekend of stories and education.

It will be a reunion of friends.

These people have so little, said Thompson.

“But when you go to their homes you always leave with a chicken, or a banana or a fish.”