Yukon aid worker’s legacy lives on

Susan Thompson may be gone, but the ripples of her legacy are still being felt both in the Yukon and half a world away, in Kakamega, Kenya.

Susan Thompson may be gone, but the ripples of her legacy are still being felt both in the Yukon and half a world away, in Kakamega, Kenya.

Thompson, a Yukon fish biologist, created the Fish4Kenya program to help struggling catfish farmers get access to funding and technical support for their farms. She passed away in October 2012, but more than a year after her passing, the micro-farming project is still changing lives.

“The program is going really well,” said Nick de Graff. “It’s really empowered a lot of people in the community, especially women. It has helped pull people out of poverty.”

De Graff toured the Kakamega fish farms recently with his wife Nancy, and two other long-time friends of Susan’s – Corliss and Gordon Gilgan.

The program works by bringing together co-operatives of Kenyan farmers and giving them the tools to create and run their own fish farms, surprisingly similar to the one at Whitehorse’s Icy Waters, de Graff said.

Even though the farmers don’t have access to the kind of infrastructure at Icy Waters, they are able to make up the difference with knowledge, hard work and co-operation, Gordon Gilgan explained.

“One of the things Susan found when she started working on the project was that even though many people in rural Kenya might own land, that alone isn’t enough for them to make a living,” Gilgan said.

The most successful element of the Fish4Kenya project is that it allows the farmers to have a starting point, a place to start earning even a modest income from their land, which they can then reinvest in their fields.

“You’re seeing farmers take that money and invest it in diversifying. They’re using it to buy cows and poultry and other crops,” Gilgan said.

The capital and sweat equity that Susan’s project brought to the community helped get it off the ground, but it’s the spirit of co-operation that she instilled there which keeps it alive.

It’s no secret that Kenya is a troubled country. When Fish4Kenya first started out in 2005, ethnic tensions were high and government rules prevented Kenyan’s from assembling in groups of more than a few people.

That’s where the idea to form official co-operatives came in, de Graff said. By formally outlining where and how farmers would work together to support their farms, Thompson’s organization was able to create a spirit of co-operation that keeps things running today.

“Working together is not something the Kenyan people do very well,” Gilgan said.

“That’s part of the charm of Susan’s work. Now they share everything, even their nets, their pots. When one farmer’s pond needed to be fixed, other farmers helped him fix it,” Gilgan said.

The program gets about $10,000 a year in subsidies that come from donations raised in Canada. With that, and the help of the indispensible Hussein Wechuli – Thompson’s local partner since the beginning – the program now supports 36 fishponds and 36 farms.

Each of the 36 ponds produces about $600 in talapia and catfish per year, more than $21,000 a year in total. Gilgan said that each of the 86 farmers is able to support a family of up to six or seven on the profits alone.

“We’re talking about 800 to 900 people who are getting access to high-quality protein on a regular basis, who are supported by the farms,” Gilgan said.

One of the biggest successes the program has had is in empowering local women.

“Many of them own farms themselves,” de Graff said. “They are becoming leaders in their community.”

The de Graffs and the Gilgans weren’t just on holiday when they visited Wechuli and the farms he and Thompson helped build. They were doing research, finding ways to make the program run even more efficiently.

They’ll present their findings along with video interviews and a slide show at a fundraiser tomorrow night at the Old Fire Hall. The event runs from 7 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Admission is by donation, and there will be a silent auction and Kenyan crafts for sale.

The whole event is geared towards raising enough money to build some much-needed infrastructure and make the program self-sustaining.

“The goal is to make the whole thing self-sufficient,” Gilgan said. “We want to essentially put ourselves out of business within the next three years and let the Kenyans run it entirely on their own.”

That approach differs significantly from many other Western aid projects, which can sometimes lead to unhealthy relationships of dependence with local communities. That was something Thompson identified and wanted to avoid from the very beginning, both men said.

Right now, the Fish4Kenya project supplies the feed for the farms, but the local farmers are doing most of the technical work. Even highly specialized breeding programs are being used, with the knowledge being shared among all involved.

During their trip, the two couples focused on interviewing the workers involved, finding out what was working and where the struggles lay. They also did some water sampling and collected other data to bring home for analysis.

“We didn’t really know how well it was working before we went to visit,” de Graff said. “But it’s working beyond our wildest dreams.”

“It’s like that old saying, teach a man to fish and he’ll eat for his whole life. The only difference is that Susan taught them to grow fish. The possibility for the project was there all along, she just supplied the spark,” Gilgan said.

Contact Jesse Winter at


Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Dawson City RCMP are reporting a break and enter on Feb. 25 after two masked men entered a residence, assaulted a man inside with a weapon and departed. (Black Press file)
Two men arrested after Dawson City home invasion

Dawson City RCMP are reporting a break and enter on Feb. 25.… Continue reading

Highways and Public Works Minister Richard Mostyn speaks to reporters at a news conference in Whitehorse on Dec. 21, 2017. New ATIPP laws are coming into effect April 1. (Chris Windeyer/Yukon News file)
New access to information laws will take effect April 1

“Our government remains committed to government openness and accountability.”

City council meeting in Whitehorse on Feb. 8. At Whitehorse city council’s March 1 meeting, members were presented with a bylaw that would repeal 10 bylaws deemed to be redundant or out of date. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Out with the old

Council considers repealing outdated bylaws

A bobcat is used to help clear snow in downtown Whitehorse on Nov. 4. According to Environment Canada, the Yukon has experienced record-breaking precipitation this year. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Yukon will have “delayed spring” after heavy winter snowfall

After record levels of precipitation, cold spring will delay melt

Yukon RCMP say they’ve received three reports of youth being extorted online. (Black Press file)
Yukon youth being extorted online

Yukon RCMP say they’ve received three reports of youth being extorted on… Continue reading

A man walks passed the polling place sign at city hall in Whitehorse on Oct. 18, 2018. The City of Whitehorse is preparing for a pandemic-era election this October with a number of measures proposed to address COVID-19 restrictions. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
City gets set for Oct. 21 municipal election

Elections procedures bylaw comes forward

A rendering of the Normandy Manor seniors housing facility. (Photo courtesy KBC Developments)
Work on seniors housing project moves forward

Funding announced for Normandy Manor

Tom Ullyett, pictured, is the first Yukoner to receive the Louis St-Laurent Award of Excellence from the Canadian Bar Association for his work as a community builder and mentor in the territory. (Gabrielle Plonka/Yukon News)
Tom Ullyett wins lifetime achievement award from the Canadian Bar Association

Ullyett has worked in the Yukon’s justice ecosystem for 36 years as a public sector lawyer and mentor

The Blood Ties outreach van will now run seven nights a week, thanks to a boost in government funding. Logan Godin, coordinator, and Jesse Whelen, harm reduction counsellor, are seen here on May 12, 2020. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Blood Ties outreach van running seven nights a week with funding boost

The Yukon government is ramping up overdose response, considering safe supply plan

Ranj Pillai speaks to media about business relief programs in Whitehorse on April 1, 2020. The Yukon government announced Feb.25 that it will extend business support programs until September. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)
Government extends business relief programs to September, launches new loan

“It really gives folks some help with supporting their business with cash flow.”

Whitehorse City Hall. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
A look at decisions made by Whitehorse City Council this week

Bylaw amendment Whitehorse city council is moving closer with changes to a… Continue reading

Susie Rogan is a veteran musher with 14 years of racing experience and Yukon Journey organizer. (Yukon Journey Facebook)
Yukon Journey mushers begin 255-mile race

Eleven mushers are participating in the race from Pelly Crossing to Whitehorse

Legislative assembly on the last day of the fall sitting in Whitehorse on Nov. 22, 2018. As the legislature prepares to return on March 4, the three parties are continuing to finalize candidates in the territory’s 19 ridings. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Nine new candidates confirmed in Yukon ridings

It has been a busy two weeks as the parties try to firm up candidates

Most Read