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