Margret Sabe at one of the ponds

Despite her advanced age, Margret Sabe vowed to avail herself at the fish ponds whenever there is work to be done there.  Sabe is a member of a group in Nsanje that has set up a fish farm on the east bank of the Shire River, and says the initiative has reduced the number of human deaths from crocodile attacks in the area. The fish farm has provided an alternative source of fish. This has further helped the locals to generate income and conserve the environment.

“This is why I am always here when told to come although I am aged,” the mother of eight said, referring to the Kadansana Fish Farm to which she belongs.

One of the new fish ponds at Kadansana Fish Farm

The fish farm is in the area of Group Village Headman (GVH) Chipondeni, Traditional Authority Mlolo in Nsanje. It is a community initiative aimed at improving lives of its members’ households while at the same time conserving the environment.  Kadansana Fish Farm is one of several fisheries groups, people in Chikwawa and Nsanje have established to stop their dependence on the Shire River as a source of fish and income.

The Shire flows through Elephant Marsh in Chikwawa and Nsanje as it heads southwards to Mozambique and into the Indian Ocean. It has for years been a source of livelihood for most of the inhabitants of the two districts.  However, overfishing and bad fishing practices in the river have led to the reduction of catches, prompting locals to turn to fish farming as an alternative source of fish and a way to make money.  But the people needed a push to bring their dream to fruition and as luck would have it, they got it from one of the country’s biggest development projects-Shire Valley Transformation Programme (SVTP).

The SVTP comprises a component on conservation with funding from GEF, intended to lessen the impact on the environment at all stages of the project’s implementation.  GEF has contributed $5.5 million to cater for wildlife issues and environmental conservation in Lengwe National Park, Majete and Mwabvi Wildlife Reserves, Elephant Marsh and Matandwe Forest Reserve.

SVTP Natural Resource Management Coordinator Daulos Mauambeta said the component was vital for catchment management and conservation of natural resources that are along the route of the canal, which will cover slightly more than 100 Km upon completion.

“We don’t want siltation in the canal. If this will happen, the canal will not be effective,” Mauambeta, said in an interview.

He said: “We appeal to everyone to get involved in catchment management so that the intended irrigation project can achieve its objective.”

And it is under the natural resources sub-component that Kadansana Fish Farm received assistance from SVTP to build 5 additional ponds to boost production of fish, which is the main source of animal protein in Malawi. Four ponds were prior constructed under the Shire River Basin Management Programme.  So far Kadansana Fish Farm has 9 fish ponds.

“We used to rely on the Shire River as our source of fish. We didn’t know one could do fish farming as a business. We are wiser now,” said Peter Muguduzeni, Secretary for Kadansana Fish Farm.

To derive maximum benefits from fish farming, the locals are practicing integrated farming, growing rice and fish together in the same ponds. This is called Rice-Fish Culture. One fish harvest earned the farmers nearly half a million Kwacha. The locals used part of the money to buy essential goods for their households.

“We are healthy because the fish is within reach and we eat it whenever we want,” Muguduzeni said at a development meeting in the area of GVH Chipondeni.

The fisheries sector contributes more than 70 per cent of the dietary animal protein intake of Malawians and 40 per cent of the total protein supply, according to Malawi’s Annual Economic Report 2020.  The report, produced by the Department of Economic Planning and Development, says there are an estimated 15,465 fish farmers in the country, of whom 61.51 are males while 38.49 are females.

Malawi has 10,007 fish ponds with a total pond area of 251.59 hectares. Per capita fish consumption is at 8.72kg per year, which is below 13-15kg recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO).

Laban Silli, District Fisheries Officer for Nsanje underscored the importance of having fish ponds in Nsanje and Chikwawa to ease pressure exerted on the Shire River due to overfishing.

“Despite the fact that there is the Shire River which is the source of fish for the locals, catches are dwindling due to overfishing resulting from over population,” Silli told this writer.

He said government was making effort to promote aquaculture using pond-based fish farming in an effort to end hunger, reduce malnutrition and create jobs for the local communities.

The fishing industry is also a major source of employment, currently employing about 60,636 people. Additionally, it indirectly employs more than half a million people, and supports more than 1.6 million.

    Fish harvesting at Phala Irrigation Scheme

Another fish farm group that is also benefitting from the presence of the 14-year SVTP is at Phala Irrigation Scheme in the area of GVH Nantusi, T/A Makhuwira, in Chikwawa. The group consists of 110 farmers who are engaged in different agricultural activities at the scheme and decided to integrate the activities with fish farming. The group started fish farming in October 2019. The farmers’ appeal for assistance towards the construction of ponds initially received no response, until SVTP came along.  SVTP showed interest and provided, among other items, materials for construction of fish ponds, training, fingerlings, feed and harvesting nets through the GEF component.

The fish farm at Phala Irrigation Scheme recently had its first harvest. The spectacle drew tens of locals who looked bewildered, not believing that fish could be farmed just like crops.

GVH Nantusi, who also witnessed the harvest and was visibly happy, said the harvest was the culmination of months of his subjects’ hard work and determination to have fish on their doorstep.

“With these fish ponds, we have been empowered economically. Besides, fish is very good for our bodies. We need more of these ponds,” GVH Nantusi said, watching fish being hauled out of a pond.

Annie Magombo, Chikwawa District Fisheries Officer, said there was great need to support fish farming upland to allow fish in the Shire River to breed. The district currently has 86 active fish ponds.

Magombo said communities in the district see the Shire River as their source of fish protein. But she noted that the fish in the river has been depleted in recent years due to increased human population.

“The support SVTP is providing in the Elephant Marsh is timely and commendable. These ponds show that it is possible to conserve fishery resources,” she said during the harvest day in Nantusi Village.