By Nosihle Shelembe–SAnews.gov.za
In a community where over 50 percent of the population rely on government grants and over 20 percent of households live below the poverty line, a fish farming project in a rural Eastern Cape town is changing lives and has brought hope of a better future to many of its residents.
Located in Graaff-Reniet, the Camdeboo Satellite Aquaculture Project (CSAP) has created work opportunities for the residents of Graaff-Rienet, an area plagued by high levels of unemployment.
The CSAP is a project of the Blue Karoo Trust (BKT) and uses a farming method called aquaculture to establish a preserved freshwater fish industry in Graaff-Reniet.
In the small facility, employees of BKT who pride themselves in teamwork, can be seen wearing white overalls and gloves as they work with catfish which is ready for harvest.
All in a day’s work
Supervisor Margaret Baai, who has more than 20 years of experience working with fish, explains that the catfish is brought to the small facility after it has been bred and grown for a period of six months.
When it’s ready for processing, the catfish is put into boiling water for a short time, then the mucus is removed and afterwards it is dissected.
The process to dissect the catfish includes removing its head, tail, gut and skin, meaning that only 70 percent of the fish is used for human consumption.
As one observes the workers at BKT, it is clear that cleanliness is of the utmost importance as they regularly clean the floor with a hosepipe.
According to Baai, most of the processing for BKT is done at the Cape Peninsular University of Technology as the facility has the equipment needed for it.
BKT is one of the initiatives which has been identified by government to grow the aquaculture sector and provide jobs as part of the Operation Phakisa: Ocean Economy project.
Government is implementing the project to address the triple challenges of poverty, unemployment and inequality.
Launched in 2014, the ocean economy project will focus on four priority potential growth areas such as marine transport and manufacturing, offshore oil and gas exploration, aquaculture as well as marine protection services and ocean governance which have a significant GDP growth and job creation potential.
The project will focus on unlocking the economic potential of South Africa’s oceans which are estimated to have the potential to contribute R177billion to the GDP by 2033 compared to R54billion in 2010.
Government has chosen to develop the ocean economy as this sector remains largely untapped.
It is estimated that aquaculture projects, both fresh water and marine, will ensure growth of the sector to the tune of R3billion by 2019.
Blue Karoo Trust and its people
BKT is putting food on the table for 120 of its employees who reside in Camdeboo, a remote rural area in the Eastern Cape, which is home to approximately 50,000 people.
In an area where skills development and employment opportunities are scarce, BKT is empowering its employees as they are all required to achieve an NQF Level 1 qualification in fish farming or processing.
The training focuses on the theory, as well as the practical lessons on fish farming, and processing. Trainees also learn about health and safety, life skills, workplace skills, how to put together a business plan and a budget.
Twenty-five-year-old, Thabisa Zali, who works at BKT as demonstrator in the training tunnel, says her job has given her the courage to dream.
Zali says the programme has changed her life because when she was a trainee, she did a course on life-skills which changed her outlook on life.
“This job has allowed me to have bigger dreams for myself. I want to further my studies so I can grow in my career and work in the formal sector of agriculture.
“One day I want to own my own farm. I know it won’t be easy but with the training that I have acquired on this farm, it is possible,” she says.
Zali says when she joined BKT in 2013, she was a bit sceptical about the job because she didn’t know what it would be like to work with fish.
“Since then I have given my all to the job. I just love it; it’s now my passion.”
Her salary is contributing towards supporting her family, which includes her grandmother, aunt and uncles.
Hildegarde Johnson, who also works on the farm, says she is grateful to BKT because her job makes it possible for her to provide for her family.
The 27-year-old woman works as a team leader in the aquaculture system where she trains people on how to work with fish.
Johnson says she likes her job because she work with different people every six months and she enjoys teaching trainees.
“The job has equipped me with skills which have helped me grow as a person and my family can also be inspired by me as I am not sitting at home,” she says.
Johnson is a breadwinner at home and supports a household of six people.
Established in 2006 and initially financed by its partners who used income from a guest house which they ran in the Eastern Cape, BKT has received financial support from various government departments.
Those departments include AgriSETA, Camdeboo Local Municipality, the Sarah Baartman District Municipality, Eastern Cape Development Corporation, the Department of Agriculture Forestry & Fisheries, Department of Economic Development, Department of Environmental Affairs as well as the Department of Trade and Industry.
The project which produces catfish has beaten all odds and proved to its critics that with hard work and dedication, anything is possible.
BKT Trustee, responsible for project management, Liesl de la Harper said the company initially had a vision of farming fish using farm dams as well as reservoirs, and selling them locally off the back of a bakkie.
As the company did research for the business concept, the idea of farming fish to sell off the back of the bakkie changed drastically.
BKT discovered that South Africa’s pilchard quota had dropped by 80 percent since 2004.
The research also showed that imports of canned fish and Tuna products had increased by over 333 percent from 2007 to 2009, while the pilchard prices had doubled, negatively impacting low-income households.
“That is what made us shift from farm dams, reservoirs, selling off the back of the bakkie to a more intensive and larger scale operation in order for the processing activities to make commercial sense,” de la Harper says.
BKT then decided to preserve fresh water fish.
“We started out by converting old pig styles into fish tanks and we started training people in the garage at home,” says de la Harper.
Five years ago, de la Harpe started training with a group of 23 people but over a period of 18 months, the number dropped to 12 because no funds were initially available for stipends or salaries.
As the business has grown, BKT’s farm has a hatchery where the fish is bred, a grow-out section where the water is circulated and the fish are gown as well as a small facility where the fish is processed.
Challenges that were overcome
The company which is currently entering its commercial phase, has overcome many obstacles as people believed the dream to breed and process fish inland was too ambitious and could not be achieved.
“We are doing what is not done anywhere else, so we encounter a lot of ‘you can’t do this, you won’t do that,’ so that is a challenge because it takes a long time to prove them wrong.
“We were also told by a lot of people that the jobs that we wanted to create were too technical and that we could never train local people to do something so technical,” says de la Harper.
Critics also told her that she would struggle to keep the water temperature on the farm constant throughout the year because Graaff-Reneit gets very cold in winter. Yet, the water temperature is maintained at 28 degrees Celsius all year round.
Another hurdle, the company had to overcome was getting finance released, once it was secured. Getting funds released could take up to two years, which sends the initiative into a holding pattern and wastes a lot of resources.
The company is waiting for the environmental authorisation for the processing facility and for the National Regulator for Compulsory Specifications (NRCS) to approve the final processed product.
Once that has been sorted, the fish will be sold locally to bulk markets which include caterers and public sector kitchens.
The company does not intend to compete with established brands in formal markets but rather to provide a sustainable and cost effective bulk source of protein directly to kitchens.