From Office Assistant to Fish Farming

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Not many young Africans abandon their lucrative city desk jobs for farming.

Negative perceptions of farming, lack of information, skills, credit, and land are some of the reasons why very few city dwellers do not want to return to the vastly uninhabited rural areas of most Sub-Sahara African countries to practice agriculture, experts argue.

In recent years, the trend has shown that young people, particularly in West Africa, are abandoning small farming to the big cities and to Europe or other West cities in search of greener pastures.

But in Cote d’Ivoire, one 48-years-old Boli Bi Alain is defying this trend.

From his relatively comfortable job as office assistant supporting the coordinator of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) in the economic capital, Abidjan, Boli Bi is today managing an eight-hectare fish farm in Bahompa, located in Gagnoa Division, in the central-west of Cote d’Ivoire.

Bahompa is located about 300 kilometers from the economic capital, Abidjan.

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 “I was tired helping others get rich,” he says.

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“I quit my job in 2009 to focus on fish farming.”

Countries, development organizations and research institutions have long argued that agribusiness and entrepreneurship is one of the primary ways to unleash the potential of the agriculture industry of Africa. Taken to scale by those in the private sector, experts say, there is a strongly possibility of job creation, improvements in livelihoods and the achievement of nutrition and food security.

While translating these lofty goals into a reality remain a major challenge, one brave, audacious, and ambitious Ivorian is unquestionably convinced that his future depends on agribusiness. Boli Bi takes pride in being identified as an “aquabusiness specialist.”

“Not many get into fish farming with a business plan or with the intention to make this a profitable business,” he argues. “The mental mind frame behind fish farming is wrong and this partly explains why the sector has not grown as it should,” he adds.

“Fish farming is a science made up of so many components. These include the production of feed and fingerlings. It also includes the construction of infrastructure that is capable of water filtration and aeration, maintenance, netting, cages, and ponds,” he says.

To him, most fish farmers think they can handle this individually.

“What I learned in Vietnam is that you have people along the value chain just handling, for example, the fish feed or producing fingerlings.”

Employing About 25 Workers

Unable to find viable jobs in rural areas of Cote d’Ivoire as in most West African countries, youths migrate to urban cities where they often face uncertain futures.

With his knowledge of economics and project management acquired in the University in ABdijan, this entrepreneur has set up a cooperative in which he has made arrangements to share the proceeds from their yearly production among the members.

“I work with 25 people. I don’t pay them a salary. The system we have in place is incentive-based. What it does is that it encourages everyone with a share in the cooperative to work as hard as possible. Because the higher the production, the higher the chances of getting better pay.”

Business Expanding with New Knowledge and Skills

In fulfillment of its regional integration mandate, the West Africa Economic and Monetary Union (WAEMU) funded a three-year research and development project in five-member states.

Known as the project for the valorization of animal genetic resources and local aquaculture (PROGEVAL), this 500 million FCFA (USD 1 million) worth intervention seeks primarily to understand the genetic composition of cattle, sheep, tilapia, and guinea fowl as well as boost its production.

The project implemented by Burkina Faso-based International Research and Development Center on Livestock in Subhumid Zone (CIRDES) under the coordination of CORAF also engages with farmers on innovation platforms to exchange and share new practices while enhancing learning among actors of a specific value chain.

In the central-west region of Cote d’Ivoire, one of this innovation platform was established to serve the interest of about 22o fish farmers.

With the progress made in fish farming in Bahompa prior to the start of the project 2016, Boli Bi Alain was designated president by other fish farmers of the region.

In addition to lessons on the appropriate fish feed, fingerlings, Boli Bi and his peers also learned how to market their products, plan the harvest, and build ponds and other critical infrastructure.

“With the knowledge and skills gotten from this project, we are now producing about 24 tons of fish yearly,” says Boli Bi.

With a kilogram of tilapia selling at roughly 1500 FCFA, this represents about 32 million FCFA (USD 64,000) yearly.

In a country where majority of people surviving on less than 2 USD per day, this is substantial revenue for pretty little effort, experts argue.

“In him, there are two success stories. Firstly, as one of the main beneficiaries of the project. Secondly, it is a success story from the perspective of the support and empowerment he has given to other fish farmers in this region,” says Dr. Khady Diop, PROGEVAL Focal Point at CORAF.

Boli Bi is acknowledged in the greater Gagnoa region as supporting other farmers with the right knowledge and technical support.

“Fish farming is a source of employment. We have plenty of water and suitable land. There is demand. Our country needs 400.000 tons each year, we produce only 70.000 tons. Meaning there is a huge deficit. If we involve our women and youths, we can turn this sector into a lasting income-generating activity for them,” he argues.

Getting Bahompa Women Involved

Sensing there will be greater profit in the transformation and commercialization of fish, Boli Bi and his group are now studying the possibility of getting the wives of members of the platform to contribute in transforming the fish as well as leading the sales across the country.

Most fish farmers on the innovation platform in Bahompa depend on sellers coming from all over Cote d’Ivoire. Many have incurred loses either because the buyers often borrow and do not pay in full or on time. In some cases, the bargain in the market is not in favor of the Bahompa fish farmers, they say.

“As from next year, we shall engage our women in the sale of fish produced by our members,” says Boli Bi.

Political Will Needed

Boli Bi Alain is perhaps one of the few highly educated and ex-urban individuals capitalizing on the booming consumer demand for local fish in Cote d’Ivoire. While he argues that there are immense opportunities in fish farming compared to other sectors, he also says that without political support, it will be challenging to reach the critical mass of agribusiness owners needed to transform the agriculture industry sustainably.

“The massive cultivation of cocoa in Cote d’Ivoire is as a result of political will,” he says in reference to measures put in place by the first president of Cote d’Ivoire to encourage cocoa farming.

Cote d’Ivoire is the highest cocoa producing country in the world with about 40 percent of the global market.

“The growth of fish farming like any other agricultural sector can be severely undermined without the required policies and regulations in place.”

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