Malawi – Hugh Thomforde

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Malawi – Hugh Thomforde

Category : Updates

Hugh Thomforde recently volunteered to engage in aquaculture activity in Malawi and very kindly forwarded a copy of this report for your interest.

“In 2008 the Mwangonde family purchased land along the Viphya River, part of the Viphya Plateau Floodplain near Mzuzu in northern Malawi, with the intention of farming. They observed that the river flows strongly year-round – an essential requirement for arable land. They attempted maize, cabbage, tomato, potato, and traditional crops of the region, but through trial and error found large lowland areas too waterlogged for good production. Years ago Odoi Mwangonde had taken an interest in growing fish in ponds, and visited fish farms in Namibia. Aquaculture is not widely practiced anywhere in Malawi or elsewhere in Africa. Wild catch still accounts for the vast majority of fish consumed on the continent. Mr. Mwangonde decided to build ponds on the areas of their farm at lowest elevation, undrainable and not suited to terrestrial agriculture, to grow tilapia. One native species, Oreochromis shiranus, is known as Chambo in Tambuka, so they called their new enterprise Viphya Chambo Farm. Now, eight years later, after several years of profitable production, but markedly poorer harvests last year, the family sought assistance to improve and stabilize farm operations. They contacted CNFA, an NGO providing technical training in Malawi under the USAID Farmer to Farmer volunteer Program. Detailed on-site review by CNFA’s local staff determined that the Mwangonde family were in a position to make good use of assistance, so in November 2019 I travelled to Mzuzu to provide practical guidance regarding fish farm management, including nutrition, feed formulation and improved methods of handling fingerlings. I am a retired Extension Specialist, University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, I managed commercial aquaculture farms in the Philippines and United States, and have many decades’ experience providing skills and knowledge to small-scale commercial fish growers in Asia and Africa.

Upon arrival in Mzuzu I was pleased to learn that it was safe to walk most-anywhere in the vicinity of where I was staying. Mr Davie, my dedicated taxi driver, pointed across the valley: “We are safe here because those are military barracks. There is a school there. And they have electricity every night!” I learned that electricity is unpredictably rationed in Mzuzu, off in some areas while on in other parts of the town. The next morning I followed the crowds of school children on the path across the valley, but soon left the beaten track, attracted by ponds, and in this manner entered the Malawi Department of Fisheries demonstration station. A week later I returned (through the front gate!) to review their tilapia brood ponds, pens where pig manure washed directly to ponds as fertilizer, and a small-scale feed processing plant, available for use by commercial producers.

One afternoon I waited outside a clinic with Manase and Florence Mwangonde to use their microscope to evaluate the relative food-value of plankton collected from their farm ponds. The conversation turned to our experiences with evangelical churches. They shared with me details about their Presbyterian church, and I about Quakers. I also mentioned that my wife and I attend a Christian church with a woman minister that welcomes same-sex couples. They were incredulous that any church would marry people of the same sex. I told them our Supreme Court had made same-sex marriage legal in all 50 States. I was already aware of the strict laws against same-sex relationships in Malawi, and we never returned to this topic, but during the course of the following days we listened and shared at-length on a wide range of topics, from local superstitions to ways integrated aquaculture is implicated with world-wide flu epidemics. One day Florence scrolled through the photos on my cell-phone, initially interested in fish farming practices, and when she came upon family photos she was much impressed to learn that during my absence my brother, and then, in turn, my wife’s brother, were staying with my wife to assist in tasks of daily living. This sequence of interpersonal exchanges marked a deepening of personal relations with the Mwangondes.

Despite the brevity of my 2-week visit to Mzuzu I anticipate that the assistance I provided to the Mwangonde family will significantly improve farm profitability. In recent years about 50 percent of their operating costs were for imported, pelleted feed. But tilapia are omnivorous and highly adaptive feeders. I helped them understand why, at their stocking densities, tilapia do not require feeding. Instead, leave them to forage for food, much like the local practice of raising a flock of chickens. Wisely, they intend to implement, compare, and verify my advice slowly, over a full growing season.  

At the clinic laboratory we used a low-power microscope, normally reserved for diagnosing malaria, to understand some basic ecology of standing-water earthen-ponds. We brought water from several farm-ponds and spent an hour comparing the variety of microscopic plants and animals thriving in the water. A high diversity of plankton suggest a relatively stable, nutritious food supply for tilapia. In contrast, pond water where a single species of plankton is dominant indicate unfavorable conditions. Application of organic manures leads to more variety of plankton, particularly animal plankton, but also greater likelihood of stressful early-morning oxygen depletion. Ponds crowded with plankton have high bloom density, inversely correlated to Secchi measurements. By simple observation of pond conditions and weather, day and night, by keeping written records of fertilizer applied, and quantitative changes in plankton density, pond-by-pond, farm managers learn to maintain sufficient fertilization while, at the same time, keeping early-morning oxygen depletions and other problems to a minimum. We spent a lot of time with the Secchi disk – a low-tech device essential to bloom management. By loading ponds with manures inside porous sacks farm staff have greater flexibility to control the effects because sacks allow for quick removal when bloom density proceeds too rapidly (and any time Secchi readings are less than 20 cm). Then, when bloom density decreases (say, at Secchi readings greater than 30 cm), day-after-day, then return manure to the pond.

Successful pond management requires daily and weekly monitoring of fertilization rates, water quality, and other routine tasks, keeping written records, pond-by-pond and year-after-year. The reward of learning these skills comes at harvest: high-value live fish from low-value locally-sourced manures and other agricultural by-products. “

We appreciate Hugh taking the time to keep us informed of his important volunteering!