Once a fisher always a fisher? Maybe not....

WOW, I had one of the most productive days in a long time. It was a day with no meetings, no emails, no phone calls, no deadlines and no process work. Wondering why it was so productive?

Well, I had the privilege of spending an entire day meeting and listening to the stories of smallholder producers who benefitted from the IFAD-funded Participatory Artisanal Fisheries Development Support Programme, better known as PADPPA.

Ndaya Beltchika, was appointed as the country programme manager for Benin in 2010. In closing PADPPA she took the bold step of documenting the success and challenges of this programme so that others could avoid making the same mistakes and reinventing the wheel.

Kudos to Beltchika, as she is a true knowledge worker and one of the few people I’ve worked with who fully appreciates the power and potential of learning both from successes and failures.

I think it is fair to say that PADPPA has both impressive achievements and faced massive challenges.

It was approved in 2003 and has a 50-50 cofinancing arrangement with African Development Fund (AfDF).

It took over two years before it started its operations in 2005. For the first four years it only disbursed 10.13%, which classifies it as a poor-performing project.

“One of the major challenges of PADPPA was the 50-50 cofinancing arrangements between AfDF and IFAD”, says Gerard Gnakadja, the National Coordinator. “If I had to redo the project, I would strongly recommend against such an arrangement and would have each donor fully finance a component thus making implementation more efficient and effective.”

The turning point was in 2009, when IFAD started supervising its own projects and providing direct implementation support. As a result, literally overnight there was a boast in the project activities and in just a little more than two years the disbursement rate increased from 20.47% to 50.53%.

The programme is coming to and end. Over the last eight years, it has focused on strengthening the fisheries sector in Benin by:

  • rehabilitating wetlands and lakes to increase fishing opportunities
  • strengthening fisher’s community and building their capacity to better manage the fisheries resources and other natural resources
  • encouraging fishers to take up alternative income generating activities

My productive day started with meeting three extraordinary smallholder producers who had given up fishing for other types of income generating activities.

Agriculture is cool: Meet Paul Allognon, the fisher who became a farmer

Paul Allognon, once a fisher, today thanks to the programme is a successful smallholder farmer. He is one of the 200 fishers who received training on agriculture-related activities offered by the Vice-President of the Agricultural Chamber, Adjehoda Amoussou, and his colleagues.

“Usually these training sessions last between 15 to 30 days and afterwords, the project provides extension services and monitors the farmers to make sure they apply what they learnt”, explains Amoussou. “However, the PADPPA trainees benefitted from an abridged version of the training and from what I understand not all of them received the post training backstopping”.

Although Allognon did not benefit from the full training programme, however, he learnt the basic agricultural practices such as rotating crops, when to plant what, when and how to use fertilizer, when to harvest and how and where to market and sell his produce. Understanding the importance of a good irrigation system, he installed a water pump and has a CFA350,0001 irrigation system on his land.

As a result, Allognon is now cultivating onions, tomatoes, pepper, parsley and cucumber.

“The village ladies visited me a couple of weeks ago and asked for onions. This is why we’re planting them now”, explains Allognon. “I plant based on needs, this way, I hardly ever have any surplus.”

On this farm, Allognon has a number of coconut palm trees which are another source of income. “I sell the coconut oil for CFA500 per litre. Every three months on average I manage to produced 120 litres of oil”, mentions Allognon.

“I dry the shell which is then used as firewood. The shell is also on high demand by the ladies who are in fish smoking business and also as animal feed”, says Allognon with a smile.

By embracing agriculture, Allognon has managed to triple his income. He is now able to offer employment to six other people and can afford paying them CFA15,000 per month.

“I would never go back to fishing. Believe me, fishing is not worthwhile. You go out to the sea at crack of dawn, stay out 3-5 days or if you make day trips, you come back at dusk and with what? What a basket full of small fish”, remarks Allognon.

Thanks to a steady income, Allognon is able to send all his 9 and 4 year old children to school. He has managed to buy an 2000 m2land, and is in the process of building a house for his family.

Reflecting on PADPPA’s achievements, Olivier Vigan, Secretary-General of the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Fisheries observed: “Only if we could have changed the mindset of many more fishers, that would have made this programme a success”. “In retrospect, we should have had many more awareness building programmes and prepared the fishers psychologically to convert from fishing to other acitivities”.

I wish, the programme would have used people like Paul Allognon as mentors to show the benefits of embracing agriculture and engaging in agriculture-related projects. And yes, more awareness building and proactive actions to change the fisher’s mindset would have definitely resulted in many more fishers converting to agriculture, rabbit farming or other income generating activities.

Rabbit farming: a viable alternative to fishing

On this very special day, after meeting Paul Allognon, I met Rose Mensah and Kuassi Oke, two former fishers who are now fully emerged and engaged with rabbit farming.

Mensah lives by Aeheme lake where she used to be a fish wholesaler. However, the lake’s fish stock has depleted significantly, thus making fishing a risky business. Mensah was lucky to benefit from PADPPA’s rabbit farming activities. In 2007, PADPPA gave her three female and 1 male rabbit.

In a month’s time she had 18 rabbits and ever since then, it has been a growing business. Today she has over 200 rabbits and can count on a steady flow of 30 rabbits per month.

Thanks to her new activity, she has 20 fixed clients - among which some hotels in Cotonou. On average she makes CFA100,000 a month.

“I sell the rabbits for CFA3000. Thanks to the money I make from my rabbit farm, not only I am able to feed the family, send the children to school, but I am also able to put aside at least CFA10,000 a month”, explains Mensah.

Mensah’s vision is to be able to build another big rabbit pen. “But to do that I need one million CFA and I need to able to get a loan. And that is not an easy thing to do.”

Kuassi Oke, a 55 year old rabbit farmer, has an equally thriving farm as Mensah’s. He too in 2007 received 3 females and 1 male and ever since then, he’s gone from success to success.

Oke is a real businessman. To ensure that he has a steady stock, he has put in a place a bullet proof reproduction scheme. “I have 25 females. Each month I have half of them reproduce. This way, the females get a rest every other month and on average I have 115 new rabbits.”

He manages to sell 50 rabbits a month to clients in major cities, hotel owners and in to people in his village. As a true businessman, he has fixed price - CFA3000 per rabbit - and does not provide any preferential treatment to his fellow villagers!

Thanks to his new activity, he is able to provide a good life to his 19 children, three wives and has a monthly saving of CFA40,000. Realizing that not everyone has been lucky as him, to help others, he has created a village saving scheme where on a monthly basis he deposits some of his savings which is used to assist villagers in moments of dire need.

Initially the villagers were a bit intrigued and suspicious of his activity. But, today, thanks to his flourishing business, he has earned a social status. He is now providing rabbit farming training to interested villagers and is the adviser to the village chief.

He has put in place a succession plan by training two of his sons which will take over from him, when and if he decides to retire!

Oke has expanded his business to poultry and is looking forward to be able to buy himself a motorcycle.

New frontiers for rabbit farming: Processing and packaging

One would hope that sooner rather than later Mensah and Oke will learn how to add value to their rabbit farming business by embracing some processing activities. Hopefully, they will be able to access credit, challenging as it may be, so that they can acquire the necessary skills and set up the infrastructure needed for processing, packing and selling rabbit meat.

It would have been nice if PADPPA had seized this opportunity and offered these sterling entrepreneurs the opportunity to add value to their rabbit farm by exposing them to the processing and packaging world.

Keeping close to “Centre de miracle”

As we were driving back, I thought to myself, WOW, what a great day. Would it be possible to replicate this miracle every day? I guess if I keep close to this “Centre de miracle”, I will have a good chance of experiencing it over and over again.

I wonder what will my boss think, if I call or send an email telling her that I have found a new vocation and do not want to leave?

I’ll be covering the story of fishers on the next series of PADPPA blogposts. So, keep on eye on this space. More to come. For now, goodbye and good night.