When oil and gas were discovered in Takoradi, western Ghana, many young people thought that their futures were assured. But their hopes were quickly dashed. Could catfish provide a way out of their poverty?
For young people in Ghana's west, the discovery of oil and gas reserves initially seemed like the key to their future. But when employers soon started to recruit people with the requisite skills from abroad, they found themselves locked out of a burgeoning industry. At the same time, new fishing policies meant that many people who had been making a living from fishing lost their livelihoods and became frustrated.
And so, Ghana's western region decided to introduce a livelihood diversification programme, teaching young people how to rear catfish, and at the same time hoping to redress some of those growing inequalities. Now more and more young people are pinning their hopes on fish farming as a way out of the poverty and unemployment which affects many young people in the region.
Pond manager Moro Shaibu Sepa has a broad smile on his face as he feeds his five-and-a-half month old catfish. He's looking forward to a good harvest from these fish which are growing well.
"I have about four ponds here. After this, I am going to restock them again," he says proudly. After just six months, the fish are ready to eat. When Moro Shaibu harvests the ponds, the yield will be enough to sustain his household for the next year.
Hoping to get rich on fish
All sorts of people are trying to get into the new fish rearing industry. Osman Amadu is a 33-year-old teacher who rears fish in his spare time. Until recently, he was still hoping that one day he might find work in the oil and gas sector. "It was my expectation to be employed there but you know over here in Ghana, when you are a teacher you don't really gain much recognition, even policemen have more status than us," he laughs.
Moro Shaibu and Osman Amadu belong to the Al-Hamdallah Fish Farmers Association at Kambuni, a small community in the Ellembelle District of the western region. Now that Amadu has struck gold with catfish he's stopped dreaming about working in the oil and gas sector. "At the moment I don't have any thoughts of going to work [there] because of this business I am [now] involved in. Recently I went to Akosombo to be trained as a hatchery operator. So I am yet to establish the center and start hatching fingerlings here." He jokes that in just a few years, he will be a "fat man and not as slim as you see me [now]."
Developing the western region
Aquaculture was selected for the western region because many people already had expertise in the fishing industry and there is plentiful water. The program is supported by UKAID, the UK aid agency that supports small and medium-sized civil society organizations abroad. Barbara Joelley Wahi is the Livelihood Support Manager for the Western Region Coastal Foundation (WRCF).
"With the oil find, every youth wanted to be employed in the oil and gas [industry]. But they realized that they did not have the skills nor the capacity to do that. So what can they do? And that is where WRCF comes in. That is what our project is all about. We are giving people alternatives," she told DW.
The catfish arrived at just the right time. Marine fishing is declining by 12 percent annually in the area, according to Ghana's Fishery Commission. Alex Sabbah heads the fishery commission in the western region. He told DW that the population is growing and food for wild fish is on the decline. The government needs to assure good nutritional food sources too because Ghana is now importing more fish than it is able to fish itself. In 2016, the country imported 60 percent of its fish at a cost of 136 million dollars (around 117 million euros) because of reductions in the fishing stock.
Fishermen lost their livelihoods
At the bustling local market in Kambuni, fishermen see the decline in marine fishing as a direct consequence of the oil and gas exploration. John Akwasi, a young fisherman, complains that since the industry moved in, there's nothing left to catch. He jokes that there are "just flowers" left in the sea.
Local fishmonger Feme Afeba agrees. "It has really spoilt the river. First I could sell up to 200 cedis daily (about $42 or €36). Now how do I get that? If we knew how things will turn [out], we would have prevented them from exploring. We are really hot [angry]".
As a way of assuaging the community's anger, Alex Sabbah at the fishery commission hopes that catfish can help fill the gap.
"[Catfish have] a lot of potential because currently [they are] not so sensitive to water quality issues. For tilapia, the tiniest mistake can result in losing everything but catfish [can] tolerate [a much] wider range of parameters." The yield is also important. Sabbah explains that in just six months, tilapia tend to yield between 2-300 cubic grams (115-173 cubic ounces) of flesh. Catfish, in the same time period can grow to between 700 grams and a kilo (between 404 and 578 ounces). "So it really holds a lot of potential as a candidate for aquaculture"
At the moment, most of the catfish are consumed locally, but as the industry picks up, the hope is that Ghana can start exporting the fish. WCRF livelihood support manager Barbara Joelley Wahi says it will remain a lucrative venture for the aqua farmers. "If we look at the size of a catfish currently on the market, a kilo is about 12 to 15 ghana cedis and you can get as high as five kilos per fish. So 12 cedis times 5 kilos is around 60 cedis. And if you have like 5,000 fish in your pond and the average weight is around two to five kilos, then you are getting a lot of money."
Back at Kambuni, Moro Shaibu still has a big smile on his face. Raising catfish beats mining any day, he thinks. "It is better [because] it doesn't involve any risk."
Shaibu's day involves coming to feed the fish in the morning, at lunchtime and once more in the evening before going home. The atmosphere by the ponds is calm, there are palm trees close by and the fish seem to splash happily as they wait for feeding time.
Moro Shaibu is one of the first to leap into this new venture. It has taken a while for others to let go of their dreams of finding a job in the oil and gas industry. But if the catfish keep eating and growing at their present rate, then the perception of aquaculture in the region looks set to become positive very soon.