A Big Fish Story

A letter from Michael and Rachel Ludwig, serving in Niger

July 2019

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Raising fish in the desert? “I don’t think it’s possible for us,” responded one grizzled and experienced pastor at our recent micro-business training. As we train pastors in Community Health Evangelism (CHE) with our church partners in the EERN (Église Évangélique de la République du Niger), we sometimes have to model what thinking outside the box is like. So, we used “fish farming” as the example in our demonstration of business plans and budgets. Suddenly, many of the pastors at the training got more interested as they saw that the plan and the numbers can work even in their water-poor country.

Empowering with local resources
Fish farming is one surprising area that we’ve seen empowering our partner church recently. There’s the excited feeling both individually and corporately about how they can be a help to their community and further provide for the church’s ministry. But the empowering idea for being pioneers in raising fish locally came out of the training that Pastor Issa, the church’s National CHE Trainer, and Michael took part in two years ago in Kenya. There, we got to see examples of it being done in simple ways and how it can be a huge water saver and nutrition booster. This type of fish raising “saves” water by using it twice. Once as a place for the fish to live. Then a second time to put on gardens for fresh vegetables, after the fish have already deposited their natural fertilizer.

Buy-in crossing disciplines
A big help to this empowerment experiment was getting the interest and buy-in of church members on the ground and a sort of “cross-pollination” of expertise from different departments of the church. We heard that several had tried smaller experiments with a different kind of fish, but nothing on a decent scale because of the initial money that needs to be invested on an unproved idea. Fortunately, there has been good buy-in from church leaders, and one of the young members of the national board is very excited to work on this idea that mixes innovation in animal husbandry with agricultural benefits. Daouda is the secretary for economic assistance and recently graduated with a degree in business, so he is very involved in helping us find the best local solutions to the initial barriers.

Biggest barriers
Our two biggest problems with the fish farming model are that it needs a good supply of the proper water, and it needs a reasonable supply of hardy fish. For the fish, we quickly picked up that we would need to raise a regional species of catfish because they can stand high temperatures and mucky water. The supply is still tricky, though, because we need to bring fish in from a neighboring country in large batches of 500 to 1,000. But we hope to be able to build on having strength in numbers, getting a few larger centers to raise the fish and then being able to distribute smaller batches from there in a way that rural evangelists can afford.

Daouda is working on sourcing our fish supply from even closer, or potentially breeding catfish ourselves once we gain more expertise.

Increasing partnerships
The first larger-scale center we have is in a little corner of the EERN National Church Office. But the problem there is that the city water that we thought would be easy for us to use is infused with a small amount of chlorine. This was where another great benefit of working with the church came in. The EERN recently began working with PC(USA) mission co-worker Jim McGill to help build up their efforts with water and sanitation, working out of Niger’s capital, Niamey. This meant that Jim was able to come in and advise us on how we can get the right water situation for the fish and even build some better partnerships with local water workers for future water needs of the EERN in the area.

Reused nutritional power
With those problems solved, we’ve now been raising about 500 fish for the first three months of their expected six-month maturation. The question then became, “What crops would we grow with the fish water to increase the profit of the experiment?” Things like lettuce, tomatoes and cabbage can bring in good prices, but for us it made the most sense to grow the nutritious “super food” from moringa trees. Moringa, which is appreciated but not widely grown in Niger, is a native African tree whose leaves provide a good amount of protein, calcium and vitamins. These trees can have many trunks after judicious pruning, so they can be grown in a tightly spaced area. Selling the leaves should cover at least the ongoing cost of water, which means even more of the sale of the fish turns into profit at the end.

Long-term vision
As we do all this background work, we maintain the big vision of helping village pastors to have a micro business that will help sustain their families and add positive things to their community’s nutrition possibilities. The goal is to help them go beyond the smaller benefits of trading the same old goods that already have a saturated market. Helping them be innovators also allows them to show others the possibilities and benefits of irrigation for a garden that provides fresh vegetables for their families. One of the major future tests will be what type of price these fish can command in the villages even if they have a high desirability.

Family contributions
In the short term, our family has been doing a lot of the small work to harvest the moringa leaves and process them to be stored and sold, with our young adult boarder/“son” negotiating the market. This is in preparation for figuring out what someone could be paid to do that part of the experimental business as it develops. Our family has also continued developing and gelling together well. We recently had academic and developmental testing for our adopted son, a second grader, and got the great news that he is already up to grade level with language and many other areas we were worried about. We want to thank you all for your prayers and support that work together toward empowering our partners and keeping us equipped, protected and encouraged. Please continue to pray for our children and their opportunities for social interaction and growth. And pray that we and the pastors we work with will continue to see beyond the impossible to the vision of the whole and healthy communities that God is creating among us.

Michael and Rachel Ludwig

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