The Watch Woman Column: Tilapia and the glorious lilies of the field

BY: Enoch Darfah Frimpong

Gone are the days when tilapia was nothing more than a no-name ‘koobi’—the salted on-the-smelly-side fish that gave its particular brand of aroma to our local dishes. Those days, tilapia had no respect at all.

Like roasted plantain and groundnuts (erstwhile Kofi Brokeman), tilapia was fish for the poor. No more! These days, you disrespect tilapia at your own peril. It is expensive and unaffordable even by middle class standards. Tilapia now has respect; lots of respect.

But tilapia (Oreochromis Niloticus) is not the only game in town. Guinea fowl has respect too. It has even made it big in the news in recent weeks for scandalous reasons.

We are yet to know the full story of how guinea fowls made it centre stage into the public news-sphere. Mushrooms have respect too.

Snails and grass cutters also have their fair share of respect. It appears that over time, the things Ghanaians love to eat receive our attention and blessings to cultivate instead of waiting for them to drop like manna from heaven into our cooking pots.

Nature feeds Ghana. A few days before Easter, NADMO dredged my neighbourhood stream that was in a virgin state— flat and innocent; it had probably never been dredged since the time of Adam and Eve.

The event turned out to be a fascinating tilapia and catfish harvesting bonanza for folks who had what it takes to catch fish. Great-grandparent, grandparent, parent and children fishes were harvested when their solace was disturbed in the virgin river-bed.

So last Saturday I set out to explore tilapia farming so I can create my own fish harvesting opportunities.

Time in tilapia school:

The class itself was fun despite a crack display of disorder and poor organization. Our class was a collection of over-achievers.

The tilapia teacher whipped-up our appetite with demonstrable hypothetical figures of the possibility of profit. He explained: if you invest X amount of Ghana cedis, at harvest time in six months, you will make X amount of Ghana cedis in return. The figure on the profit side was obscenely high. I blinked and held my aging breadth.

At long last, I was going to become a wealthy woman! I would ignore Jesus’ instructions and become a fisher of fishes not a fisher of any man or woman or child old or young. East Legon mansions, here I come!

The profit side of the calculations was so impressive that one could get tempted to quit current job, take a loan and run off to farm tilapia. I could head towards my ancestral homeland of Ada and pitch my tent and a few cages by the River Volta and forget about Accra. I even imagined sending you regular articles for this column from Ada and beyond after I’ve settled down in my new fishy life. But hold on; the figures were too good to be true; they looked like red flags waving in my face.

The truth is that at that point of cracking the profit figures, my tilapia teacher looked like any salesman who was eager to hook his new catches (no pun intended) to one of the new big things in town—tilapia farming.

I thought to myself, we must be very lucky to have such a wealthy man taking precious time off to teach us how we too can become wealthy within the next year. A minor detail—we had each paid GHc115 as school fees for the workshop that was nothing more than a two-hour lousy PowerPoint presentation.  

A major red flag moment came when we asked our tilapia teacher to tell us about his own farm, his success story. We desired to see it for ourselves as a motivator. His answer was casual and unconvincing.

He said, he is so busy teaching out of passion to transfer knowledge to us so he doesn’t currently have a tilapia farm! What! Ouch! I felt my tilapia dream collapse like a pack of cards. The sad thought crossed my mind that this new big thing of tilapia farming might be glittering but is not the gold it appears to be.

To illustrate a certain point about producing fingerlings, the tilapia teacher asked my seven-member class comprising of six men and me, yours truly if we knew where a tilapia’s anus is located.

Of course I knew but the men had no clue. What surprised me was not that they did not know but that there was a hush-hush expression of shock by some that a tilapia would have an anus! I wondered, how do you think fishes go when they have to go?” Shouldn’t fishes, like all living things also possess that essential part? Whatever goes in must come out; whatever goes up must come down!

That incident was an “I gotcha” moment for me as a woman. After all, I’ve lived years cleaning up fresh fish to cook so I know that I know such matters. Most men usually just eat prepared food without a clue of the journey raw food takes to become finished meal. If that moment in class had been examinable, I would have scored very high points.     

Swinging our pendulum from over-dependency:

As much as my interest in tilapia farming has been whipped up and I’ll continue exploring the possibilities by weighing all my options, I’m concerned about ‘stealers’.

During my tilapia farming workshop, one of the key challenges of tilapia farming that came up was about thieves who without investing anything, sneak out to steal fish from farms. Not only the workers steal but organized thieves go on the rampage to steal.

Mango farmers face the same challenge too with armed robbers descending on farms at harvest time to steal. So like mango farmers, I learned that to become a successful fish farmer, one must hire armed guards to protect the fish from robbers.

I recall the news story of thieves daring to steal Dr Kwadwo Afari-Gyan’s tilapia on his farm. For the mighty Electoral Commissioner to be a fish farmer on the side is an admirable lesson for Ghanaians.

But for thieves to extend their craft to his farm is disrespectful and unacceptable.

Ghana cannot continue to approach our food security from the lilies-of-the-field perspective—that the things we love to eat like mushrooms, rabbits, guinea fowls and tilapia will also always grow naturally for us to grab and eat. Every 20 years since the first census in 1960, Ghana’s population has doubled.

The naturally-occurring mushrooms, rabbits, guinea fowls and tilapia cannot double since Ghana’s estimated 227,540 square kilometres of land size remains the same. So it makes sense for us to produce some of these cultural delicacies by ourselves.

Our pendulum must swing from over-dependence on food imports to true food independence that should include farming all of our tomatoes, watermelon, onions, tilapia, cocoyam, mushrooms and others.

If once upon a time General Kutu Acheampong’s Operation Feed Yourself programme succeeded in getting us to become truly food self-sufficient, we can do it again. It may mean that some of us farm tilapia and snails. When we succeed in reaching a critical mass, we can have enough.

Article by Doris Yaa Dartey

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