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Learning and earning - women in aquaculture

The WISH-Pond system enables intensive rearing of pangasius catfish (© Chea Seila)
The WISH-Pond system enables intensive rearing of pangasius catfish
© Chea Seila

In Cambodia, a country where fish constitute a vital source of dietary protein, the National Fisheries Administration (FiA) is planning a massive expansion in aquaculture production, aiming for the sector to produce 300,000 tonnes of fish per year by 2020, up from 40,000 tonnes in 2008. Currently, the most popular model for improving food security among poor rural households is extensive pond culture, with ponds varying in size from 80 - 300m2 and families using mostly on-farm products as feed. But a study in 2010 by WorldFish found that many poor farmers have insufficient land for pond building on this scale, and lack cash to buy feed and fingerlings. As a result, ponds have frequently become unproductive once project support is withdrawn.

Aquaculture systems, often dependent on the adoption of new techniques and technologies, are commonly regarded as the domain of men. However, in Strung Treng Province, in the north east of Cambodia, WorldFish, the FiA and a local NGO - the Culture and Environmental Preservation Association (CEPA) - are investigating the costs and benefits for women, in particular, to adopt an alternative, more intensive small-scale aquaculture system known as the WISH-Pond (water and fish). As part of that process, the project team has investigated the role of community science - a combination of Action Research and Participatory Action Learning (see box) - in enabling women to adapt the aquaculture system to their needs and get maximum benefits from the government's aquaculture expansion programme.

Community science actively engages local people in the research process, supporting them to identify research questions, design studies, collect and analyse data and apply the results. It spans a range of participatory activities. In Action Research, external researchers have a greater role in defining the scope of study and outputs are more generally applicable to development processes. In Participatory Action Learning, the community has a stronger role in defining the research; approaches that 'work' are chosen and adopted by the community as part of the process.

Unlike extensive pond systems, which in Cambodia typically involve production of a variety of different species and are primarily targeted at household consumption, the WISH-Pond system concentrates on just one species - pangasius catfish (Pangasius hypophthalmus) - and aims at income generation through fish sales, as well as supplying food to the household. Made of plastic sheeting or cement, the ponds are smaller (8-20 m2), are stocked more intensively (600 fish per pond), and can yield three times the amount of fish per unit area than the extensive ponds. Feed sources include commercially-produced pellets (40 per cent), natural feeds such as termites and snails (50 per cent) and by-products from rice farming (ten per cent).

Empowerment through knowledge

Daily recording provided reliable data for the research team and enabled women to make informed choices in developing their fish farming (© Chea Seila)
Daily recording provided reliable data for the research team and enabled women to make informed choices in developing their fish farming
© Chea Seila

To gather information on the costs and benefits of the WISH-Pond system, participating farmers were asked to complete a daily data record using a picture-based monitoring sheet over the three-month span of their first production cycle. This included costs associated with pond construction, provision of feeds (including time spent foraging for natural feeds), maintaining fish health and harvesting data such as quantities of fish produced, consumed and sold. This was done by gender, to assess the division of labour between men and women in different activities. The data was then used to inform discussions about how the systems could be made more efficient. "I record all the information on fish raising every day," says Mom Sithorn of Kamphon village. "For example, how far and where I go to look for natural feed, and how much time spent on it. We used to spend almost the entire day trying to catch fish for cooking, but we only spend about one or two hours to look for fish feed; thus we save time for other housework."

Despite most being illiterate - and therefore dependent on their children to fill in the monitoring forms - the women involved in the project were keen to discuss the results with other women, and also to take part in training activities on fish rearing. In contrast, men did not take part in capacity building and instead focussed on other farming activities or wage labour away from the village. Women also were the ones to liaise with the village savings group, through which they received loans to establish their ponds, and took responsibility for taking further credit or making repayments.

Meeting women's needs

Through understanding the costs and benefits of pond construction, the farmers developed their own lower-cost construction methods, proving the value of community science in fostering innovation. Women in particular favoured the building of cement ponds, which they found easier to manage and also provided a useful water store for vegetable gardening. The daily recording of activities gave a strong indication that women had improved their knowledge and skills, and were fully engaged in the aquaculture system. It also created equity in knowledge between women and men in developing the systems, and reliable data for the research team in understanding how the WISH-Pond system could be adapted and introduced more widely.

Women favoured the building of cement ponds, which also served as a water store for vegetable gardens (© Chea Seila)
Women favoured the building of cement ponds, which also served as a water store for vegetable gardens
© Chea Seila

Empowerment of women is a key aim of the WISH-Pond system; through the community science activities and understanding the gender divisions of labour, the women's self-confidence has grown, as has their knowledge and their ability to develop support networks with other producers. The use of a savings group to introduce the technology has given members access to credit, improving the women's self-reliance. Many women in the group chose to invest straight away in a second production cycle, even though this was in the less favourable dry season, and to expand or improve their pond. With a new source of income, the women have been able to devote more time to pond management and taking care of children, rather than spending time away from home looking for casual labour. Thus the WISH-Pond system, although so far only trialled on a small-scale, appears to offer exciting lessons on the value of community science in empowering women and enabling them to generate food and income through small-scale aquaculture.

Date published: March 2013


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Aquaculture is an another effective way to earn handsome ear... (posted by: Md. Shafiqul Alam)

the idea of incorporating women in agriculture is not a new ... (posted by: Robert Lane)


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