From urban gangs to global markets: youth netting new opportunities in global ornamental fish market

By Tracey Grose

Jamaican youth are finding entrepreneurial opportunities in the $4 billion global ornamental fish market. The amenable local climate, visionary leaders, neighborhood collaboration, and raw personal initiative combine to pull young urbanites out of poverty.

The original idea was developed by The Competitiveness Company (TCC), a Jamaican nonprofit focused on improving the lives of inner-city youths. As they see it, export-oriented ornamental fish farming offers "a sustainable and market driven solution to urban unemployment, as small urban farmers in clusters can produce export level volumes of quality fish." Initial project funding came from the US Agency for International Development (US AID), but the effort has also benefited from generous support of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Five years on, the social and economic impact has exceeded expectations. According to the project manager, Nicardo Neil, "We could not foresee the impact that these farms, the tiny little fish and the responsibility of keeping them alive would have on our farmers and on their communities."

TCC trains fish farmers, installs and upgrades farms, and provides technical assistance and startup funding. They are partnering with the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries in order to improve quality across the local value chain and meet international standards. TCC markets 30 varieties of ornamental fish to the US, Canada and the UK.

For multiple reasons, Jamaica is well positioned to leverage the global market. Its tropical climate is ideal for year-round fish farming. Jamaica is closer to the large import markets of the US and Canada than fish farmers in Asia. The country's well-established direct flights to Europe allow for market access.

To date, the program has supported 150 urban fish farmers, and 27 percent are women. Neil explains that at full capacity, the program has the potential to produce 2.4 million fish per year for export and earn the local urban farmers $1.5 million.

As Beverly Morgan, the head of TCC puts it, "Our farmers understand from the start that they will become part of a global value chain other than the drug chain. In essence, they will become small-scale international businessmen."

In a similar effort in Colombia, a public-private partnership is aiming to turn coca farmers into breeders of the so-called dragonfish to help meet China's growing demand.

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