Fishing for jobs, not houses: Fish farming in a shipping container in Cape Town

Tariq Toffa, Cape Town Community Manager
Cape Town, 22 January 2015

Converted shipping containers have become increasingly synonymous with experimental 'third world' projects (as well as alternative 'first world' projects). Now a new concept has developed a prototype for a fish farm in a 12m-long shipping container, with tanks, pumps, and filters fitted inside.

Educated in agriculture, environmental science, and oceanography, its founder and entrepreneur Alan Fleming has been working on the design and logistics of the Fish Farm for years, to bring "aquaculture" — and thereby protein and profit — to the world's poor. As a director at The Business Place in Cape Town, an organization to develop and assist entrepreneurs, Fleming has already worked in entrepreneurship development in Cape Town's poorer Cape Flats areas for ten years.

While designs of fish farms vary and typically involve highly paid consultants, Fleming's innovation was to develop a standardized, replicable, and transportable model, also making it easier to train new farmers. Within a context of high unemployment, as well as rising transport costs, increasing urbanization, and high levels of food insecurity, the fish farm presents one potential solution to inner-city food production. The idea is to supply food and to create jobs and livelihoods where the majority of people live — in urban areas. It is designed to be operated by a family, a co-operative, or one or two people on a part-time basis. The space required for the container is also minimal (one could grow fish in backyards). If developed at scale, it could also help to reduce pressure on South Africa's overexploited and declining marine eco­system.

The patented, micro­intensive farm has already won global recognition (winner in the Enablis Green Business Competition in 2010, a finalist on the SAB Innovations Award 2012, and Runner-Up in the global Siemens "Empowering People" Award 2013). For the future, through support from funders, corporates, civic organizations, and government entities, Fleming hopes to launch the commercial production of mobile fish farms for poor communities across the Cape Flats and worldwide. Fleming also hopes to develop the design to run on solar power, taking out the operational expense of electricity and instead putting it into the capital expenditure item. Another important idea is that the fish farm could catalyse the emergence of other industries, such as worm and snail farms to feed the burgeoning container fishing industry, and its nutrient-rich water discharge could also be used for an additional source of income or subsistence in vegetable gardens or a vegetable aquaponics system.

Fleming admirably describes the product as "empowerment through low technology solutions," to create small but transformative business opportunities rather than a huge agriculture fish farm development. However, given that this is still a socially untested prototype, bringing a new model rather than tapping into existing practices, and with aquaculture still in its infancy in South Africa, lagging far behind the rest of the world, local adoption would also require investment in social capital to be sustainably taken up by those the product looks to target. Caution should also be taken in pursuit of a global commercial agenda which neglects local circumstances. Nonetheless, rather than building houses at a distance from economic opportunities and livelihood options, the typical model of state-subsidised housing in South Africa, the Fish Farm model looks to do the reverse, by focusing on job and livelihood options and inserting these into existing contexts. In this regard, it is a paradigm that is no doubt on the right track.

Photo credits: Bright Continent.

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