In 2008, 30 impoverished Rwandan families founded the Kungabu Cooperative near Lake Kivu, envisioning a collective enterprise that would sustain all of the members: the farming of Tilapia fish. Under the leadership of village elder Callixte Sebakungu and with the help of Betsy Kain’s Goats for Life, the community was able to dig themselves out of poverty by constructing 16 massive fish ponds and raising their Tilapia.
World Dance for Humanity inherited Betsy’s program and met the Kungabu in 2013. We began our assistance to them by donating cows, helping the young people go to school, and offering training in agriculture, co-op management, and business. A gift from Santa Barbara realtor Linda Lorenzen-Hughes, in honor of her late husband Bill, an avid fisherman, enabled one of the young men to go to fish farming school in Uganda.
By and by, we learned that in order to grow the Tilapia big enough to sell commercially, they needed expensive fish food pellets that could only be acquired in Uganda. So did all the Rwanda fish farmers! After much consultation with our Rwanda program team, the Kungabu leadership, and outside experts, we concluded that the only solution to this was the purchase of a Fish Food Machine that would make the pellets out of locally-grown grains and vegetables. We realized that if we could acquire such a machine, it would not only enable the Kungabu to feed themselves and profit from the sale of their full-sized fish, they could also sell the food to other Rwandan fish farmers.
But no machines of this kind were available for purchase in Africa. Our only viable option was to have the machine built in China and shipped to Rwanda via Tanzania (the country in red in the map, right). We could all see that the project had tremendous potential, but would require significant fundraising and a hefty dose of imagination and trust on the part of our donors.
Betsy Kain and Sadie Leventhal (a 7th grader looking for a meaningful Bat Mitzvah project) took on this challenge. They set out to raise the $14,000 needed for the project, and by the spring of 2016, had reached their goal and we were able to order the machine.
The Odyssey of the Fish Food Machine
It took the better part of a year, and the tireless efforts of Justin Bisengimana, our Rwandan Program Director, to get the machine to the Kungabu. Here are the highlights of this journey:
In May of 2016, a Chinese manufacturing company in Zhengzhou, central China, began construction on the machine. After a month of tinkering and testing, it made the long sea voyage across the Indian Ocean on the APL Charleston freighter (see photo, left – that’s the actual ship!) to the port of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, arriving on June 3, 2016. While this was happening, Justin was able to obtain a letter from the Ministry of Agriculture stating that no duty was owed on the machine, as it would be the first machine of its kind in Rwanda, and would be of great value to the whole country.
After many months, the machine weighing 1,090 kg (1.2 tons) started the long trip from Tanzania to Kigali (the capital of Rwanda). A few break-downs along the way delayed the journey, but it finally arrived in Kigali, where it sat at the customs warehouse over the 2016 Christmas holiday and through the New Year while Justin negotiated with officials until he could get them to acknowledge the letter from the Ministry and release the machine without a payment of exorbitant duty fees.
In February of 2017, Justin was finally successful in getting the machine released from customs, and it began the slow, precarious route through the mountains and jungles of southwestern Rwanda to the Nyamasheke District in the Cyangugu region where the Kungabu live.
But this was only the beginning of this long saga. The Kungabu needed to learn how to install, operate, and maintain the machine. We hired Ujimu Baraka, a Ugandan fish-farming expert, to do this. Ujimu settled in for a month-long stay, working with the community each day to elevate their knowledge of fish farming in general, and of fish food machines.
Then the community made a critical decision, in consultation with Ujimu and Justin: to locate the machine not in the Kungabu village, as originally planned, but in a nearby town – where fish farmers from near and far could come buy the food pellets, and local farmers could grind their grains (an additional function of the machine). At this point, a new challenge had to be faced: getting enough electrical current to power the machine. A team of engineers was hired to accomplish this, which turned out to be another big challenge for the community.
On June 28, 2017, we received word that the machine was up and running. Designated Kungabu members started practicing with the machine, and began envisioning an official ribbon-cutting ceremony so they could formally thank Betsy, Sadie, and the donors, and celebrate this extraordinary step forward – for their community, and the country.
Meanwhile, Justin received word from the Rwandan Ministry of Agriculture that the country’s high officials wanted to be present at the ceremony, which would represent such a significant milestone for Rwanda. Officialdom being what it is, and with the Presidential election keeping all Rwandans busy for the better part of the summer, the Ministry had to postpone their visit several times.
Celebrating the Opening of the Fish Food Machine
The ceremony finally took place on Friday, August 25th. Six dignitaries from the Ministry of Agriculture and Animal Resources drove eight hours across the country to attend the event. The guest of honor was the Assistant Minister of Agriculture. The Kungabu’s local District and Sector officials were all in attendance.
The Kungabu had also invited local farmers who will be supplying the raw materials for the fish food – various grains and vegetables such as millet, corn, and soy. This included one of the leaders from our Twa (Pygmy) community, Abakundana, 90 minutes down the road from Kungabu, which will be providing soy for the fish food.
They also invited fish farmers from the local area and people interested in fish farming to see the machine and the food it produces. Theresa, one of the guests, shares a dream with her husband to start a fish farming business, but they were afraid to start, knowing it would be impossible to get the food. “Now our fears are gone – Kungabu is our answer! Very soon we will start putting in place everything we need to start this business!”
Emmanuel, one of the guests, has a big fish farm on Lake Kivu, but nowhere to buy fish food. “We almost shut down our business, we were so concerned about our fish dying of hunger. Theresa is right. Kungabu is the answer!”
The District Leader said that Kungabu is serving as a role model for others to follow. “We used to say that Nyamasheke is a District which is so far from everything, nothing will ever happen here. But imagine this kind of machine is the first one in the country and it is in Nyamasheke! We so much thank Kungabu and their donors from America. We will continue to walk with you toward your sustainable development.”
The Assistant Minister of Agriculture echoed what the others said, that Kungabu is the answer. She talked about the country’s dependence on Ugandan fish, and shared the statistics to demonstrate this. “There is no way we will be able to satisfy the needs of our country without having people like the Kungabu willing to work hard with a clear vision. We are so grateful to American donors for making this possible. The project is so impressive, any time President Kagame visits this region, Kungabu will be the first place for him to visit!”
Justin spoke on behalf of the donors, underscoring their important role in the development of the Kungabu community. He explained what we went through to find the money for the machine, have it built, bring it from China to Rwanda, and pay for installation and instruction.
He also talked about the other support World Dance for Humanity provides to Kungabu: education, training, and cows: 2 cows and 7 calves, including a new little beauty born this summer, named…“Sadie”!
What Does the Future Hold?
The Kungabu are well aware that owning and operating the fish food machine will change their lives:
- The fish food they keep for their own Tilapia will enable the community to feed its 266 members
- They’ll be able to grow Tilapia big enough to sell to local markets, hotels, and restaurants that currently go all the way to Uganda to get their fish
- They’ll be selling the fish food to fish farmers all over Rwanda and neighboring Congo
- They’ll be developing an Eco-Tourism business with Nyungwe Forest Lodge, a five-star rainforest resort only 90 minutes from Kungabu
In terms of training and leadership, we will be paying for future consultations with fish farming and business experts to help the community develop their new enterprise. Of the Kungabu students we have been helping to attend school, 11 are now in high school and 5 are in college. Their majors include accounting and engineering, and they are already playing a significant role in helping the co-op with their new enterprise. Callixte, the Kungabu leader who envisioned the fish farm, has passed the baton to a young man, Valens Bimenyimana, whom we know and trust, and who will provide strong leadership for his community.
The Kungabu will be forever indebted to Betsy Kain and Sadie Leventhal, and all of the Kungabu donors, for making it possible to realize their dream. They know we will be walking beside them as they continue to build a better future for themselves and their country.