HAVANA, Oct. 27 Every year, Cuban entrepreneurs José Martínez and Joel López grow 12 tons of tilapia in their ponds using aquaponics, which allows them to sell fresh fish to the inhabitants of an island where, paradoxically, that food is scarce.
“Here we currently have two species: the red tilapia, which is the most attractive and attractive to the consumer’s plate, and the black tilapia,” Martínez explains to AFP, after throwing handfuls of feed to the fry that rise to the surface of the pool to feed.
With a government loan and their savings, these two entrepreneurs, both 35-year-old lawyers, began building their private business JOJO Acuapónico two years ago in Barbosa, a neighborhood on the outskirts of the capital.
Aquaponics is a technique that combines the cultivation of fish and plants. In a closed system, the excrement of the former nourishes the plants, which in turn return clean, safe water to the fish.
In what was a barren lot they built 12 ponds of 20 cubic meters each, from which they annually extract 12 tons of fish that they sell to the population. When they finish the investment process in their three cultivation houses, they will also harvest 36 tons of vegetables.
Their tilapias reach the commercial size of 400 grams in six months, 12 months less than what it takes for the specimens grown in the country’s reservoirs to achieve it through the extensive aquaculture method promoted by the government.
– “Viable solution” –
López and Martínez defend their project as a quick way to expand the supply of fish on an island of 11 million inhabitants, facing its worst economic crisis in three decades, with shortages of food, medicine and fuel.
An employee sows tilapia fingerlings in an aquaponic pond in Havana, on October 19, 2023. afp_tickers
“That is our idea: to try to bring this knowledge (…) to everyone who wants to produce fish, produce aquaponics, it is a viable and sustainable solution,” says López.
Due to its natural conditions and overfishing, Cuba only has a fishing potential on its marine platform of about 12,000 tons per year, according to official data.
However, that figure has not been obtained “in the last three years” due to the lack of “engines” for the ships and “fuel,” the Minister of the Food Industry, Manuel Sobrino, said recently on local television.
To earn foreign currency, Cuba exported seafood products worth $54 million in 2022, according to official figures.
Before the economic crisis of the 1990s, which led to the fall of the Soviet communist bloc, Cuba had a fleet that guaranteed the capture of some 100,000 tons of fish in international waters, which Cubans bought at subsidized prices.
By 2002, that fleet became inactive and Cuba was forced to import fish and promote aquaculture, the only way it currently has to achieve “increases” in fish consumption, according to Sobrino.
But the lack of foreign currency, which President Miguel Díaz-Canel recently defined as the “fundamental problem of the country”, forced Cuban aquaculture to transform its intensive development plan into an extensive one, reducing its yields.
According to official figures, between 2018 and 2022 alone the cultivation of clarias, another freshwater species, fell from 6,286 to 1,355 tons.
In Cuba, agricultural production registered a 35% drop between 2019 and 2023.
In July, Deputy Prime Minister Jorge Luis Tapia proposed that Cubans grow fish in their yards, a practice that became widespread during the crisis of the 1990s, but this time provoked skepticism.
“We are going to carry out family aquaculture. We have to do it,” Tapia said.
To stimulate the sector, Cuba approved a new Fisheries Law in 2019 that made the activity more flexible and allowed fishermen to directly sell their catch.
In recent months, small private businesses have begun to market the fish they obtain through individual fishermen, but their high prices prevent most Cubans from having access to this market.
López and Martínez are also working on the construction of a small factory to produce food.
“This experience must be multiplied,” says Martínez.