“Oh, we forgot the fish food!” Maira laughed as she turned back the way we came. I had just met up with Maira Alvarado, 22, and Kevin Quinteros, 20, at the community center in Ciudad Romero that morning. They had graciously agreed to give me a tour of the tilapia farming business they’ve launched with two of their peers from the aquaculture program at Megatec, a technical university in the department of La Unión. UDP-ABL, Unión de Personas Acuicultores del Bajo Lempa, as the business is called, is one of two youth-led tilapia farming projects in the Lower Lempa. (The other is a few miles away in La Limonera and I was also able to meet its leadership Raúl Domínguez, 21, and Jenny Chávez, 22.) After picking up the food from Maira’s house – a pine green bucket filled with small sand-colored pellets – we set off again for the project site.
Thankfully it’s a short walk from the center to the tilapia farm because even though it’s only nine o’clock the day is already hot. Turning the corner after the new community health clinic, we arrive at a verdant lot. In front is a plot of newly planted corn and behind, in a grassy patch, sit two large cinder block tanks filled with dark glassy water that glints in the sun. I’m told that each contains 1,732 Oreochromis niloticus, commonly known as grey or Nile tilapia (one tank is also home to a freshwater turtle, we later observe). Though the fish spend the day at the bottom of the tanks where the water is cooler, I can see lots of little mouths gobbling up pellets as Kevin scatters them over the surface of the water.
“We feed the fish three times a day, at 9:00 am, noon, and 3:00 pm. Every two days we rotate who’s responsible for feeding them, and every eight days we change the water. We also regularly monitor the conditions of the tanks and the development of the fish,” Maira explains. The young entrepreneurs are recent graduates of Megatec, where they’ve been studying for the last two years, in large part thanks to scholarships provided by the Mangrove Association and EcoViva. Other than Kevin, who is from Usulután, all are from nearby communities – Ciudad Romero, El Carmen – and were very involved in the Mangrove Association’s youth programs as teenagers. In fact, it was based on their leadership skills and commitment to their communities that they were awarded scholarships to continue studying.
Last year, the group was granted seed money for the tilapia project after their business proposal won top marks in a competition organized by the Organization of Ibero-American States for Education, Science and Culture (OEI). They already had some land with a tank that had been built as part of a previous initiative seven years ago. The second tank was completed in January 2014, and in April they “planted” the first batch of tilapia fry, which take about three months to mature. It’s an exciting moment because, after more than a year of hard work, Maira and her associates will be harvesting and selling the largest of the fish this weekend.
Of course, the young entrepreneurs have encountered a number of challenges. While the OEI seed money bought materials to build two tanks, fish fry, and enough food for the first few growing cycles, the entrepreneurs and their families have had to cover transportation of materials and labor costs. The project site also lacks electricity, which is necessary to run the oxygenation system for the tanks; fish growth and production have suffered as a consequence. They are seeking financial support from the Mangrove Association for the funds necessary to electrify the plot. Yet despite these obstacles, the group is confident: “It’s been a difficult process, but I told myself that if I’ve already come this far, why would I leave it now? Sure, it’s just beginning and we’re going to have to work hard but something good will come of it. We have to keep moving forward,” Kevin told me.
Now that they are fully-formed aquaculture technicians, Maira, Kevin, Glenda, and Wilson hope to continue serving their communities not only by offering a high-quality product at a good price, but eventually by providing employment to other community members, particularly youth, as they expand their operations. Poverty, lack of employment, and gang violence push many young Salvadorans to emigrate, which is why these tilapia farming projects are so remarkable. “Here there are few opportunities for young people. We’ve been very lucky and also worked really hard to build this,” said Maira.
Through our conversation, it becomes clear that the opportunities that the Mangrove Association offers to young people in the Lower Lempa – from leadership programs to scholarships to, now, grants for small businesses – are crucial to strengthening communities both socially and economically. Thanks to these spaces, youth leaders like the entrepreneurs of UDP-ABL are contributing to the development of their communities.