Thursday, November 1, 2012

Aquaculture without Frontiers interview

I am really excited about the next issue of International Aquafeed, in particular the interview with
Dave Conley, Executive Director, Aquaculture without Frontiers, Canada.

We chatted for ages and it was a real struggle to edit the piece down to just one page. So I thought I'd share the whole interview here.

Aquaculture without Frontiers (AwF) is a registered charity whose mission is to promote and support responsible and sustainable aquaculture to alleviate poverty and enhance food security for disadvantaged people. It is an organisation of global volunteer aquaculture professionals who network; who are passionate about aquaculture and its ability to engage, train and feed the disadvantaged; and who create initiatives, projects and programmes. Executive Director Dave Conley speaks to International Aquafeed about AwF and the challenges it faces.

What’s your role at Aquaculture without Frontiers (AwF)?
As executive director of an organization that is entirely comprised of volunteers serving on the Board of Directors, I have had to do pretty much of everything. I manage our website and post content to keep it up to date, I write news releases and letters, send out lots of emails, field incoming calls and requests for info, keep track of volunteers’ applications, manage project proposal submissions and coordinate their review by our Technical Advisory Group (TAG), as well as manage the day-to-day functioning of AwF.

How does AwF define responsible and sustainable aquaculture?
Responsible and sustainable aquaculture is using appropriate technology for the given situation so that it enhances fish production without negative effects or impacts on the resources used. Because AwF teaches basic aquaculture principles for very challenging situations, we encourage using the KIS principle – Keep it Simple.

How does AwF operate on a practical level?
To date, AwF has been a project sponsor, directing donations received to supporting projects reviewed and approved by our TAG. We normally provide project funding in the range of US$ 10,000-15,000 for multi-year projects. We collaborate with other NGOs to leverage their resources when possible. For example, we collaborated with the Marine Biological Lab (MBL) in Woods Hole, MA to help develop their Aquaculture Learning Center (ALC) in Marigot, Haiti. Novus International provided significant help with this project via AwF. We would like to attract other donors to sponsor specific projects rather than just contributing to a funding pool, although a pool is necessary for general operating commitments.
Your board members live and work all over the world.  How do you coordinate working together? 
This is true, the geographical distances between board members is great. It is composed of 15 directors including the Executive Committee so getting together for face-to-face meetings is a challenge. We usually use the occasion of WAS and EAS events to hold such meetings. For example, at the recent WAS/EAS joint meeting in Prague, eight directors were able to sit down together to discuss pressing issues and provide their input to the Executive Committee. Michael New, OBE, founder of AwF, was able to attend, as well as Peter Edwards, a member of our TAG.

Due to the board members’ wide dispersion across the globe we use email a lot, but Skype has come in handy for conference calls and updates. To cut down on the email traffic and to keep track of comments by board members, I set up a collaborative workspace using PBworks. This is a private website for online collaboration where we can work collectively on various initiatives, such as developing our strategic plan. The platform allows us to keep all our communications in one place; board members can view documents and reports, make comments and suggestions, add new materials, and generally make it easier for us to collaborate across distance and time.

What do you consider AwF’s greatest achievements or successes?
AwF’s greatest achievement to date has been its ability to survive. What I mean by this is that we have been able to keep going in the face of funding challenges resulting from the global economic meltdown beginning in 2008. Donations have dropped off significantly while project submissions have increased. This has forced us to look at how we operate and try to come up with a better solution.

If anyone was to look at our list of current and completed projects on our website ( they would find that we have managed to do a lot with very little. Imagine what we could do if we could attract significantly more funding.

Dave Conley

What are the biggest challenges aquaculture faces?
If you are referring to aquaculture in the developed world, it is definitely public education and acceptance as a significant component of the food production industry. The lack of knowledge about aquaculture by the general public is contributing to a dysfunctional regulatory environment in many developed countries. Government regulatory agencies appear to be challenged when it comes to leading or enabling the development of the industry. There are many groups with perspectives and interests that are opposed to the rational growth and development of aquaculture.

We are in a transitional phase moving from the fisheries of the past to the fisheries of the future; aquaculture is definitely the major component of the fisheries of the future simply because there is no more growth that can be achieved in the wild harvest sector. Farming seafood is the only rational and responsible means of filling the predicted deficit between supply and demand by the addition of 2 billion more people by 2050.

If you are referring to aquaculture in the developing world, it is transferring knowledge and appropriate technology to people so that they can apply it to feeding themselves and their families and communities. Governments of developing world countries do not have the resources to do this directly, but by collaborating with organizations such as AwF, it may be possible to enable the responsible and sustainable development of aquaculture.

One thing I need to point out is that aquaculture is currently growing faster in developing rather than developed countries (numerous sources confirm this). If one was to read the world’s media coverage, one would notice a significant push to develop aquaculture in Africa, South & Central America, Pacific Island nations, Asia, and the Middle East. Ironically, aquaculture development appears to be the victim of ‘paralysis by analysis’ in the developed economies of North America and Europe, something I attribute to an irrational mindset over what the real priorities are when it comes to seafood production, or even food security for that matter.

How is AwF responding to these challenges?
AwF has been going through a re-think of how we operate. The original vision of Michael New was to use volunteers to train the world’s poor and disadvantaged but in recent years we have gone off course in that we have become a funding organization rather than a working organization putting our volunteers directly into the field.

AwF has over 300 volunteers representing a wide range and depth of aquaculture expertise, knowledge and wisdom. To date, we have not been able to utilize this tremendous fund of intellectual capital in any significant manner.

I have been seeking a business model that would enable us to employ this resource and I think we have found a solution – Aquaculture Learning Centers (ALCs). These will be demonstration farms where appropriate aquaculture technologies will be displayed. Courses will be given by our volunteers who will also mentor the local staff. ALCs will sell fish to graduates and provide ongoing tech support and knowledge transfer. The objective is to get the ALCs to become financially self-supporting and run by the local people whose welfare is most improved by the success of the enterprise.

What I have learned from my observations and discussions with people that work in international development is that when the funding stops the projects die; there is no incentive to continue because the people have not taken ownership of the project. The ALC model is meant to change that. Right from the get go, the people that will benefit from our help will be directly involved in constructing and staffing the ALCs. It will function as a business and we will train them in business skills as well as aquaculture skills. The end goal is to have the ALCs become financially self-sustaining within 2-3 years.

In the larger picture, we see linking the ALCs via modern information and communication technologies (ICT) so that they can share experiences, lessons learned, and best practices so that they leverage the knowledge they have collectively to do more. Given the advances in ICT and mobile wireless communication in developing countries, the ALCs will become hubs for knowledge and technology transfer to surrounding communities. Think of them as broadcasting centers, or nodes in a broadcasting network, that can also be used by other NGOs to educate people about all sorts of topics from nutrition and food preparation using solar or biogas stoves to water filtration and public hygiene. The possibilities are endless.

What do you think the future of the organisation is?  What projects are in the pipeline?
The future of AwF, as we are now envisioning it, is to become an enabler to teach people in developing countries how to improve their lives using aquaculture technologies but also collaborating with other NGO groups and local governments to provide a suite of complementary skills to significantly improve quality of life and food security.

Anything else you’d like to tell International Aquafeed readers about?
We would really like to hear from readers on how they want to become involved in helping us to achieve our goals. We have created a vision that will require many people to play a part – what part will you play?

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  1. Aquculture without frontiers interview is shared in the post here. Read all about it
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  2. I am so happy to read this. This is the kind of manual that needs to be given and not the random misinformation that's at the other blogs. Thanks for sharing
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