She's still more than a decade away from retiring from her day job as a school teacher, but Lisa Perez has already started working towards another of her life’s goals.
At her humble Wallerfield, Arima, home, she temporarily pauses her efforts to prepare for her rows of students at school and begins her labour among the rows of PVC pipes that are taking shape at her hydroponics farm. The daytime giggling of her students has given way to the gentle gurgling of the water, as dedicated pumps aerate her massive 10-foot wide aquaculture tanks, in which hundreds of tilapia make random eddies and purls as they feed and flex, in a cycle that Lisa intends to use to tackle food security and sustainable farming.
Lisa’s journey into this type of farming may have very well been by chance. As a traditional farmer many years ago, a bee slipped under her facemask while she was applying a chemical mixture to her crop. In her rush to remove the insistent insect, Lisa accidentally spilled some of the substance on herself. Since that day, she has tried to veer away from farming that involves harsh chemicals.
A childhood love for aquarium fish took the lead, and Lisa decided to investigate the aquaculture concept. “Since I was a youth, I tended to mind a lot of fishes. I had ornamental fishes, and trying to study to get out of the traditional farming, I wanted to get involved in smart farming whereby you’re using less land to produce more,” she says.
“So I started doing research in how to involve technology… and so I came upon aquaponics and I started doing that. I then attended the tilapia aquaculture classes at the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries Division.”
Her start-up saw a few challenges surface; labour was one of them.
“I think that sometimes people don’t share your vision. At one time I had support from one of my brothers, but he has since returned to his job (post-pandemic). Off and on I would have a couple of people on to do extra labour, but I don’t think they understand the concept of the aquaponics.”
Another source of hiccups was the market. “There is risk associated with everything, because the model came through the Sugarcane Feed Centre, which purchased all of the fishes. So we would rear the fishes and the grow-out, they would take every month. But once the model is successful and you have the market, it is a way forward.
“There are a lot of people out there with knowledge of aquaculture. It is easy if you have the money (to invest), but it took a lot from me, because I had to spend over $250,000, and the risk for me was not having that effective market, because I found myself having to market my produce on my own. Sometimes you hire someone to fillet, and they want to charge you more than what you feel they should get.”
Another issue she faced was her lack of training. She chuckles as she recalls, “tilapia was really the model. I have tried crayfish, and that was not successful, because I did not have the knowledge with regard to that… because they walked out of the system.”
But those were some of the minor speedbumps that Lisa had to negotiate eight years ago, when she set up her operation. Her voice takes a sombre tone as she recalls her early days taking her tilapia to market.
“My first venture out to sell tilapia, they offered me three dollars a pound. That could not cut it for me. At least if it were ten dollars, yes, probably,” she recalls.
But in the true spirit of resilience that runs in her family - her father Ramon Perez was an entrepreneur who set up a number of successful small businesses -Lisa went back to the drawing board, looking for ways that she could make her business sustainable.
“So I started to do more research on what could be done with tilapia, rather than sell it for three dollars. I saw things like composting, silage, fish fillets and even fish meal, which can be used to feed other animals on the farm. The aim is to take that project and create a business, not only for the farm, but the wider community as well.”
Her project has grown over the years, as she fine-tunes her master plan for production: “It is a closed-loop system, in that the water is moved out of the fish tank into the grow-bed – those are the troughs – and it is basically about using the waste from the fish in order to give nutrients to the plants… so it’s supposed to have different vegetables on the grow-beds.”
She expresses some surprise about discovering the challenges of being a woman in agriculture; after all, as a girl growing up with her four brothers, she was always treated like “one of the boys”. Now, the stark reality has revealed itself to her. She says service providers tend to charge a bit more, markets treat you differently, and there are just some days where one needs to have support to do the sometimes literal “heavy lifting”.
“I thought they used to really take care of our women, but it seems that they don’t. And this is strange in the agriculture world. I think they tend to exploit women,” Lisa muses, when asked if a man would have been meted out the same treatment she has had.
“I was expecting things to be a different way; where as a woman, people will help you move forward. But that was not the case. Sometimes you meet the right person, and sometimes you meet the wrong person. Across the board, I personally feel that men will take advantage of women. Even like your car (for transport), the price costs X, but when a woman steps up, sometimes it could cost double the price. I personally feel that men don’t see women as being strong, and wanting to venture out there and do their best, and they are not there to support us. But I, I don’t give up. If someone puts me down, I will look for another avenue (for success).”
In fact, Lisa wants to be a beacon for the women in agriculture in her community.
“When I look around – within this road alone – a lot of the women work very hard. And I don’t see the return on the hard work and the hours that are put behind the farming. I don’t know if we are not tapping into the right resources; I don’t know if it is that we are lacking certain skills to make that step out there,” she says.
“With regard to training, the whole thing was to show them a smart way in doing farming, rather than all that laborious work – time-consuming – so I wanted to change that… and not just within our community, but beyond.”
Lisa Perez is one of the local aquaponics practitioners who will participate in the AMEXCID/CARICOM/FAO Initiative “Cooperation for Adaptation and Resilience to Climate Change in the Caribbean” (“Resilient Caribbean Initiative”), which began since the Caribbean is particularly vulnerable to climate change. The initiative seeks to promote adaptation to climate change of agri-food systems (agriculture, livestock, forestry, fisheries and aquaculture) and the resilience of the livelihoods of the rural population of the sub-region. The ‘Resilient Aquaculture’ project is expected to increase the contribution of aquaculture to food security, nutrition and livelihoods in the participating countries and will run through to June 2023. For more information, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.