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Zambo del Sur MNLF coop's aquaculture income gets boost

Dinas, Zamboanga del Sur (12 June) -- A motorized banca edges alongside the riverbank of this sleepy agricultural community, laden with large styrofoam boxes.

As the boat docks, men in plastic aprons and rubber boots unload the cargo and carry it to a bright blue, spic-and-span facility, just meters away.

The workers pour onto a stainless-steel table the boxes' contents: newly-harvested tiger prawns, which fetch a hefty price in city wet markets and high-end restaurants.

Musa Andi, barangay captain and chairman of the Dinas Minority Integrated Multi-Purpose Cooperative, says his group harvests an average of 500 kilos of prawn every 15 days from their 100-hectare production area.

"Production has been good," said Andi, who, like his fellow co-op members, is a former combatant of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF).

After the MNLF signed the 1996 peace agreement with the government, its former fighters needed skills with which to earn a livelihood for themselves and their families.

The 50 members of the Dinas co-op were among the 28,000 ex-combatants who were trained by USAID's Growth with Equity in Mindanao (GEM) Program in corn or seaweed production.

Building up its entrepreneurial abilities, the co-op ventured into higher-value aquaculture in 2005, and started growing prawns, milkfish and tilapia with technical support from GEM, which is implemented under the oversight of the Mindanao Economic Development Council.

The low stocking density maintained by the co-op makes it possible to feed the prawns off the plankton growing naturally in the fishpond. This keeps the prawns healthy and helps them to grow faster.

"The challenge lies in keeping them as fresh as possible for the buyer," said Andi.

Previously, the lack of a holding center constrained the cooperative's capability to maintain the quality of its prawn harvests.

The turning point was when the GEM Program, through its Barangay Infrastructure Project, constructed the Dinas facility, which is being used by the community's aquaculture producers as a holding station and ice storage unit.

Using the new facility, the co-op members and other local growers are now able to efficiently sort, pack and store their prawns and other fishpond products.

"Now that we are able to consolidate our produce and ensure its high quality, we can bring home bigger profits," Andi said, adding that his group plans to expand production.

Some buyers now pick up their orders directly from the new facility. "This means lower transport costs—and allows us to show buyers our production process," Andi said with pride.

"The success of the co-op has encouraged others in the community to diversify into higher-value production," said Adel Oviedo, GEM team leader for former combatant reintegration.

Through its Targeted Commodity Expansion Project, the GEM Program is helping MNLF co-ops and other growers in conflict-affected areas in Mindanao to increase their domestic out shipments and foreign exports of selected aquaculture and agriculture products.

A number of these growers have signed marketing agreements with local suppliers who ship to institutional buyers in Manila and foreign markets like Hongkong and China. (GEM-PIA XI) [top]

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