Small Fish Farming Opportunity Can Wipe Out Malnutrition

By David SouthDevelopment Challenges, South-South Solutions


Pioneering work to boost diets across the global South is turning to the smallest of fish. While small in size, tiny fish are packed with nutrition when eaten whole, as they are in many cultures. Often these fish come packed with vitamin A, iron, zinc, calcium, protein and essential fats – all necessary elements to eradicate malnutrition and hidden hunger, especially among women and children.

It is estimated that 684,000 child deaths worldwide could be prevented by increasing access to vitamin A and zinc (WFP).

Iron deficiency is the most prevalent form of malnutrition worldwide, affecting an estimated 2 billion people. Iron deficiency is impairing the mental development of 40 to 60 per cent of children in developing countries (UNICEF). The World Health Organization says that eradicating iron deficiency can improve national productivity levels by as much as 20 percent.

Vitamin A deficiency affects approximately 25 per cent of the developing world’s pre-schoolers. It is associated with blindness, susceptibility to disease and higher mortality rates, and leads to the death of approximately 1 to 3 million children each year (UN).

This devastating evidence shows the need to find effective food solutions to eradicate these nutrient deficiencies. Access to affordable nutrient-rich food is also key to social and political stability. Already, there is serious unrest in many countries around the world because of food-price inflation.

Finding ways to boost nutritional health that are sustainable, low-cost and do not require substantial use of resources will have the best success in the poorest areas.

A number of studies suggest one solution may be eating more small fish. In many countries, these species are eaten as part of the diet, but often not in large enough quantities to address hunger and malnutrition. Small fish species are a remarkable food source because they are usually eaten whole, bringing greater nutritional benefits.

Small fish have a long history in human diets. Anchovies ( are used  in many cuisines, for example.

A study conducted between 2010 and 2013 in Bangladesh and Cambodia by Dr. Shakuntala Haraksingh Thilsted, Senior Nutrition Adviser to WorldFish (, found that the eating of small fish in both countries gave a significant boost to daily diets and massively improved nutrition and health. The project, called Linking Fisheries and Nutrition: Promoting Innovative Fish Production Technologies in Ponds and Wetlands with Nutrient-dense Small Fish Species, was supported by the International Fund for Agricultural Development.

People in both countries still currently suffer from undernutrition and micronutrient deficiencies.

In rural areas of Bangladesh and Cambodia it found 50 to 80 per cent of total fish consumed were small fish. The quantities consumed during each meal were small but they occurred in diets frequently. Typically, they were eaten whole, with the head, viscera (internal organs) and bones consumed. This meant consuming small fish packed a punch, giving the eater a dose of calcium, vitamin A, iron and zinc.

More specifically, the study found the iron-rich Mekong flying barb (Esomus longimanus) ( – eaten as part of a meal of rice and sour soup with its head intact in Cambodia – could provide 45 per cent of the daily iron requirement for a woman.

Malnutrition is also a serious problem in Bangladesh. Half the population lives below the poverty line and diets are poor in delivering necessary vitamins and minerals. This is damaging to peoples’ physical and mental health.

The study found existing fish aquaculture methods in Bangladesh were inefficient. But new technologies provide an opportunity to increase the quantity of fish harvested and increase household incomes. By using highly efficient low-risk polyculture systems – basically combining small, nutrient-dense fish with high-value fish such as carp or freshwater prawn – it is possible to significantly increase the quantity of fish produced.

Another one of the new techniques includes increasing pond depth, which conserves broodfish ( Broodfish are the mature fish used for the production of eggs or sperm and are also called spawners.

The study estimated a production of 10 kilograms per pond per year of fish spread across the 4 million small ponds in Bangladesh has the potential to meet the recommended dietary intake for 6 million children in the country.

The work in Bangladesh to boost the production of small fish has inspired similar initiatives in Sunderbans, West Bengal, India and in Terai, Nepal. Initiatives in Cambodia and Kenya have also developed meals for young children by combining powdered rice or maize with small fish.

And in Africa, some are calling for more use of aquaculture as an alternative to dwindling fish sources. For sub-Saharan Africans, fish can make up 22 per cent of the protein in their diet.

As populations on the continent quickly rise, marine fisheries are beginning to be over-exploited. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and WorldFish are calling for an aquaculture revolution on the continent to move away from the old approach of just using ponds located on farms. To make a real impact, both organizations argue, there needs to be a partnership between smallholder farmers and others to build a commercial fish farming sector.

“Per capita fish supplies in Africa are dwindling,” Malcolm Beveridge, director for aquaculture at WorldFish, one of the 15 CGIAR research centers (Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research) (, that generate and disseminate knowledge, technologies, and policies for agricultural development. “In Malawi, they fell from 10 kilograms to 6 kilograms per person between 1986 and 2006. Aquaculture has the potential to increase supplies of this affordable nutritious food for poor and vulnerable consumers,” he told The Guardian.

Published: July 2013


1) Scaling Up Nutrition: Scaling Up Nutrition, or SUN, is a unique movement founded on the principle that all people have a right to food and good nutrition. It unites people – from governments, civil society, the United Nations, donors, businesses and researchers – in a collective effort to improve nutrition. Website:

2) The WorldFish Center: WorldFish, a member of the CGIAR Consortium, is an international, non-profit research organization dedicated to reducing poverty and hunger by improving fisheries and aquaculture. Website:

3) Bangladesh Shrimp and Fish Foundation: Bangladesh Shrimp and Fish Foundation (BSFF) is a non-profit private research and advocacy organization created through a USAID project. Website:

4) Aquaculture for the Poor in Cambodia – Lessons Learned: The project was implemented by the WorldFish Center with financial support from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Government of Japan). Website:

5) Global Aquatics: The website design is a bit dated but it is packed with the basics on aquaculture. Website:

6) Practical Action: Extensive resources are available on aquaculture and farming fish, including experience and techniques from the global South. Website:

7) Preserving fish safely: Tips on the top ways to preserve fish from the University of Minnesota. Website:

8) Preserving food techniques: Many inventive ways to preserve food, from wild game to fish to vegetables and fruits. Website:

9) Ugandan fish sausages enterprise: A pioneering business started by a young businesswoman. Website:

Development Challenges, South-South Solutions was launched as an e-newsletter in 2006 by UNDP’s South-South Cooperation Unit (now the United Nations Office for South-South Cooperation) based in New York, USA. It led on profiling the rise of the global South as an economic powerhouse and was one of the first regular publications to champion the global South’s innovators, entrepreneurs, and pioneers. It tracked the key trends that are now so profoundly reshaping how development is seen and done. This includes the rapid take-up of mobile phones and information technology in the global South (as profiled in the first issue of magazine Southern Innovator), the move to becoming a majority urban world, a growing global innovator culture, and the plethora of solutions being developed in the global South to tackle its problems and improve living conditions and boost human development. The success of the e-newsletter led to the launch of the magazine Southern Innovator.  

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.


© David South Consulting 2023

By David South Consulting

David South Consulting is an international development media and consulting service. Designing human development and health. Editor and writer of Southern Innovator.



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