This is a story (in part) about droplets.
Just not the kind you’re thinking of, in these pandemic days.
Two months ago, while the world was on the cusp of the coronavirus, Dan Miller was in Madagascar, doing what he does.
It wouldn’t be long before everyone, everywhere, would start worrying about toilet paper and feverish foreheads.
And, more grimly, who might survive — and who might not — in the shadow of COVID-19.
But that was before.
In what seems like a long time ago now, Miller, an aquatic biologist from Morgantown, was working on something just as fundamental on the large island off Africa’s southeastern coast.
He was all about tilapia and marketing plans.
Figure both out, and people in Madagascar’s remote villages could get fed. And paid, even.
Serious business for a professional sojourner from the Mountain State — even if Miller did reel in a share of smirks that one afternoon.
You know: When he employed the bedpan in the name of science.
“Hey,” he said recently, with a chuckle of his own. “Whatever works.”
Catfish are jumpin’
He was too busy being amazed to laugh when he found out just how inexpensive it would be, in U.S. dollars, to get the above going.
Miller is an expert in aquaculture, which is the practice of raising fish for food or sport.
He’s had experience in both. He owned and operated a tropical fish farm in Florida, before his degrees and his resume brought him to the University City.
Twenty years ago, he worked on a project that enabled more than 1,000 catfish, smallmouth bass and bluegill to survive and thrive in the most unlikely of places: A former acid mine drainage facility in rural Marion County.
The goal was to retool the state’s tapped-out mines and related industries into fish hatcheries and sport-fishing venues.
At this particular site, two decades later, you and your kids can still cast a line in the water for fun.
While the project overall has yet to catch a statewide wave, a lot of institutional knowledge has been netted, concerning feeding and water viability.
After all, Miller said, the fish were rippling the water in tanks that once carried aquatic death for West Virginia’s streams and rivers.
He was excited, as his boots crunched the dirt and gravel in Marion County.
“This can work,” he said. “We can do this.”
Two months ago, with his boots in the dust of Madagascar, he said pretty much the same thing.
He was intrigued when the email from Cultivating New Frontiers in Agriculture arrived in his inbox.
From its headquarters in Washington, D.C. and Brussels, the international development organization helps establish and shore up agricultural based businesses and programs, usually in places where people have very little.
While Madagascar is rich in human spirit and scenery, it couldn’t be poorer.
Its working-class laborers might pull down $1 a day, maybe.
Miller’s mission within that area was very specific.
Besides his college degrees, he had field experience with the Marion County project.
He was also a small business owner in the aquaculture. He had a tropical fish farm in Florida for a few years.
For three weeks in Madagascar, from late January to early February, he huddled with two aquaculture cooperatives past Antananrivo, the country’s sprawling capital of 3 million.
The idea was to get them set up with their own aquaculture operations. Miller would consult on the science and the marketing plan.
Villagers could go to work in those operations. That would mean take-home pay better than $1 a day.
Even better, it also would mean food on the table.
Wheels-down in Johannesburg, Miller unbuckled his South African Airways seat and went to work.
You can see where the wave broke at Antananrivo. You can see how it used to be. Ornate buildings, grand promenades, now frayed and crumbling.
To get to the cooperatives in the villages, Miller traveled for hours on rutted, kidney-busting dirt roads.
The poverty, he said, was numbing.
But the potential for it all to work was exciting.
Miller was advising the cooperatives on how to breed and farm tilapia, a hearty, adaptable fish known in the aquaculture trade as the “aquatic chicken.”
This fish isn’t finicky.
Give it a meal of pellets made, say, of corn, rice and soy, and then watch, as it happily swims back for seconds. It gains weight pretty fast.
In 2010, for example, Americans consumed 475 pounds of tilapia. Ten years later, the fish is just as famous on grocery lists and menus here.
And one of cooperatives Miller was talking to was almost ready to get going. Almost.
The man heading the production needs about $10,000 to complete the work so the cooperative can start cranking out the tilapia.
That’s food for bellies and paychecks for households, the aquatic biologist said.
Miller smiled as he heard the tale.
“We might be able to do something about that.”
He’s a Rotarian, and Rotary, he said, “Lives for these projects.”
Once back in the States, it didn’t take Miller long to start talking tilapia and how $10,000 could float a whole region.
He’s asking his fellow Rotarians for donations, and you too.
The address for donations, if you can, is Cheat Lake Rotary, P.O. Box 423, Dellslow, WV 26531.
Just write, “Madagascar” in the check memo line.
“That’s so much appreciated,” he said.
About that bedpan …
Miller appreciates the spirit and resiliency of the people he met in
That’s whether they were farmers, technicians, children or the smiling elderly gentleman with the broken flip-flop who brought him a bucket of hot water — almost too hot, actually — every morning at 6 a.m. in his hotel room.
Then, there’s the bedpan. That Miller used. In front of people.
Getting live tilapia to market in Madagascar, more often than not, doesn’t work.
There’s around a 30% survival rate, Miller said, and that might be generous.
Ever the scientist, he was showing a group one day how to oxygenate water, DIY style, which ups the survival rate immeasurably.
He employed a cup with holes, and, with an oxygen meter, was showing how the levels in the droplets rose as the cup was being tilted, and how there was a backwash of the rejuvenated droplets and how the tilapia love that … when he noticed the smiles.
The aquatic biologist was informed he was using a child’s bedpan for the demonstration.
“That went over well,” he said. “Lots of laughter for this foreigner.”