By FELICITY DARVILLE
THE Bahamas has tons of reasons to focus on its agriculture and fisheries industries at a time like this and move this country towards food security. The Bahamas Government has a National Food and Nutrition Security Policy and Agenda for Action (2017-2022) prepared by the Ministries of Health and Agriculture & Marine Resources with technical support from the Food & Agriculture Organisation (FAO).
This document lays out the plan of Government to address issues of a nation facing a public health crisis. It is estimated that 5.6 percent of the population – about 19,000 people, still lack sufficient food for their dietary needs. About five percent of children are stunted. A whopping 80 percent of our population is said to be overweight, and 49 percent are obese. To add to this, we have an epidemic on chronic non-communicable diseases.
The United Nations General Assembly has declared the period 2016–2025 as the Decade of Action on Nutrition. The Bahamas Government has stated its commitment to creating a food and nutrition secure nation. We are right in the middle of the Decade of Action on Nutrition as well as our Food and Nutrition Policy and Agenda for Action. We need to see documents and plans go to policy and tangible reality that reaches every Bahamian, because every Bahamian saw the reality of our challenges as we have been going through a series of lockdowns due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
A part of our food and nutrition goals rest with BAMSI – the Bahamas Agriculture and Marine Science Institute. The Institute is designed to drive a progressive and sustainable path toward a food-secure future. The Institute consists of the BAMSI College with campus facilities in North Andros; the 1,000-acre research/tutorial farm; and the Associated Farmers’ Programme.
It is unfortunate that the Institute, which is making steady strides, received a budget cut from $8m to $6.9m this year, when it actually needs more funding to continue to build the agriculture and marine sector. BAMSI college students are graduating and going on to make meaningful contributions to the industries that will aid our country in being food secure. One such alumna is Gimel Morley. This former student is now a BAMSI lecturer, pouring into other young, bright minds with a passion to feed their fellow Bahamians.
Before attending BAMSI, Gimel wasn’t completely sure of her career goals. But the school helped her clarify her vision, and set her on a path for success. Today, she holds an Aquaculture Nutrition Master’s degree and has a goal of one day operating her own sustainable farm.
Gimel was born in New Providence in 1989 to parents Theodore and Belinda Morley. Growing up, her parents instilled a strong sense of morals and self-worth in her. They ensured she was independent and self-driven. Gimel was always planting things in the garden and she loved her pets – she always had cats and dogs. She attended St Augustine’s College for high school. While there, she gained some friends for life. They are a part of her support structure to this day, along with her family. They were known as the “art kids” and they were always encouraging one another to pursue their dreams even when they were not normal by societal standards.
“I wasn’t always the best student, but wherever I got to work with my hands, I shined,” said Gimel.
“I was a part of technical cadets and I earned a scholarship to attend the College of The Bahamas. It was my jumping-off point to college life. It was drastically different than what I was used to, but it pushed me to figure out what I wanted to do in life.
“My love for animals pushed me in the direction of vet science and I transferred to Belmont Abbey College, North Carolina from 2009 to 2012 to pursue it. There, my mind opened up to new cultures by being a part of the international students club. It was my first time living away from home and I was excited to be there. Living free with the sensibilities that my parents instilled in me allowed me to get the most out of my experience. Ice-skating, mountain climbing, participating in all student actives… I wanted to do everything.
“But reality hit me about the job market in The Bahamas - only having a bachelor’s degree. I was optimistic but I didn’t have a plan going forward, and there isn’t much I could do with only a BS in biology. I still wanted to work with animals, but veterinary school didn’t feel right anymore. After two years of helping my mom establish an EMT business, I saw an advertisement for a farm school that was being established in The Bahamas. It was the perfect opportunity. It was close to home, I could work with my hands with plants and animals, and I could find a way to survive by doing something that I loved. During my time at Belmont Abbey, my senior thesis advisor introduced me to articles about vertical farming and greenhouse farming. This new school would be able to show me how to expand on that idea.”
A church member told her BAMSI had a recruitment drive and sets up a table in the mall on certain days. She got up early one morning, dressed like she was going on an interview and waited for BAMSI representatives to set up their stall.
“After a while, a kind man came over and asked if I was interested in farming, and that is how my journey to Andros began.” said Gimel.
“At BAMSI, I enrolled in the aquaculture programme and got to experience subjects about marine science and agriculture. My teachers were absolutely amazing and they gave me great advice about how to move forward with life. They pushed me to learn more about the marine environment and gave me opportunities to conduct research on conch surveying with Shedd aquarium. The head of the department allowed me to go on a grouper tagging trip in Andros.
“BAMSI also ensured that I received an internship during the summer, at Atlantis to learn more about aquariums and to reinforce what I was taught at school. To get the most out of the experience, I obtained my scuba diving certification, which allowed me to scuba dive in the tanks.”
While on the internship, one of her supervisors suggested she should look into the Bahamas Marine Mammal Research Organisation. She contacted them and decided that after the internship was finished, she would go to whale camp in Abaco. It was the best decision ever, Gimel says. She met kind and knowledgeable people and had an enriching summer experience. After that, it was back to BAMSI to complete her final year.
One lecturer urged her to continue her education after BAMSI. She searched the Ministry of Education website and found a scholarship opportunity to China. She applied and after a few months, she heard from the Atlas programme, which had accepted her.
Gimel graduated at the top of her class – the very first graduating class at BAMSI with an associate of science degree in aquaponics, making her parents and grandparents proud. She was immediately offered a job at BAMSI but a week later, an official from the Chinese government scholarship programme called, offering her the scholarship for her Master’s degree. After consulting her BAMSI lecturers and her parents, it was off to China.
“It was a tough decision,” Gimel said. “My family was going through a troubling time, but my parents still pushed me to go because it was an amazing opportunity. I packed my bags in a week, went to the airport, and travelled to the other side of the world not knowing any of the language or knowing how I would get to the school and procure accommodations when I arrived in this foreign country.
“The one thing I learned was that my map and translator app were my best friends. I made great friends with people of many races and cultures including Africa, Pakistan and India. After three years of being away, I graduated and returned home with a Masters in Aquaculture. My parents were so proud but they weren’t able to attend my graduation in China.
“I returned home and was offered a job at BAMSI. This was a dream come true because many people don’t get to ever actually use their degree to work in their field. The opportunity was bittersweet because my family was going through a tumultuous time and it was difficult leaving them again, especially after only being back in the country for a few weeks - and most of that time was used for Hurricane Dorian preparation. After the storm, I was finally able to hop on a boat and head to Andros.”
Gimel is now a lecturer and aquaculture specialist on the farm at the school that expanded her mind in farming and now she hopes that she can expand the minds of students while she is there. She works with plants and fish at the aquaponics farm, which lets her live out her childhood dream of working with her hands and with animals
As a lecturer at BAMSI, Gimel covers oceanography, marine conservation and management, aquaponics and fish nutrition and health. The aquaponics facility is doing well and has produced a few hundred pounds of fish for sale to the market already.
“Andros is the new frontier of The Bahamas,” she said.
“When I first came here as a student, Andros was empty. One side of the road was just pine forest. When I came back, there was an adjustment, as I was used to the hustle and bustle of China, and being able to order everything on my phone and it getting it right at my doorstep. But I enjoy lecturing at BAMSI, and a lot of students are interested in sustainable farming like I am – permaculture and polyculture, fish farming, having an apiary (bees), vertical farming – everything working in unison. We bounce ideas off one another, and I am also getting practical experience for my own farm one day. Since COVID happened, at least ten farms have sprung up here in Andros – and that’s just in my immediate area.”
When asked about her thoughts on food and nutrition security, Gimel shared: “The government should push for every household to have a small garden. Agriculture should be a part of every school’s curriculum and students should learn about livestock farming. The process of farming needs to be more appealing to society. We need to move away from western ideas of fast food. We eat a lot of things we cannot grow and that needs to change. We need community gardens. BAMSI needs more funding. And, we need to make the process easier for young people, like BAMSI graduates, to obtain Crown land to start farms and get the funding to support their goals of food and nutrition security.”