When Jake Minich (10) was asked to work on a fish-farming project in Malawi, he was understandably apprehensive. He couldn’t even point out Malawi on a map, let alone know if he wanted to move there.
Minich first learned of the project during a fundraising event for the nonprofit Children of the Nations and was surprised to discover part of the organization’s work was in the field of aquaculture.
“Most people don’t know what that is,” Minich said.
Aquaculture combines the breeding, farming, and research of fish to create a more sustainable and comprehensive agricultural and food system.
Minich, who grew up as an outdoorsman in a small rural town in Pennsylvania, transferred to PLNU as a bio-chemistry student during his sophomore year. He originally planned to work in medicine and hadn’t even the faintest idea of working with aquaculture.
Drawn to Southern California to become a professional paintball player, Minich began searching for universities to help him achieve his goal. He first looked into the UC system, but that required two years of undergraduate credits compared to his one year’s worth of credits. He then ended up visiting PLNU because of a friend of a friend who was attending.
“We went surfing and it was like, ‘how can I go anywhere else,’” he said.
After transferring in, however, Minich’s first year at PLNU came with several challenges, even causing him to consider dropping out at one point.
His parents couldn’t travel with him when he moved to PLNU because his mother was in intensive care with a brain condition. Minich also tore his ACL after joining PLNU’s rugby club, making it impossible to pursue his original dream of professional paintball. And he was also struggling academically with his biochemistry coursework.
“The first year was pretty tough,” Minich said.
To his surprise, however, Minich, who thought it would be a challenge to make friends as a transfer student, found himself being supported by his fellow students. This became a significant reason Minich was able to improve his grades and remain a student at PLNU.
“They just let me into their group to study even though I didn’t have anything to contribute,” he said. “Those guys really helped me out and also showed me good genuine Christianity.”
One day, while fishing down at Sunset Cliffs, he felt a call from God to do the same for other people, he said. “Feed them fish,” he heard.
One day, while fishing down at Sunset Cliffs, he felt a call from God to do the same for other people. “Feed them fish,” he heard.
It was at that moment Minich decided to pivot from his original path toward medicine to aquaculture. Minich had also become more aware of sustainable fishing and decided to lean into this new direction that would someday lead him to work in aquaculture.
“It was a decision that, whatever I end up doing, I want to do it for God and that’s it,” he said. “I felt like I was given a lot of that direction when I was at Point Loma.”
After graduation, Minich began working at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Southwest Fisheries in La Jolla in population genetics on marine mammals, and had begun a master’s program at San Diego State University studying cellular and molecular biology. That’s when he attended the fundraising event for Children of the Nations and was introduced to the fish-farming project in Malawi. After considering the offer, Minich realized it was an opportunity he couldn’t pass up and decided to forego graduating with his master’s to work on the seven-month project.
“I just had to go,” he said.
The scope of the project was to develop farms that could breed, grow, study, and harvest fish to help reduce poverty and malnutrition for the partnering community members in Malawi, as well as other developing nations.
Before leaving for Malawi, Minich researched as much about sustainable fish farming as he could and was able to secure a Fulbright grant to fund the project. Toward the end of the project, when the Fulbright grant had run out, he also received donations from his church to make up the rest and complete the project. But shortly after arriving, and as the project continued to progress, Minich began to run into additional challenges and roadblocks.
“I had no idea how to do any of this,” he said. Six months went by with nothing working, and Minich became increasingly frustrated with the progress.
“Everything we tried failed,” he said. “It was like, ‘wow, God told me to do this, now I’m here and I’m doing it, but it’s not working.”
But in the seventh and final month of the project, Minich began to experience success that inspired him to plan to return and use his knowledge for additional fish farming projects in the future.
After returning from that first trip to Malawi, Minich completed his master’s degree at SDSU, and was accepted into a Ph.D. program in marine biology at UCSD’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography. He currently serves as a post-doctoral fellow at the Salk Institute in La Jolla studying the impact of bacteria in marine fish.
During his first trip, Minich conducted research on the growth rate of different species of fish using feces from different types of birds that helped grow algae and zooplankton in the water, which fish then eat. Along with three other coauthors from Malawi, the study ended up being published, helping one of Minich’s coauthors go on to a master’s program.
He’s since traveled back to Malawi twice independently with no organizational support and has more trips planned in the future to design sustainable and profitable fish farms. If it works, he may start a nonprofit.
“I would love to go there multiple times a year if I could,” he said. “If I have the means to push this as far as I can, I want to do as much education as I can. I know with a Ph.D. I can get grants and do really big projects there.”
As he continues his project in Malawi, Minich will work to design ponds for families of 10. He’ll also work on breeding programs to develop fish to help them grow faster and offer more sustainable protein sources. The sustainable ponds will have a rainwater catchment system deep enough to hold water throughout the year to not only provide fish to eat but also increase the annual salary for the Malawians. The idea is for the pond water to be used to irrigate crops allowing the community members to sell the food they grow. For the project to be sustainable, Minich says, it must be profitable.
And though he never intended to work on sustainable fish farms and aquaculture in Malawi, it’s now “my favorite place in the world,” Minich says.