Fish farms can create wealth at the bottom

The State of the World’s Fisheries and Aquaculture report (2012) from the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) states that the average per capita consumption of fish hit a record high of 19 kilogrammes in 2011, supplying over three billion people with at least 16 per cent of their average animal protein intake.

This increase, the report says, was due mainly to the ever-growing production of aquaculture, which is set to overtake capture fisheries as a source of food fish.

Total production hit 154 million tonnes with a total value of $218 billion. The sector has become increasingly important with more people eating fish like never before and more people than ever are employed in or depend on the sector.

According to Private Sector Development in Agriculture (PSDA) and GTZ, in 2013 the value of total fishery in East Africa region was about US$ 600 million when both the local and export sales values are considered. More than $200 million of the regional value comes from Rastrinobola argentea (popularly referred to as omena).

Omena is a sardine-like fish which is silvery in appearance and measures about three inches long and is endemic to Lake Victoria.


This fish plays a significant role in the livelihoods of more than four million people in terms of employment, income and provision of nutrition thereby ranking it as the most important fishery in its contribution to the local and East African regional economy.

The share of Kenya’s revenue from fishing is less than $50 million when export markets are considered. More than 70 per cent of omena production in Kenya is marketed through the animal feed industry channel leaving less than 30 per cent for human consumption resulting in serious competition for the commodity between direct human food and raw material for animal feed.

For many years, more than 90 per cent of fish came from Lake Victoria and was mostly capture fishing, leading to serious shortage of animal protein both for food and animal feed.

Lack of quality animal feed has pushed the price of poultry to the extent that chicken produced in Brazil and landed in Kenya is cheaper than local varieties.

Although Kenya is ranked among the top 10 aquaculture producers in Africa, its total production in 2010 stood at 12,154 tonnes compared to 95,000 tonnes in Uganda. Egypt and Nigeria produced 919,585 and 200,535 tonnes respectively in the same period.

We are clearly not doing well in total fish production both in capture fishing and aquaculture. This is largely due to small-scale, low-technology, subsistence fishing practices, particularly using traditional techniques such as rod and tackle, throw nets and drag nets, and traditional fishing boats.

In capture fishing both in our lakes and coastal regions, there is no serious commercial fishing.

While we have started to deal with the supply side of fish, mostly through aquaculture, it is the middlemen who take the lion’s share of the returns.

Although they are an important conduit to markets, they exploit poor fishermen. World over, such exploitation is dealt with through a formal fish auction.

The auction will provide transparency in the industry and create a marketing channel for fishermen and help them with quality improvement to get the best prices for their catch. The auction will also make certain that fishermen are paid the same day for their catch.

This is how we can deal with poverty at the bottom of the pyramid. It is time we stop politicians from colluding with middlemen to exploit those at the bottom.

The 2009 fisheries economic stimulus yielded positive results with many small- scale aquaculture farms throughout the country and truly benefited the poor.

We now need to actively develop the demand side before fish growers give up due to market saturation when it is evident that the market has not been fully exploited.

The American Growth Opportunity Act (Agoa) gives us an opportunity to export fish products to the USA, but we have not taken advantage of this opportunity yet we know for example that tuna fish, a multi-billion- dollar product, comes to spawn off the East Africa coast between January and July.

There is dire need to start value addition to fish products. Omega 3 as well as cod liver oil are nutritional supplements widely used globally that with minimal research, a local industry can be developed to improve on the demand side of fish.

Fish has shown us that we can overcome poverty. We need investment in modern fishing equipment, train our fishermen and discourage subsistence fishing.

With this, we can exploit available fish resources in the Indian Ocean as well as in Lake Victoria. Fish is big business.

Dr Ndemo is a senior lecturer at theUniversity of Nairobi and a former permanent secretary, Ministry of Information and Communication.