China’s fish exports to Kenya hit the Sh1 billion mark for the first time last year, adding impetus to concerns that the Asian nation is flooding the local market with sea food to the detriment of local fishermen.
Kenya’s appetite for Chinese fish imports grew 60.2 per cent to Sh1.02 billion in 2015 compared to Sh624.1 million a year earlier, according to the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS).
China deeply cut its fish imports from Kenya in the same period from Sh134.1 million to Sh94.5 million – representing a 29.5 per cent drop.
Fresh fish, chilled and frozen fish top the list of Chinese imports targeting Kenyan consumers, according to KNBS data.
Kenya also took in large amounts of smoked fish, dried and salted fish from the Asian country.
KNBS data indicates that the combination of local supply shortfalls and the surge in demand were the key drivers of the rising imports from low-cost markets such as China.
China mainly exports tilapia to Kenya, which is priced up to a fifth of locally produced fish, according to dealers.
One such dealer is Nairobi-based East African Sea Food Limited (EASF), whose manager Arnold Ganapathy acknowledged importing fish from China and promised to share the volume and value of the fish consignment ordered at any given time.
“We will find out from our officials in Mombasa before getting back to you,” said Mr Ganapathy on phone.
He had not responded by the time we went to press. Demand for fish, widely considered nutritious, has jumped in Kenya, outstripping supply.
Kenyans are on average consuming seven kilogrammes of fish per person yearly, up from two kilos in 2008, according to the Fisheries department, raising demand pressure amid dwindling supply.
Kenya’s fish production declined 14.3 per cent to 144,300 tonnes last year compared to 168,400 tonnes in 2014, KNBS data shows.
The biggest drop came from Lake Victoria – Kenya’s largest source of fish.
China has in recent years cemented its presence in the region, largely in civil works and has been bullish on pushing its low-cost consumer goods in the price-sensitive East African market.
There is need for a policy rethink to lock out imports that can be produced locally to avert possible suffocation of local industries, says X N Iraki, an Economics lecturer at the University of Nairobi.
China has also been pushing for adoption of Chinese language in Kenyan universities through Confucius Institute alongside Mandarin cuisines in hotels.
Kenyan MPs in July raised the red flag over the growth and safety of the tilapia imports from China as local appetite for the fish grows.
KNBS data shows that fish imports from China grew from Sh259 million in 2013 to Sh1 billion last year – a nearly four-fold rise in two-years.
MPs from Kenya’s Lake Victoria and the Indian Ocean regions said importing unprocessed fish from China amounts to economic sabotage of local fishermen.
“We strongly condemn this because the Kenya Bureau of Standards (Kebs) has no standards for unprocessed foods,” the MPs said.
Besides fish, the Kenyan market is also fed by other sea food from Beijing such as crustaceans, molluscs and aquatic invertebrates, the data shows.
The BBC in July reported that Chinese fishing vessels operate illegally off the coast of Guinea, depleting its fish population.
It has been suggested that the Chinese are selling some of the illegally caught fish to countries like Kenya.
Kenya last month announced the acquisition of a Sh3.6 billion ship to patrol its Indian Ocean territory as it steps up the campaign against illegal fishing that is estimated to cost it up to Sh10 billion annually.
Fisheries principal secretary Micheni Ntiba said the sea vessel will enhance surveillance along the Kenyan coast and cut losses that result from illegal fishing by other countries.
Kenyan fishermen are allowed to fish up to 200 nautical miles from the Kenyan shores under the Exclusive Economic Zones rules, but they operate at below five nautical miles for lack of appropriate fishing gear to explore the deep seas.
The PS yesterday declined to comment on the story, insisting he would do so on returning from the US where he is on official visit.
He has, however, indicated that Kenya will continue importing fish to meet the widening deficit as Lake Victoria, the country’s major source of fish, is suffering from near depleted stocks blamed on overfishing.
Prof Ntiba said Kenya was keen to plug the deficit through promotion of aquaculture.
Kenya’s total earnings from fresh water fish dropped marginally from Sh20.94 billion in 2014 to Sh20.46 billion last year.
The slight decline came after years of sustained growth in earnings and is linked to the drop in Nile perch species in Lake Victoria.
The Nile perch is a predatory fish that experts say preys on other species in its habitat when it matures, leading to a large decline of native tilapia, dagaa and cichlids.