It’s on a cool Tuesday mid morning when Enterprise visits Mbeere North Sub County. We follow a tarmack road that branches to the right on the Embu-Meru road and head towards Ishiara town.
Just two kilometres before we get to the town, we meet a well-built man in gumboots. He confirms his identity and welcomes us to his fish farm, just a few metres from the road, at Karuri village, Embu County.
Jacob Njeru takes us through his 14 fish ponds as he narrates his long journey to self-employment; from resigning from his job in Nairobi to venturing into fish farming in 2005, failure and eventually tasting success in 2013.
The eight-year stretch of failure and sheer determination taught him tough lessons in overcoming challenges.
“Although this region has favourable soil, good climate and sufficient piped water for fish farming; there are hidden drawbacks for every new farmer,” he says.
Staring with an initial capital of Sh15,000, Mr Njeru bought 2,700 fingerlings — 2,500 tilapia and 200 catfish.
“At that time, water had not been connected to my farm so I leased a shamba for Sh1,500 a season. The Fisheries Department helped me construct three fish ponds and I began actualising my dream,” the father of five explains.
Between 2005 and 2007, Mr Njeru’s annual earnings from the venture never rose beyond a meagre Sh23,000 due to a myriad challenges.
The owner of the land increased the lease fee and forced him to look for alternative ways of reducing costs. He leased a larger farm for Sh5,000 per annum.
However, in 2008 the Ministry of Agriculture came to his aid and dug 14 fish ponds for him.
He also benefited from the government’s fish farming awareness campaign and built four more fish ponds.
The 50-year-old sold his fish to locals which earned him peanuts.
“At one point I was forced to sell 12 kilos of fish at Sh1,500 only. The returns kept dwindling but I did not have an alternative market,” he says.
“Our fish would be stolen every other night. One night I caught our security guard ferrying a sack full of tilapia. I was heart-broken,” says his wife, Julieta.
“Someone poisoned fish in five ponds, killing them. Fish theft became rampant, I only got 100 tilapia from the initial 1,000 fingerings in 2012,” Mr Njeru adds.
But every cloud has a silver lining. In 2013 a community based organisations helped him invest Sh34,000 in the venture and pipe water to his own farm.
He abandoned the business on leased farms and began afresh. He build five ponds and dedicated two to fingerlings.
That year, he won two tenders to supply fish and fingerlings to the Fisheries Department. “I was happy to win the tenders worth Sh850,000, I earned 70 per cent profit. Demand for fish shot to the roof and I could not meet it. My fish was tasty and attracted consumers from far,” he says.
Direct fish sales earned him Sh80,000 a month. He also began selling fingerlings to upcoming farmers at Sh7 and Sh10 for tilapia and catfish respectively. A 250 gram tilapia goes for Sh50 while a catfish weighing 700 grams fetches Sh200.
This is when he registered his project, Eastern Earth Environmental Preservation Organisation (EEEPO) and added two more ponds.
He was wary of hiring farm-hands who had previously turned out to be fish predators, so he decided to assign his family most farm activities.
Today he has 14 ponds. He partly attributes his success to attending many training sessions and improving his farming methods. “Now I have my own hatchery which reduces the mortality rate and increases hatching viability,” he says.
A female fish weighing a kilo and a male can produce 250,000 fingerlings, he says.
“The female can lay 600 grams of eggs with each gram containing about 500 eggs. I sell every fingerling from at Sh7.”
He adds that larva take three days before they are fed. Aquaculture expert Alex Akidiva from the Agro-science Fish Park at Egerton University says fingerlings should only be fed once they are done with feeding on the egg york, usually between three to four days after being hatched.
After that they should be fed with high protein starter feeds. Mr Akidiva advises that ponds should be dried every new cycle and limed to kill parasites and keep the soil rich.
“After liming, the pond can be filled with water which is then fertilised using either organic or inorganic fertilisers containing Nitrogen and Phosphorus. This enhances pond productivity as tiny plants and insects that grow become natural food for fish,” he says.
A pond should be abandoned for two weeks after water fertilisation before introducing fingerlings.
Mr Njeru’s wife says that to cut costs and avoid expired feeds from the market, she makes her own and sells the surplus at Sh70 a kilo.
“Tilapia feed must contain 28 to 30 per cent crude protein for best growth,” says Mr Akivida, adding that predators such as birds and monitor lizards must be kept at bay.
While many people shy away from fish raring, the expert says that if an area has clay soil and plenty of clean water the business can thrive.
“Water quality should be monitored throughout the season, ” he adds.