What do you do when the usual high price of a luxury item like lobster reduces?
For foodies across the globe, it is an opportunity to cook huge lobsters for lunch, dinner, and then lunch and dinner, prying every last bit of meat from the shell.
But for a majority of Kenyans, the dropping prices have failed to whet their appetite.
For years, Kenyan fishermen and traders have earned a good living selling lobsters to China, Dubai, or Singapore.
Locally they sell them to restaurants frequented by foreigners that make delicacies ranging from Sh4,000 upwards. It is then unsurprising that they have been associated with status and a lavish lifestyle.
Then Covid-19 led to the closure of restaurants and export markets.
Geoffrey Huhu, a businessman from Kilifi who has been building his small empire selling lobsters all over the world says when coronavirus hit the seafood industry, his business took a tumble.
From a facility in Kikambala, he says he shipped live lobsters to Malaysia, Thailand, China, Hong Kong, Dubai, and Singapore. Life was good. But then people started avoiding seafood, fearing that it could be the source of the coronavirus.
“We were the first people to be affected. When restaurants in China closed, we started losing three to four months of supply,” he says.
“When everything shut down I had to resell whatever I had bought at a bargain. It is like my lobsters died,” he adds.
It was a sharp downturn from the lucrative business that lured him to the seafood industry.
“The demand for both live and frozen lobsters in the international market was growing faster than the supply,” says Huhu who started his company, Pwani Sealife Kenya, in 2015. Two years ago, he could ship 1,500kg of lobsters in a week.
Not so today.
Low China prices
The high season, from September to April, has started but there is little market for his lobsters.
The volumes may reduce due to unpredictable weather changes that affect lobsters and unhealthy competition from international firms which have set base in Kenya.
But of all these factors working against his business, it is Covid-19 that worries him more.
After restaurants closed, demand for seafood dropped and has failed to pick after reopening of a few eateries as expensive foods were removed from menus.
The global appetite for the lobsters, he surmises, might be coming back after the reopening of borders, but it is not as swift.
“We are having orders from China but it is nothing compared to the normal orders. Thailand is yet to open up,” he says.
The prices have substantially reduced as well. Whereas he could earn Sh7,500 for one kilogramme of lobster, the Chinese, for instance now offer to take up his stock at Sh5,000 for the same quantity.
“The prices in Dubai have also gone down,” he says.
Why not sell to locals?
“The challenge is people do not know much about them. Kenyans need to get used to eating lobsters. If they are consuming prawns and prawns are the same as lobsters, then they can eat lobsters,” says Huhu.
But even locally focussed traders are finding the going tough.
Abdulrahman Saggaf who sells lobsters among other seafood on social media says he has had to drastically cut the price to keep customers coming, and even then, they are not placing orders in droves.
“When I started, I used to sell it for Sh1,800 per kg then the prices dropped to Sh1,200 per kg. I reduced the price after factoring in the financial pinch faced by my customers,” says the 19-year-old.
The first-year student at Strathmore University pursuing a Bachelor of Business and Information Technology course runs an online fish shop, Babu Fisheries, as a side hustle.
He started the venture in December 2019 just after finishing high school.
Saggaf sources lobsters from fishermen in Junda, Vanga, Wasini Island, and middlemen from Lamu and Malindi.
Twalib Abubakar, the chairman of Lamu Fishermen says before the pandemic, a fisherman could make Sh3,000 per kg of lobsters.
“Today it is hard to sell at Sh1,000. The price has dropped so much that if we had other businesses and jobs in Lamu, we could have stopped doing this work” he says.
Lamu Archipelago, Kipini-Kiwaiyu Islands, and the Mambrui, Kilifi, Msambweni, and Shimoni areas are highly productive lobster fishing grounds.
Lobsters are mainly harvested by small-scale fishers who have been forced to dock their boats. Those who are fishing are finding it tough.
“Some of the fishermen have turned to octopus instead of lobsters. Octopus has a ready market as more people consume it locally,” he says, adding that the few who are lobstering sell to the Chinese workers in Lamu and a few locals.
“The challenge is you have to sell it immediately you catch it. We do not have cold stores to keep seafood and sell later at a better price,” says Twalib. Sae Said Hemedi one of the fishermen in Lamu says catching quality lobster is a tedious job, often taking the better of the day.
For more than six hours at sea, together with skin divers, they hand-catch the lobsters. “That’s how we ensure most are caught alive. We also lay traps,” says Hemedi, who has been at it for 20 years now.
There are good and bad days. Sometimes they return with no lobster.
“A day’s catch can weigh between 20 to 50 kg of lobsters, which essentially means we wasted our fuel that day,” he says.
Over the years, Huhu had mastered the trade. Exporting a live lobster takes planning.
At his facility, he keeps them in cold holding tanks before packing them. The lobsters are not fed for two or three days before shipping. Full stomachs result in lobsters using more oxygen and they can vomit.
“They are packed in boxes sealed at a temperature of between 5 degrees to around 10 degree Celsius. We can move them because their metabolism is slow at that time. Time is a key factor. They have to get to the market as quickly as possible,” he says, adding that when handled properly, live hard-shelled lobsters can live out of water for 30 to 40 hours.
As the low orders persist, Huhu says he has had to focus more on fish sales to keep his business going.
“We are surviving because we also sell fish to steady clients in Nairobi throughout the year. We started with exports as our primary business but it has ended up being our secondary market,” Huhu says.