Fish project turns Western farmers into full time entrepreneurs

Over 720 fish farmers in Western Kenya no longer farm for subsistence but now run businesses where they sell fish feeds and turned into full time entrepreneurs with ready markets. Dubbed the Aqua Shops project, it borrows from a successful initiative in South Asia, which in one year repositioned 20,000 fish farmers as entrepreneurs, and has since been replicated in India, Pakistan and Vietnam.

The new project has already set up six shops in western Kenya, providing inputs including fish feed and manure, technical advice and market linkages for up to 1,000 smallholder farmers, in a region where close to 60 per cent of households in the region are dependent on fish, either directly or indirectly, as a source of food or income.

The majority of the region’s fish ponds or farms are individually owned, although a few are run by groups. However, the need to raise output from the ponds has risen as wild fish stocks in the nearby Lake Victoria have dwindled.  The lake provides over 90 per cent of Kenya’s total fish supplies, but is suffering from overfishing and pollution. This has seen the Kenyan Government actively promoting aquaculture and small-scale fish farming from man-made fish ponds, with the aim of setting up 4,000 new fish ponds in western Kenya.

By providing inputs such as fish feed and manure, technical advice and help with finding the best markets, Aqua Shops aim to help farmers then turn the ponds into fish farming businesses, earning much needed additional income. “You can imagine how much of a gold mine the fish farmers have been sitting on. While the government did a very noble task of building the fish ponds for the farmers, there was no clear direction on what the farmers would do with the fish they are rearing. We need to encourage them to ‘think business’ in order to sustain this project and make sure the project doesn’t collapse once development partners pull out, and this is the whole essence of the Aqua Shops,” says Mrs Susan Otieno, Aqua Shops project manager.

Using a competitive process, the consortium places newspaper ads for vendors looking to establish the Aqua Shops. They must have a minimum qualification of a diploma in natural resources to qualify. The consortium of partners involved in the pilot project include Farm Africa, which is tasked with championing and popularising the Aqua Shop approach, facilitating linkages, and managing start-up support to selected Aqua Shop franchisees. DFID, through its Research into Use Programme, commissioned the original researchers, working together with Farm Africa, to test out a case study in Kenya that refined and pro-actively replicated the Aqua Shop model.

The University of Stirling, UK are specialists in aquaculture development and are helping in training. Imani Development, an international economic and development consultancy firm, has been on the ground conducting market research, and providing Aqua Shop franchise owners and smallholders with business management support. While Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) is helping in disseminating research and liaising with other ministries on policies and priorities.
The owners of Aqua Shops are trained by experts from University of Stirling in aquaculture so they can provide technical assistance to visiting farmers. The kind of free advice for farmers includes the fish feed ideal for a certain fish based on its age, or the colour of water in the fishpond, and what it means to the survival of the fingerlings.

Aqua Shop owners are also trained by members of Imani Development on business models to teach the farmers how to sustain their fish farms. The pilot project, which is expected to officially end in June 2011, has recorded impressive results from its first six shops, and coincides with the injection by the Kenyan government last year of Sh8m into each of 140 constituencies for the digging of 100 fish ponds per constituency.

Progress reports suggest that many constituencies in Western province have already reached the 100 ponds target, and most are now well advanced into aquaculture. “Farmers are producing fish that surpasses their subsistence needs, but they are left with nowhere to take the rest. We want to encourage them to even work hard to increase their yields and connect them to ready markets for their fish like hotels and supermarkets,” said Mrs Otieno.

According to the Ministry of Fisheries, Kenya has 1.4bn hectares of potential fish farming area, with the capacity to produce 11m tonnes a year worth Sh50 billion.