Soaring fish demand turns farmers into overnight millionaires

A programme meant to boost food security in rural areas four years ago has created a booming fish market, which has seen pioneer farmers rake millions as demand for fingerlings soars both locally and internationally.

The Economic Stimulus programme which sought to among other economic empowerment projects introduce fish farming in the counties aimed at boosting fish production and market which was traditionally a preserve of communities living in lakes and the coastal town of Mombasa. Under the programme the government was to spend Sh1.12billion to construct fishponds in over 140 constituencies. The funds have since shot to Sh3billion in the 2010/2011 fiscal year.

Over the same period, fish production rose from 4000 tonnes worth Sh560million in 2006 to 12,154tonnes worth 3.6billion in 2010. Nationally demand rose from one million in 2006 to 28million in 2011.

Local organizations raising young fish are now making huge profits, as demand dwarfs supply and the number of fish ponds rise across the country. “We cannot meet demand for fingerlings in this region. Individuals and institutions have been flocking our ponds seeking fingerlings.

Acceptance of fish has also raised demand,” observed Edwin Ndereba, chairman Thuita Forest Network, a non governmental organization in Nithi County. While initially formed for forest conservation efforts such as tree planting, the organization has emerged as the leader in fish farming in Eastern Kenya region.

Currently the network has 10 fish ponds most of them stocked with fish- mainly tilapia and catfish- for sale, as well as breeding stock for fingerlings. The network is among the 62 authenticated organizations by the Fisheries department to nationally supply fingerlings to the ballooning aquaculture businesses.
Others in the county include Chwele Fish Farm and Yala Fish Farm in Western Kenya, Isiolo Fish Farm in Northern Kenya, Mwea Fish Farm in Central Kenya, Thongoni Aquaculture in Machakos and Bamburi Nature Trail in Mombasa among others.

“It will take a while before the markets for the fingerlings slow down. Even among women, interest in fish farming has been rising with its low labour demands and little land requirement,” Ms Gladys Murugi treasurer of 97 member network that has 75 women and 22 men said.

With land size on the decline as population rises, land intensive enterprises such as fish farming and greenhouse tomato and cabbage farming in the country have become a darling to smallholder producers. A fish pond measuring 450 square metres can sustain a family’s economic fortunes.

Recently the group set up a fish hotel at the neighbouring Kibugua market of Meru South. “We have been able to supply the hotel with fish from our ponds but demand continues to rise among the educated, young and those well travelled. Soon we may have to source fish from elsewhere as our hotel cannot support this appetite,” said Japhet Kabucha the group secretary. So far the network benefit 5,000 people directly with another 1,000 indirectly mainly through the fish farming activities.

Formed in 2004, the network took up fish farming two years ago after a Sh3million funding by the Nanyuki based non governmental organization Compact. With this funding the group was able to construct fish ponds, stock the fish and get permits to operate them.

But their major breakthrough came after the government launched the Economic Stimulus programme. Through the programme the government funds individuals or organizations interested in fish farming.
“With the already existing fish ponds the Fisheries department felt we were already ahead of the pack. With the ESP we have already constructed a demonstration fish pond where interested persons and schools can learn fish management and marketing,” said Mr. Ndereba a retired Kenya Navy officer.
But even with the increased appetite in fish dishes, it is the fingerlings that hold the future of the network.

While the stipulated price per fingerling is Sh7, it sometimes goes beyond Sh10 per piece due to rising demand. Like other members of the network, Mrs Murugi believes that once they obtain the necessary funding for construction of a fish hatchery, their business returns will triple. Already special ponds for hatching have already been constructed and stocking of male and female fish done at a ratio of 3:1 respectively.

However aquaculture has its challenges. “Poor breeding stocks and feeds are the biggest drawbacks to this sub sector. Farmers need to buy fingerlings from registered organizations lest they lose their investment through poor stock,” observed Mr. Kabucha.

Equally fish pellets in the market sometimes fail to supply the required nutrients due to poor formulation resulting in reduced growth rates of the fingerlings. The fish ends up taking longer to attain the table size of about 300-500 grammes.

Within the network ponds, the fish are fed on locally formulated ratio bran, chicken growers mash and fish meal. Feeding costs average Sh3,600 although other overheads are few. Prospective farmers also need to ascertain that the feed do not have aflatoxin, as this can kill the fish. The network painfully learnt this lesson after the fish in one pond were wiped out after taking feeds sourced from a neighbouring country.

The network also works closely with the Forestry department, Kenya Wildlife Service, Ministry of water, Ministry of Agriculture, and Livestock Development and a number of non governmental organizations.
Now the aquaculture farming seem to not only have taken off in the local market but is moving internationally as exports of the fish blossoms both in other East African market and across the globe.

For example many of the fish farming organizations are now exporting fish to the US and UK where renewed interest in fish consumption partly due to its nutritional attributes has seen demand shoot up by 30 percent in the last two years. “Infact the international market for fish has been the incentive that has drawn many fish farmers to this trade because it is very lucrative. Which is why we are scaling up on the fish farming,” said Mr. Kabucha.