Lake Victoria is the primary source of fish in East Africa. This is the largest freshwater lake in Africa. It is estimated to produce 800,000 tonnes of fish annually. Tanzania has the lion’s share of the lake (51%) followed by Uganda (43%) and Kenya (6%). In Kenya, the most popular freshwater fish is the Tilapia. Unfortunately, it has become quite scarce because of the increasing demand and not enough time given for the young ones to mature.
In 1991, 46,942 metric tonnes of tilapia were in the lake. In 2015, this population had dropped to 3,203 metric tonnes.
The other countries in East Africa that rely on fish from Lake Victoria have been facing a similar challenge.
Challenges facing fish farming in East Africa
Harvesting immature fish
In 2015, out of the 101,573 tonnes of Nile Perch harvested, only 8,337 tonnes were mature. This is attributed to the rise in the number of fishermen in the region. In the 1970s, about 50,000 fishermen were using 12,000 fishing boats. In 2015, there were over 60,000 boats and over 200,000 fishermen. All these people are trying to make a living, and this has had adverse effects in the fish industry in the region.
Uncoordinated fish farming activities
Unfortunately, aquaculture is not as organized as other forms of farming. The high demand for fingerlings by fish farmers against the insufficient supply has forced government entities to depend on the private sector for the supply. However, this information is not readily available to the farmers and those interested in fish farming. This has led many potential investors to give up since they have no idea where to start. Fish farms are currently operating at a small scale because their plans for expansion have been thwarted by the conflicting or insufficient information available.
Strategies to improve the production of fish in East Africa
In a bid to boost the numbers of tilapia in the lake, Kenya introduced cage farming. The floating steel cages were initially set up to protect the tilapia from being harvested when still extremely young. The fish in the cages are fed and monitored. Unfortunately, there have been concerns about the impact these cages have on other fish species. At the moment, policies are being drafted to govern the use and installation of these cages.
In a bid to replenish the exhausted supply of fish, freshwater ponds were introduced as a farming activity in East Africa. In Tanzania, there are over 14,100 freshwater ponds on the mainland. Small-scale farmers have included fish farming to their standard farming practices as a way of diversifying their income. A 25m x 25m large rainbow trout farm is also found in Arusha. Tanzania has also taken up shrimp farming, but it is still in the pilot phase.
Rwanda has over 80 ponds in 10 different sites. These produce over 17,000 metric tonnes of fish annually. Tilapia and catfish are the most common fish reared. The local market for fish in Kigali is quite high. A kilo of fish goes for about $3.
Aquaculture has become quite popular in Uganda, with over 15,000 metric tonnes harvested annually. Just like in Rwanda, the most popular fish are the tilapia and catfish.
How the East Africa Community has supported fish farming
In April 2018, Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania launched an operation known as Save the Nile Perch. This program has been designed to increase the stocks of Nile Perch in the lake. Nile Perch is at risk of extinction if nothing is done about it. These countries have set aside $1.8million for this initiative. The citizens have also been encouraged to support aquaculture by buying fish from the local fish farmers. This will discourage fishing of immature fish from the lake and give it time to restore the numbers of fish species.
Unfortunately, these governments face a dilemma. The communities living close to the lake rely on fishing as their primary source of income. Encouraging aquaculture to save the fish in the lake is a great solution to safeguard the fish population in the lake. However, what should the government do with the hundreds of thousands who are desperately seeking their daily bread on the waters?
Efforts have been made to have a register of legal fishermen on Lake Victoria. In 2017, the government of Tanzania intensified the fight against illegal fishing. Unfortunately, many fishermen in the region have resorted to the use of chemicals to trap more fish. This has affected the fish industry. Tanzania, considering the percentage of waters within its boundaries, had plenty of fish factories. Unfortunately, they are no more because of insufficient raw materials.
Security patrols have been set up to protect the fish from hungry locals who are going out of their way to fish as much as they can, irrespective of the uncertainty of future stocks. Fortunately, citizens of these nations have come to appreciate the initiatives set up by their respective governments. Today, fish from local farms are becoming popular. They are also more affordable than fish from the lake.
The export market for fish from East Africa
There have been concerns about the increase of fish imports in Kenya. However, between 2015 and 2018, Kenya has earned over $82million from fish exports. This is much higher than the $39million paid for the fish imports. The export volumes in the period under review was 16,429 tonnes. During the same period, 40,991 tonnes of fish was imported. Local fish farmers have been decrying the low-cost fish that has flooded the market, especially those from China. Frozen Nile Perch, tilapia, lobsters, octopus, and tuna have been the main fish exported to the EU.
Unless local fish farmers meet the growing demand for fish, the government has no choice but to import over 800,000 tonnes of fish to meet the deficit in the market. The dwindling stocks in the lake and the small number of people practicing fish farming play a significant role in the volume of fish imports into the country. It is paramount that more people to invest in fish farming in the region if the size of imports is to drop.
Rwanda has been the primary supplier of fish to the DRC. Unfortunately, due to the dwindling production, it has turned to Uganda and Tanzania for support. Rwanda now imports fish from Tanzania and Uganda and then re-exports it to DRC. DRC is a large consumer of fish.
It is estimated that the north, south and eastern part of DRC consumes over 100, 000 tonnes of fish annually. Unfortunately, Rwanda has been unable to meet this demand. Between July 2017 and March 2018, Export volumes of fish from Rwanda increased to 7 million kilograms. This was an increase in production compared to the 6.5million kilograms reported in the same period between 2016 and 2017. Rwanda earned $8million from the added volume.
As more people turn to fish as their primary source of protein for health reason, the demand for fish has continued to grow. East Africa has an excellent opportunity to improve fish farming. If more people invested in fish farming, the supply would meet the demand. If these countries target for surplus production to meet the export market, aquaculture may quickly become a significant contributor to the GDP of these countries.