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Fish farming in Africa: dead or alive?

Can aquaculture make good the growing shortfall between the declining yield of capture fisheries and growing consumer demand for fish in Africa? The potential is there, as numerous pilot projects have demonstrated, but past performance when pilot projects have been scaled up has invariably disappointed expectations. On the African continent only Egypt has a viable fish-farming sector, having increased output from 85,000 tonnes in 1997 to 376,000 tonnes in 2002.

Transferring fish between ponds in Cote D'Ivoire
Transferring fish between ponds in Cote D'Ivoire

According to an August 2005 report called 'Hidden harvests: unlocking the potential of aquaculture in Africa' by J.F. Muir et al., aquaculture across the continent will have to grow by some 10 per cent annually to meet expected requirements for human nutrition - an annual production rise from approximately 700,000 tonnes to more than 3 million tonnes over the next 15 years with required annual investments of between US$200 million and US$500 million. This growth "could provide employment for at least 5 million, affordable food for millions more, and export potential of US$50-100 million annually." The primary countries for aquaculture production are Egypt, Nigeria and Madagascar and the most commonly farmed fish include Nile tilapia, flathead grey mullet, carp, catfish and prawns.

Unlocking the potential

At present the potential of African aquaculture remains unexploited, with fish farming in sub-Saharan Africa in 2002 producing only 79,500 tonnes or 0.15 per cent of world fish production. Several factors have contributed to the many false dawns in African fish farming: few entrepreneurs are willing to risk investment in an untried practice; there has been no developed marketing or transport, so that pond culture has remained a subsistence activity; and there has been insufficient focus on the supply of fingerlings to restock ponds, or advice on best practice to what have inevitably been novices in a strange form of husbandry where the livestock are out of sight and whose health cannot readily be monitored.

Muir and his colleagues, however, believe that there is no cause for delay in expanding African aquaculture. The present existence of suitable physical resources, private sector investment opportunities, and a solid knowledge base means that the process can start now. At the same time, they caution that aquaculture will not work everywhere. And while the industry may develop much more quickly in some regions in comparison to areas where production is already established, this development needs to be conducted in a practical and realistic manner by drawing on lessons learned elsewhere in the world. Experience from elsewhere shows, for example, that aquaculturists must pay attention to market desires, and make certain to diversify their systems and products.

Governments can assist by building public-private sector partnerships and providing education and other resources for management of livestock and water, marketing and transportation. Muir believes that "the public sector will need to redefine its role from that of centralised and top-down strategic development investment, to one of sector strategy, setting up of relevant and effective standards, and quality monitoring, and wider service delivery." Countries must have appropriate policies and institutions in place, and create campaigns to raise awareness and interest in farming fish.

From subsistence failure to business success

Aquaculture across Africa will have to grow by ten per cent annually to meet expected requirements for human nutrition
Aquaculture across Africa will have to grow by ten per cent annually to meet expected requirements for human nutrition

Kenya is an example where this is beginning to happen, according to Kenya's Director of Fisheries, Mrs Nancy Gitonga. "The biggest problem we had before is that we were doing extension for fish farming as subsistence. Now we have decided to scrap the word 'subsistence'; we are saying fish farming is a business. In this process we have tried to attract the financial institutions, micro-financing especially, who were not on the scene before. Then we are teaching both the financial institutions and the farmers enterprise budgeting and the making of business plans, and we have seen a lot happening. Once they have understood that fisheries can actually make money, so many micro-financing institutions are interested in coming to assist our farmers."

Mrs Gitonga is also aware of the need to service fish farmers with consumable inputs. She cites successful fish farming experience elsewhere as a pointer to Africa's future: "If you go to South East Asia, for instance, the fish farming is done very professionally. The fingerlings are improved genetically and they have developed the right feeds. We can use that technology and transfer it to Africa. I think that is our window of opportunity for alleviating poverty."

Transferring technology should not be an insurmountable problem with the WorldFish Center bridging the expertise of Asia, Egypt and sub-Saharan Africa. Donors could also be persuaded that fish farming is a sector to fund, but it is success that breeds success. Ultimately, it will be up to more African governments to demonstrate their commitment to realising the potential of fish farming, as Egypt has done and Kenya appears to be doing.

Date published: November 2005


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