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New Agriculturist: Focus on... Fish, lovely fish...who will buy?
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Fish, lovely fish...who will buy?

Kivukoni fish market, Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania
Kivukoni fish market, Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania

Africa's fisheries may be said to be in crisis, but they also face a future of great opportunities. Fish is the largest and fastest growing 'agricultural' commodity on international markets, worth US$58.2 billion in 2002. And in that year, half of the world fish trade was from developing countries, exceeding the total value of the net exports of rice, coffee, sugar and tea. Domestic demand in sub-Saharan Africa is also increasing, as the population continues to grow and a greater proportion becomes urbanised. The challenges facing governments, entrepreneurs and producers alike are the need for better transport and marketing of food products to meet the demand from consumers in places remote from sites of production or catch.

But to meet demand from domestic markets or exports, there has to be a change from the hand-to-mouth approaches of the subsistence production and opportunistic sale practices of the past. To quote Mr Dick Nyeko, Uganda's Commissioner for Fisheries, "I have never believed that we should allow 'small-scale' to be a permanent feature for African modernisation. I would like to see Africans commercialise; that means they must change their attitude, they must do things as a business, meaning they can keep records, they can plan."

For home markets or exports, information is essential

National markets are easier to service than export markets and, with fish providing such a very high proportion of Africa's nutritional needs, they must be the priority. African demand can be seen in the context of a WorldFish Center projection that while developing countries as a whole continue to be net fish exporters, sub-Saharan Africa's demand for fish imports is expected to increase 9-fold, from 54,000 million tonnes in 1997 to 492,000 million tonnes in 2020. To achieve better supply and use of fish, and so reduce this gap, requires a number of initiatives. High on the list must come communication, not only of market information but also extension to sensitise producers and processors to the demands for the quality, consistency and safety now demanded by consumers and exporters. To quote Patrick Dugan, Deputy Director General of the WorldFish Center, "The area of policy that is needed is to support information to those harvesting fish, the fishing communities, the fishing companies and the fish farming producers: to give them information on markets and how markets are changing as demand fluctuates over the year. For example, in Uganda very good up to date information is provided to fishing communities using the mobile phone network on current prices in Entebbe or Kampala. Similarly, in Egypt increasing attention is being given to providing information on markets so that fish farmers can harvest when market conditions are best."

Radio is also a means for rapid and low cost information dissemination, and this has been well demonstrated in the FAO/DFID-supported Sustainable Fisheries Livelihoods Programme (SFLP), that involves 25 countries in West Africa. With SFLP assistance, several FM stations broadcasting to communities on Lakes Bagré, Sélingué and Volta in Burkina Faso, Mali and Ghana respectively have implemented a number of projects to make the stations more useful to fishing communities. Their output now includes news and discussion of topics such as banned fishing gears, responsible fisheries and co-management of resources.

Exports...a demanding market

Dick Nyeko feels strongly about the potential of the growing export market, but he cautions: "The export trade has a number of parameters. First, you must have the volume; if you cannot produce sufficient volume, do not begin. Then there is the element of safety and quality; fish as food must be safe and the safety must be matched by documents. As for quality, it starts at the production level. It means that the African fisherman, the African fish farmer must treat the elements of production upstream seriously so that quality starts at the farm gate or fish landing. Otherwise, if quality is lost you can have bans on the international market. As I talk, certain African countries are now coming under a ban from Europe."

Washing the catch - Kivukoni fish market
Washing the catch - Kivukoni fish market

Marketing of fish also depends on good transport infrastucture. Roads now reach further than previously, and traders can transport fish relatively quickly from landing points to urban and village markets. Except, that is, when accidents or landslides block roads or rains make them impassable. There is more to be done, as Nyeko observes. "I dream of a time when there are interstate highways in Africa where I could truck fish from Mombassa to Lagos, South Africa to Cairo. Until we have that, Nigeria is better off importing fish from Europe than from Uganda. Then, you have endemic corruption at the borders; the very people who are supposed to make sure that trade is smooth are the ones causing encumbrances and loss of time. And fish is a very perishable product!"

For eleven African countries, fish products comprise more than ten per cent of total national exports, while in fourteen countries fish are over 25 per cent of agricultural exports. Such a resource needs safeguarding by negotiating mutually beneficial fish trade agreements. But there is concern that such agreements between African fish exporters and their import markets are often not conducive to good fisheries management and practice; this is demonstrated by the foreign fleets that operate in African waters without supervision from government agencies. Some inland fisheries are also experiencing a shift in policy towards fish exports, marginalising artisanal fisherfolk and local processors and traders, and diverting fish from national and regional markets.

Getting the balance right

As Dugan said at the recent Fish for All summit in Nigeria, "The first thing is to have policies that get the right balance between export and national or inter-African distribution of fish. Policies should ensure that where possible and where appropriate, fish harvested in Africa is made available to the African market. In many cases it is going to benefit the country to export fish, provided that the revenues obtained are invested back into the communities that are dependent on fishing as a resource, but in other cases it is critically important that fish harvested in Africa is distributed to the people who are demanding that fish in Africa."

The African Union, through NEPAD, and the World Bank and the WorldFish Center have all backed the rational development of African fisheries. The Fish for All summit produced substantial resolutions to take the necessary government and institutional actions to steer African marine, inland and aquaculture fisheries to a productive and sustainable future. Improved trade agreements and marketing are part of the formula devised and agreed. As Nyeko concludes, "The impetus should continue and not falter because I do not think Africa will have another chance. The Green Revolution seems to have missed Africa. But do not think that the Blue Revolution should pass Africa because we have everything going for us."

Date published: November 2005


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