Synopsis of aquaculture in Kenya: Some gamechangers for the industry

By Safina Musa, Proscovia Alando, Ruth Lewo and Alex Akidiva

Kenya’s fisheries are at their production limit at a time rapid human population growth, urbanisation and income increase have sent demand for fish protein skyrocketing. This has renewed interest in aquaculture which has enjoyed huge support from national and country governments as well as development partners. Under the Fish Farming Productivity Programme (FFEPP 2009-2014), for instance, the government sought to increase production and double the current per capita fish consumption in the country from 4.5kg per annum to over 10kg per annum by 2030. Billions of dollars were invested in infrastructure, research, training, dams, and farms. During the implementation of the programme, Kenya experienced unprecedented growth in aquaculture from 4,000MT in 2009 to an estimated 48,000MT in 2011. The programme also spurred interest in cage culture and recirculation systems. But when it ended in 2014, the production from aquaculture declined by 40%, leaving Kenya’s countryside littered with abandoned dams, ponds and experimental stations. This raises some pertinent questions. Why has aquaculture never quite taken off in Kenya despite the massive support? Why do farmers hang up their nets once donors or investors pull out? Does aquaculture pay in Kenya?

A critical review of the current status of aquaculture in Kenya shows that several challenges are holding it back. The bulk of aquaculture production still originates from earthen ponds, primarily for domestic consumption. The production output from the ponds hardly exceeds 0.4kg per square metre per year. Statistics indicate that with the exit of FFEPP, the number of ponds declined by more than 45%.

Plate 1: Trends in aquaculture production in Kenya 2006-2019 (KNBS 2020).

There is dependence on a few species, with Nile tilapia and African catfish accounting for over 93% of Kenya’s aquaculture production. In marine, milkfish and mullets account for over 90% of production. Ornamental fish culture is gaining traction, albeit on small scale, mostly for regional markets.

High quality brood stock and seed are key to any successful fish farming operation. The number of hatcheries fell from 152 in 2014 to 87 in 2017. The decline was attributed to low demand for fingerlings as farmers abandoned their ponds with the end of the FFEPP. Pond- based aquaculture production registered depressed performance from 2014 to 2019, translating to lower fish consumption per capita of 4kg/person/year compared to global average of 20kg/person/year. The decline is partly attributed to the tilapia and catfish dependency syndrome and a subsistence approach to fish farming.

Plate 2: Changes in number of hatcheries from 2009-2017 (Nyonje et al., 2018)

Due to decline in fish catches, Kenya continues to be a net importer. In 2018, Kenya imported 19,966 metric tonnes of frozen Nile tilapia from China. On average, Chinese fish costs USD2.5 per kilo, while local fish costs USD4.5 per kilo. Research by Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute (KMFRI) shows that at the current feed costs a local fish producer needs to sell at an average price of USD 4.8 per kilo to break even. Statistics from Electronic Fish Market Information System and KMFRI in August 2021 showed that wild fish could be almost two times cheaper than cultured fish. Feed producers in Kenya mainly rely on omena (sardines) and ochonga (freshwater shrimp) as their main protein sources. However, seasonality of these ingredients is a major bottleneck in the supply of fish feeds. Kenya still imports close to all of its protein feed inputs, mainly from neighbouring countries including Uganda and Tanzania. Soya bean, one of the best alternatives to fishmeal, continues to be imported and its availability is challenging.

Plate 3: Fish import and export volumes (MT) between 2015 to 2018 (KNBS, 2020)

Fish waste and post-harvest losses remain a major challenge to fisheries stakeholders. KMFRI studies indicate that 60% of production is lost along the fisheries value chain. Going by the current per capita fish consumption of 4kg/person/year, the fish that is wasted is enough to feed more than 21 million people. Women and youth have been excluded from participation and gains from aquaculture. This affects productivity, quality of livelihood, and economic benefits for these groups. Results from KMFRI indicate that women and youth lack formal education, collateral and funding, which limit their active participation along the aquaculture value chain. For Kenya’s aquaculture to realise transformative growth, we need a mindset shift away from subsistence to commercial fish farming. Fish farmers should diversify cultured species beyond Nile tilapia and African catfish and production systems from the earth pond to tanks and cages. Increased investment is needed in programmes meant to cut post-harvest losses, and improve quality seed, feed production, distribution and breeding.

Policies and regulations on sustainability, gender and inclusion should be fast-tracked for environmental protection and to increase the economic participation of women, youth and other marginalised groups in aquaculture.

The sector needs to adopt game-changing technologies and innovations across the value chain. This includes recirculating aquaculture system, hydroponics and aquaponics and single cell protein in fish feed formulation.

Plate 4: Black soldier fly larvae and adult.

We need to promote production of the black soldier fly (BSF) larvae as a source of affordable and sustainable protein. This will cut cost of feeds and production, thus lowering the break even price of aquaculture fish. This way cultured fish can compete with wild, if not, Chinese fish.

Studies have shown that use of BSF does not affect the taste of fish, has no palatability issues and can help farmers lower their cost of production by up to 37%. The use of BSF as a protein source has the capacity to reduce GHG emissions by up to 90% compared to open dumping of waste as the BSF feed on dead decaying organic matter. Challenges in aquaculture food systems are complex, hence collaboration, partnership and synergies from multiple players are key drivers through which the sector can achieve transformative growth.

The writers are Aquaculture Fellows at the African Food Fellowship