Putting fish on the menu in Kenya

It’s a busy Monday morning in the market town of Luanda, near Lake Victoria in Kenya, and shoppers are crowding around the many stalls selling tomatoes, onions and other vegetables. Over at the fish stall, however, business is slow. The tilapia on sale there are large and fresh, but they sell for 200 Kenyan shillings (£1.50). That’s a lot of money in an area where a day labourer might earn 400 shillings.

Overfishing in Lake Victoria has seen fish become a luxury here, putting this healthy source of protein out of the reach of many people. Average annual per capita fish consumption in Kenya is just 5 kilograms, compared to the worldwide average of 18.4kg.

That needs to change, according to Otieno Okello, a local aquaculture entrepreneur whose business – Pioneer Fish Farm, a few miles out of Luanda – is being supported with funding from GAIN’s Innovation Accelerator programme.

“My grandmother tells me stories about the variety of fish we used to have in Lake Victoria,” says Okello. “But with population growth, overfishing, and the introduction of an alien species – the Nile perch – local fish stocks have been decimated. Even 10 years ago, a fisherman might bring in 80-100kg a day. Today, you’re lucky if you come back with 10kg.”

Okello believes the answer lies in stimulating the local aquaculture industry to produce a steady supply of farmed fish. This isn’t a new idea: in the past, government funding has resulted in lots of ponds being dug in this area for that very purpose. But many now lie empty, as farmers weren’t adequately trained, and harvests were erratic. Pioneer Fish Farm wants to try again, and do it better.

For example, many farmers previously received mixed-sex tilapia fingerlings, says Okello. Tilapia breed fast, so 1,000 fingerlings becomes 10,000 in six months. But farmers didn’t necessarily realise this, or provide adequate feed. The result? A pond full of 10,000 tiny fish, rather than 1,000 large ones.

While that wasn’t the objective, Okelloa noticed that people did actually buy those small fish, which sparked the idea for his plan. With demand clearly there for smaller, affordable fish, what he needed to do was to help those farmers produce them in a more organised way. If they could deliberately turn around a harvest of smaller fish every couple of months, rather than accidentally after 10 months, there would be a steady supply and a regular income for the farmers.

“We’ve traditionally been taught as fish farmers to grow a fish to 300g, but there are people who cannot afford that fish, so how do you incorporate fish into their diet? The fact is a fish doesn’t have to be 300g. I could sell a 120g fish at a fraction of the cost. It’s got enough flesh and the bones are soft enough to chew so you get the calcium. And then maybe once a week, your kids can eat that source of affordable protein.”

Okello has recently expanded his own fish farming site with new ponds where he will produce 200,000 fingerlings a month. Around 80% will be sold to local farmers, while he produces his own fish from the rest. He’s also taken on four staff who will serve as his own extension workers, providing high-quality training to the farmers who will in effect become outgrowers so that Okello can consolidate supply.

“We will act as the hub,” he explains. “If I leverage these farmers as outgrowers, we can be the base to develop a consistent market supply. Previously, farmers might grow some fish, and then there would be nothing for six months. If I consolidate from many outgrowers, I can supply fishmongers three times a week or even every day, and link all those farmers to the market.”

The eventual impact, Okello hopes, will be steady incomes for many more fish farmers, and improved health. It will also restore the cultural role of fish in this region.

“This region used to be famous for fish. Right now, if you eat a fish here it’s probably on Christmas Day. Nutrition has been seriously impacted. By regularly getting affordable fish onto the plates of poor and vulnerable people again, I hope we can change that.”

The Marketplace for Nutritious Foods has helped many local businesses in Africa, read an overview of the top stories. Also watch the latest video from Mozambigue here.