Kenya: How cheap Chinese fish hooked customers (CNN)

June 11, 2018
A translation for this article is available in French

With nets in hand and boat motors chugging, dozens of fishermen set out on Lake Victoria, Africa’s largest lake, at the crack of dawn.

It’s a scene that’s been repeated for generations.

Fishing is the mainstay of lakeside communities in Kenya. It has fueled the economy and provided employment for decades. But these days, overfishing, a lack of infrastructure, and cheap Chinese imports have hit the industry hard.

Kenyan fisher Charles Otieno says, “It’s a trend that’s been happening for a long time.”

Joseph Rehmann is co-founder and CEO of Victory Farms, a fish farming enterprise based in Kenya. He says, “In the last 20 to 30 years, perch and tilapia catches have declined 60% to 80% throughout this region.” At the same time, Kenya’s population has roughly doubled to nearly 50 million.

Kenya’s fish stocks are ailing, and its main competitor is China, one of the world’s largest economies and leading fish producers.

Kenyans’ increased demand for fish means the country is relying on imports of frozen farmed fish. In 2016, China exported roughly 30 million dollars’ worth of fish to Kenya—double the previous year.

Charles Ngugi is a former Kenyan fisheries secretary who now runs his own fish farm. He says: “It’s a good thing that we have fish coming in to fill in the gap, the deficit that we have. But on the other hand, we have to compete in terms of production and either lower the cost or increase our volumes so that we can [supply] fish to our communities.”

Though China is thousands of kilometres from Kenya, Chinese fish are often considerably cheaper than local fish.

Kenyan fisher and trader Maurice Muma says: “If you can get a fish from China, one piece is selling at 150 shillings [about US$1.50] per kilo while we sell at 400 shillings [about US$4]. It is a very big challenge because people will always go with the cheaper things.”

Kenya’s fishing industry has started looking at fish farming to increase competitiveness with Chinese companies.

Victory Farms was founded in 2015. It harvests, on average, 82 tonnes of fish per month. The company’s CEO, Mr. Rehmann, says: “The Kenyan fisheries in the regions where we operate are currently harvesting [almost two tonnes] per year from hundreds and hundreds of fishermen, whereas at Victory Farms, we are able to pull [4.5 to 9 tonnes] on any given day.”

However, industrial fish farming has been criticized for negative impacts on health and the environment, if not conducted sustainably.

It’s likely to take more than fish farming to solve Kenya’s fish deficit. Unlike China, Kenya has to import most of its fish feed. Also, Kenya doesn’t have the stable electricity supply needed to ensure that fish stay fresh and cold from source to sale.

While Lake Victoria’s fishing boom in the 1980s and 1990s was some time ago, better environmental protection and improved infrastructure could help restore the fishing industry.

Mr. Rehmann says: “This lake is presently undeveloped, but as it begins to develop, environmental protection—keeping diseases out [and] keeping foreign fish out—is a very important part of the long-term sustainability of aquaculture.”

This story was adapted from an article titled, “Kenya’s empty nets: How cheap Chinese fish imports have hooked buyers” published by CNN. To read the original article, please see: https://edition.cnn.com/2018/04/16/africa/kenya-fish-china-imports-cheap-africa/index.html

Photo credit: CNN