Catfish have become a new source of income for farmers in Kenya’s eastern and northern drylands.
Sylvester Kinyori operates a kiosk in Isiolo town where he sells fish products—including cooked fish fingers—made from fish raised by local farmers. The 32-year-old is from Turkana, a pastoralist area in northeast Kenya. Now he earns a living selling cooked fish fingers, prepared from catfish fillets, eggs, and bread.
The catfish are grown in “home dams” by farmers who have turned to aquaculture. The dams trap and store rainfall run-off in reservoirs sunk into the ground. The reservoirs are fitted with a thick polythene lining to stop water from percolating into the soil.
The technique was developed by members of the Yatta community in eastern Kenya, and has spread throughout the region.
Eastern and northeastern Kenya receive an average of less than 150 millimetres of rainfall a year. Rivers are seasonal in this area, some flooding for just a few hours during heavy rains. Women dig deep into the riverbed to find what little water is left under the sand.
And rainfall is declining in central Kenya’s food-producing areas, according to a long-term study of the country’s climate.
When farmers first introduced young fish to their home dams in 2012, most started with African tilapia. John Njiru is a farmer from Mashamba village in eastern Kenya’s Mbeere District. He says yields were disappointing at first. Many farmers switched to catfish, based on the experience of their neighbours. Mr. Njiru explains, “We all went for the catfish species [in 2014], given the fact that those who tried [it] in 2012 were not as disappointed as some of us who went for tilapia.”
Last year, those who enjoyed a good haul of catfish were motivated to invest more, in order to take advantage of the El Nino-enhanced September rains.
Mr. Njiru says he believes that catfish are more resilient than tilapia in a harsh climate. He adds, “We are happy because we can eat the fish and sell it to generate income…. It’s my hope that fish farming in this region will stand the test of time, given the tough climatic conditions.”
Farmers introduce young fish after the rains, and harvest the fish when they have matured, or when water levels in the home dam drop. Then they wait for the next elusive rain before introducing new fish.
Mature catfish sell for 500 Kenya shillings ($5 US) each at the local market. Many farmers are even breeding tilapia to feed the catfish, to hasten their growth.
A full-sized home dam is about 20 feet square and eight feet deep. It can provide an average family of eight with a year’s supply of water for domestic use, and can irrigate at least an acre of land for a year. And it can hold 1,000 catfish.
Elizabeth Musyoka is from Kithambioni village in Kitui County, east of Nairobi. She says home dams are a double win for farmers. She explains, “We now have water and our children can enjoy a delicacy, which gives them important protein they had always missed.”
To read the full article on which this story is based, Catfish spawn climate solution for Kenya’s dryland farmers, go to: http://news.trust.org/item/20160809090807-62zz0/ 
Photo credit: TRF/Isaiah Esipisu