How cage farm­ing in Lake Vic­to­ria is boost­ing fish stocks

Vic­tory Farms is one among the suc­cess sto­ries of com­mer­cial cage aquaculture in sub-sa­ha­ran Africa

The East African - - BUSINESS - By AL­LAN OLINGO The Eastafrican

It is early morn­ing in Sindo Beach, Homa Bay County in west­ern Kenya. At the Vic­to­ria Farms, work­ers are seen clock­ing in for work then pro­ceed­ing to their var­i­ous plan­ning meet­ings. The fish farm has more than 200 em­ploy­ees com­pris­ing clean­ers, cage man­agers, fish feed­ers, hatch­ery work­ers, and fish­mon­gers. A flurry of ac­tiv­ity en­sues soon af­ter the meet­ings breaks off.

Vic­tory Farms is among suc­cess sto­ries of cage aquaculture in sub-sa­ha­ran Africa. Other coun­tries where it is prac­tised in­clude Uganda, South Africa and Ghana.

The fish firm was co-founded by Joseph Rehmann and Steve Mo­ran. In a sense, fate brought the two men to­gether. Both Rehmann and Mo­ran are pas­sion­ate about aquaculture. They met in Ghana, West Africa many years ago and quickly be­came friends. They would even­tu­ally cross over to East Africa and set up Vic­tory Farms — which pi­o­neered fish cage farm­ing in Lake Vic­to­ria.

Mr Mo­ran, chief op­er­at­ing of­fi­cer of Vic­tory Farms, was par­tic­u­larly drawn to Lake Vic­to­ria af­ter spend­ing months trav­el­ling in the re­gion.

Fol­low­ing ex­ten­sive re­search and con­sul­ta­tion with vil­lage elders and the county gov­ern­ment, the duo even­tu­ally set­tled on ru­ral Homa Bay as the ideal site for the project.

But, in­stead of dig­ging fish ponds on the land — a com­mon model of fish farm­ing in Kenya — they ven­tured into com­mer­cial cage fish farm­ing, with crit­i­cal sup­port from the county and na­tional gov­ern­ments.

“The first fish were put into the wa­ter in June 2016 and by the end of last year, our daily pro­duc­tion was way above 2,000 tonnes,” said Mr Rehmann, who pre­vi­ously worked in pri­vate eq­uity and bank­ing. “With the dwin­dling lo­cal fish stocks, we saw an op­por­tu­nity and took it up.”

To­day, Vic­tory Farms has more than 100 deep-wa­ter cages lo­cated al­most a kilo­me­tre or a 10-minute boat ride off­shore. Th­ese cages hold fish (tilapia) rang­ing from two to six months old. In this type of en­vi­ron­ment, strong cur­rents flush through the cages through­out the day, and cre­ate favourable con­di­tions for the fish.

“This means the fish are raised in an en­vi­ron­ment that mir­rors that of wild tilapia. The re­sponse of the cus­tomers has been favourable, and the pick­i­est of con­nois­seurs is un­able to dis­tin­guish be­tween wild type and our cage-pro­duced tilapia,” said Mr Rehmann.

The cages are 36 square me­ters, hold­ing about 5,000 fish fin­ger­lings each. Last year, Vic­tory Farms pro­duced 300,000 units of fish with an aver­age of 80,000 tonnes per month for the lo­cal mar­ket. The firm plans to dou­ble that fig­ure this year.

The fish have a 10-month growth cy­cle, which en­sures that they re­main avail­able in the mar­ket and at the firm’s cold stor­age cen­tres in Sindo and Nairobi’s Ruaka area — which serves Nairobi and its en­vi­rons.

Fish mon­gers buy the fish from $3 to $4 per kilo while ho­tels and other hos­pi­tal­ity es­tab­lish­ments get the same quan­tity for up to $4.5 per kilo.

“Right now, we don’t have any re­gional ex­pan­sion plan but we want to in­crease the size of our fa­cil­ity here at Sindo Beach. Our per­mit is for 10,000 tonnes and go­ing by our daily ton­nage, we still have a great op­por­tu­nity to ex­pand this farm,” he said.

On the shores of Lake Vic­to­ria, the farm also runs a fish hatch­ery, a pro­cess­ing fa­cil­ity and a sales dis­tri­bu­tion net­work that ex­tends to Nairobi.

Cur­rently, the coun­try pro­duces only 200,000 tonnes of fish against a de­mand of al­most one mil­lion tonnes.

“Over the past two decades, lo­cal fish­er­men have seen their catch of tilapia drop by al­most 50 per cent, yet the pop­u­la­tion growth has dou­bled. This has seen dwin­dling fish stocks from the tra­di­tional ar­ti­sanal fish­ing. Caged fish farm­ing of­fers an op­por­tu­nity to cor­rect this,” said Mr Rehman.

The fish are fed three times daily — twice in the morn­ing and once in the af­ter­noon — on a mix of lo­cal and im­ported feed, av­er­ag­ing four tonnes per week.

The cage man­agers are tasked with check­ing the wa­ter tem­per­a­ture, oxy­gen lev­els, wa­ter clar­ity and clean­ing the nets to avoid clog­ging, which en­sure the fish thrive in the best of nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ment.

At the start, the farm had 50,000 Nile tilapia. This num­ber has grown to more than 1 mil­lion in two years. The farm also runs a hatch­ery pro­duc­ing up to 200,000 fin­ger­lings per week. Yet this kind of rapid growth is not with­out its chal­lenges, and takes a spe­cial kind of per­se­ver­ance.

“Fish farm­ing is very costly and un­like coun­ties like China, Kenya has to im­port the fish feeds which is ex­pen­sive,” said Mr Mo­ran.

Of the 225 em­ploy­ees at Vic­to­ria Farms, 150 are on per­ma­nent terms. The oth­ers are on ca­sual en­gage­ment. The farm’s dis­tri­bu­tion net­work brings in more than 400 women who buy fish from its stor­age

“When we think about how to pro­vide pro­tein to the nine bil­lion peo­ple ex­pected on the planet by 2050, farmed fish is a part of the an­swer.” Ka­t­rina ole-moiyoi, Vic­tory Farms

fa­cil­i­ties both in Homabay and Nairobi.

For any­one with even a pass­ing knowl­edge of fish, there can also be an uglier side to the aquaculture in­dus­try. Poorly man­aged op­er­a­tions, pri­mar­ily in South­east Asia have left en­vi­ron­men­tal dam­age in their wake and this is some­thing that the coun­try could face, if the right poli­cies are not put in place.

“When we think about how to pro­vide pro­tein to the nine bil­lion peo­ple ex­pected to in­habit the planet by 2050, farmed fish is a de­fin­i­tive part of the an­swer. With species like tilapia, the en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pact is much lower than beef, pork or other fish species like salmon. For me, the ques­tion is not whether we eat farmed fish, it is how we do ev­ery­thing within our power to use prac­tices that safe­guard our shared nat­u­ral re­sources and en­sure en­vi­ron­men­tal sus­tain­abil­ity,” said Ka­t­rina ole-moiyoi, the sus­tain­abil­ity di­rec­tor for Vic­tory Farms. “My ap­peal is for the gov­ern­ment to come up with a spe­cial man­age­ment plan pol­icy for Lake Vic­to­ria that will en­cour­age aquaculture.”

So do Rehmann and Mo­ran con­sider them­selves suc­cess­ful as pro­duc­ers of fresh, sus­tain­ably-farmed tilapia?

“I want to make the Kenyan oper­a­tion a global leader in tilapia oper­a­tion. We would like to con­vert the lake fish­er­men to aqua agri­cul­tur­al­ist in or­der to im­prove the coun­try’s fish pro­duc­tion to meet the ris­ing de­mand. That is when we will say we are suc­cess­ful,” said Mr Rehmann as we wrapped up the tour to the fa­cil­ity.

Pic­ture: File/ Al­lan Olingo

Above: Tilapia har­vest from Vic­tory Farm in Homa Bay County in West­ern Kenya. Right: Cages where the fish are bred.

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