At the Nairobi City Market, fish traders are doing roaring business, but little of that money is going to the fishermen and women on Lake Victoria who spend nights on the lake to bring in a catch.
Instead, millions of shillings will find their way to the accounts of large firms in Beijing, China, which has become the world’s largest supplier of fish.
Daniel Kamau, who has been selling Tilapia fillet at the market for eight years, says he now doubles up as an agent for fish from China, which is sold in bulk, mainly to restaurateurs and hoteliers in the city. It is a question of supply and demand, and profits, he says matter-of-factly.
“The price of Tilapia from Lake Victoria keeps going up, narrowing our profit margins. So we now have two channels of sale: I sell small quantities of the local fish from Kisumu (lakeside town) and large amounts of fish from China, supplied by a firm in Mombasa that imports it.”
According to Mr Kamau, the imported fish comes frozen and packed in carton boxes. A box containing 60 pieces (weighing 300 grammes each) is sold for between $35 and $40 per box, compared to the local catch that retails at up to $7 for a kilogramme.
Officially, the Nairobi county food inspectorate does not allow the sale of the imported fish in the market, limiting it to the periphery of the city, in Gikomba and Burma markets, but with the right connections at the market, one will buy the frozen fish under the table.
“The fish we sell from the lake is normally deboned, then sold as fillet. It has a unique clientele, mostly hotels and restaurants that serve fish fillet. But if you are eating “whole fish” in a restaurant or hotel in Nairobi, chances are it is from China, or a fish pond,” he says.
According to the traders, the Chinese fish is distinct for its lean nature and clients know it, for being almost tasteless.
“I am told that they are mostly bred through aqua farming, fed off fish feed. That is why they are not as tastier. I have clients who will pay more for the local fish, driven by its size and taste. It is the reason it is in high demand,” Mr Kamau says.
What Mr Kamau may not be aware of is that he is a part of a multimillion-dollar global chain that is driving fishing communities in East Africa to the brink of poverty.
The region’s fish industry now appears headed for a shutdown, after years of underdevelopment, thanks to cheap fish imports from China, which hit $18 million last year, as the dwindling supply failed to meet the growing demand.
Over the last few years, China has been aggressive in setting up base in the region, with predatory pricing edging out local traders.
At Mombasa’s Majengo market, the coastal city’s central fish retailer market, wholesalers are crying foul, claiming they are being undercut by importers who have resorted to sell directly to retailers at lower prices.
“We are struggling to sell the locally prided tilapia as these importers are offering lower prices to both our customers and other resellers in the region. Our biggest competition right now is the broker for the importers. They are driving us out of business,” said Mr Nobert Otieno, a wholesaler.
Last year, China’s fish exports to Kenya rose to $11.4 million, higher than $10 million in 2016, raising concerns over the fate of Kenyan fishermen and traders.
Tanzania, which controls more than half of Lake Victoria also saw a 23 per cent increase in its fish imports from the Asian nation, to stand at $8 million, having doubled from $3.6 million in 2014.
In Kenya, the East African Sea Food Ltd is the Kenyan agent for Zhangzou Longyi Food Company Ltd, a firm registered in mainland China. The firm uses brokers to serve both the wholesalers and individual buyers, creating a chain which ensures they have market command. The firm now has cold rooms in Mombasa, Nairobi and Kisumu, from where it supplies the traders.
According to the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics, fresh fish, chilled and frozen fish top the list of Chinese imports targeting Kenyan consumers. Nairobi also took in large amounts of smoked fish, dried and salted fish from the Asian country.
The country’s fish imports from China have doubled since 2015 when it stood at $5.94 million, as a result of local supply shortfalls and the surge in demand.
The growing imports are hurting fishermen, traders and fish processors.
Traditionally Tilapia and Nile Perch from the Lake Victoria have been a customers’ favourites, mostly for their size and taste but their cost has been the biggest turnoff.
They are viewed as expensive by clients and eateries mostly because of the few transporters from the lake, the brokers, and fishermen cutting in with their respective margins.
Lake Victoria also lacks in storage and fish processing facilities which makes it more expensive for the few that are in operation.
“The low production also means that these facilities are working at below capacity, therefore have to price higher to meet their operational costs,” Robert Wanyama, the Kisumu director of the state department of fisheries said.
The declining catches and fish sizes due to the heavy fishing has also resulted in a decline of the Nile Perch stocks in Lake Victoria.
This has seen processing plants thin out to two in the last four years, as more than 16 have shut down since 2008. In neighbouring Tanzania, declining fish catches have led to the 11 processing plants along its lakes working at 25 per cent capacity.
Fish feed price
This has made the local fish more expensive and uncompetitive compared with the imported ones.
Furthermore, most of the plants are over 20 years old and have depreciated. This is the reason they operate at quarter their capacity.
Kenya’s Industrialisation Cabinet Secretary Adan Mohamed says the government is working with some investors on the viability of commercial farming in Lake Victoria in a bid to supplement fish farming by small and medium size businesses.
“In this region, we have seen that the components of fish feed have to be imported making it costlier. We are trying to find a way to reduce this how we can address these challenges,” Mr Mohamed said.
Last week, the CS defended the imports saying that they were as a result of low production locally and growing demand for the delicacy.
“We only import fish to fill the gap in supply. We have investors who are looking at investing in fish in Lake Victoria. We import because there isn’t sufficient supply. Lack of fish feed is a key bottleneck. Tilapia is being imported today. We don’t necessarily ban imports but we make sure that imports pay the necessary duties and levies,” Mr Mohamed said.
Data seen by The EastAfrican shows that by July last year, the country had imported close to 24,000 tonnes of fish from China, with government sources indicating that this was testament to the high quality and standard of the fish from Beijing.
“The Una tilapia fish is the most popular import from China and it is mostly brought in either fresh, chilled or frozen. We have also started seeing smoked, dried and salted fish entering the market from Beijing,” The EastAfrican was told.
Tilapia, which is the most sought after in the market sourced from China trades at as low as $1.7 per kilogramme and only as high as $2.8 a kilogramme while the locally sourced variant goes for $5 a kilogramme.
Local dealers attribute this to the high transportation and storage costs. It is also said brokers have been part of this cost inflation.
Kenyans on average, consume seven kilogrammes of fish per person annually, up from two kilos a decade ago, raising the demand pressure.
Data from KNBS shows that the country’s fish production registered depressed performance for the second consecutive year in 2016, with total fish output dropping by 12.1 per cent from 146,300 tonnes in 2015 to 128,600 tonnes in 2016. This is reflected by the fall in fish catch from all local fresh water lakes.
“Freshwater fish production dropped by 12.3 per cent from 136,400 tonnes in 2015 to 119,600 tonnes in 2016, with Lake Victoria accounting for 82.5 per cent of the total freshwater fish production. However, its output dropped by 10.2 per cent from 109,900 tonnes in 2015 to 98,700 tonnes in 2016. The decline is partly attributed to the presence of the water hyacinth and destructive fishing methods,” KNBS said.
“We are forced to allow importers to bring in the country additional fish to meet the local demand. The country requires one million tonnes of fish annually but only 200,000 tonnes were produced domestically, leaving a gap of 800,000 tonnes. Besides China, Kenya was also currently imports fish from Uganda, Tanzania and India,” Japhet Ntiba, the outgoing Principal Secretary for Fisheries said.
Tanzania was also not spared by the drop in production vis-a-vis rising demand, which saw it produce 340,000 tonnes of fish last year, against an annual demand of 730,000 tonnes.
“We are working from a deficit of more than 480,000 tonnes necessitating the importation from China and Mozambique to meet the demand. We are looking to increase production of tilapia and other fish to meet the domestic demand, as well as for export,” Dr Yohana Budeba, Tanzania’s Fisheries Permanent Secretary said.
He added that the country is also benefiting from the imports through royalties and licensing.
Tanzania’s current consumption stands at 7.5 kilogramme per person annually, against the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) recommended annual fish consumption per person of 18.2 kilogrammes.
The country’s Fisheries Act also outlaws the export of local tilapia limiting it for domestic consumption. However, this hasn’t boosted its supply in the local market.
Dar es Salaam imported Frozen Pacific Mackerel, Indian Mackerel, Chub, frozen sardine and Una tilapia. The tilapia had the highest value per tonne at $2,300 followed by the pacific mackerel at $1,002 per tonne. In 2017, the country imported more than 12, 000 tonnes of the mackerel fish species.
The region is also battling with illegal fishing across its international waters in Indian Ocean, with Kenya in December last year suspended licenses of foreign trawlers
President Uhuru Kenyatta said the recent ban on foreign vessels would help increase fish processed locally to 18,000 tonnes per year, from the current 2,500 tonnes.
“We have over 400km of rich coastline and a share of the second-largest freshwater lake in the world. It is shameful that we exploit only a small fraction of these resources,” President Kenyatta said.
The Maritime and Shipping Affairs Principal Secretary Nancy Karigithu said the licenses for foreign fishing vessels would be renegotiated.
“Only international trawlers who meet the requirement of processing the fish in Kenya will be given new permits. Kenya loses more than $100 million to this illegal activity done offshore,” Ms Karigithu said.
The country’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in the Indian Ocean has capacity to produce over 300,000 tonnes of fish valued at more than $4.5 billion annually but the country only receives a paltry $20 million from its fish exports account.
Illegal fishing in the western Indian Ocean coast is also occasioning Tanzania an annual loss of $400 million, so much so that last November, the Tanzania parliament formed a committee to probe the poor fishing resources and their impact on the economy.
“We are not benefiting from the fishing industry compared with other nations sharing the Indian Ocean. Our fishing sector only brings in 1.4 per cent of the GDP compared with countries like Namibia that stands at 10 per cent of GDP. We are losing more than $400 million,” Tanzania parliament Speaker Job Ndugai said.