Anxiety mounts as Chinese move in to plug fish supply gap in Kenya

Tuesday April 17 2018

China fish imports

Over the last few years, China has been aggressive in setting up base in the region, with predatory pricing edging out local traders. PHOTO | NMG 

By ALLAN OLINGO
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China's fish exports to Kenya have doubled over the past two years, further raising fears that the Asian nation is flooding the local market with its stock, to the detriment of local traders.

According to the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS), the country spent $22.17 million on the fish imports in the first 11 months of 2017 from $10.2 million the previous year, and $6.24 million in 2015.

Frozen fish, including tilapia and mackerel, was the highest imported fish stock from China, at more than 19,000 tonnes worth over $18 million.

Nairobi also took in large amounts of dried and salted fish from the Asian country.

Tanzania, which controls more than half of Lake Victoria, also saw a 23 per cent increase in its fish imports from China, costing some $8 million.

This is more than double the $3.6 million fish stock in 2014.

Dar es Salaam imported frozen pacific mackerel, Indian mackerel, chub, frozen sardine and tilapia.

The tilapia had the highest value per tonne at $2,300 followed by the pacific mackerel at $1,002 per tonne.

Last year, the country imported more than 12,000 tonnes of the mackerel fish species. The latest data however shows the country is the second largest fish exporter to Kenya.

Low local production

In February, Kenya’s Industrialisation Cabinet Secretary Adan Mohammed defended these imports saying that they were as a result of low local production and growing demand.

“We only import fish to fill the gap in supply. We don’t necessarily ban imports but we make sure that importers pay the necessary duties and levies as they are easing the local shortage,” Mr. Mohamed told The EastAfrican.

Ling Wang, the executive vice president of China’s largest tilapia exporter Baiyang Investment Group said they started supplying fish to Kenya in 2014, but the volumes have been too low to be profitable.

“Although we know Kenya is a big market, our export percentage to the country is still very small. We export 10 containers annually to Kenya, yet our total export volumes to the world sits at 2,000 containers.

“We really do not make profits selling to Kenya. All we are doing is to make inroads in this market so that we can upscale in the short term to profitable levels,” said Ms Wang.

Former fisheries secretary Charles Ngugi, who also runs a fish farm in Mwea in central Kenya, said that China commanded the highest volumes of fish sold in the world market because of its aquaculture.

“It is a good thing that we have imports coming in to fill in the deficit. However, we have to compete in terms of production and either lower the cost or increase the volumes and this puts a burden on the fishermen,” said Mr Ngugi.

Markets for Chinese fish

Data from Chinese Customs seen by The EastAfrican shows that Kenya was among the top 20 export markets for the Chinese fish last year, at number 17, receiving more than 357,000 tonnes of tilapia worth $11 million, which doesn’t correspond with the KNBS numbers.

Tilapia, which is the most sought-after fish on the market trades for as low as $1.7 a kilogramme to a minimum of $2.8 a kilogramme while locally sourced variant can go for as high as $5 a kilogramme, blamed on transportation and storage costs.

It is also said brokers have been part of this cost inflation. Kenyans are on average consuming 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 a depressed performance for the second consecutive year in 2016, with total output dropping by 12.1 per cent to 128,600 tonnes in 2016 from 146,300 tonnes in 2015. This is reflected by the falling trend in fish production from all fresh water lakes and marine.

“Freshwater fish production dropped by 12.3 per cent to 119,600 tonnes in 2016, from 136,400 tonnes in 2015, 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 water hyacinth and destructive fishing methods,” KNBS said.

Kenya 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 is also currently importing fish from Uganda, Tanzania and India.

The data from KNBS showed that apart from Beijing, Tanzania was the country’s second largest fish source in 2017, exporting more than 1.300 tonnes of fish worth $1.13 million. They were followed by Belgium, France and Thailand.

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