Tanzania is rich in wildlife, making it a thriving tourist destination. But some of its less photogenic species could also play an important role in the country’s economic development.
In the beautiful setting of Zanzibar, it’s easy to forget that around a third of Tanzanian children under five are stunted due to malnutrition, and that one in every 10 women are undernourished. They are more likely to give birth to underweight infants, perpetuating the impact of undernutrition down the generations.
As the population rises, so does the demand for animal proteins. Fish and fisheries products can provide a valuable source of proteins, as well as essential micronutrients for good health. But domestic production is unable to keep pace. So imports are filling the gap. Between 2010 and 2013, imports of fish and fish products increased by 240 per cent.
Worldwide, aquaculture — the farming of plants, algae (such as seaweed), and animals in aquatic environments — is growing faster than any other food production sector. This is often referred to as the Blue Revolution. In Africa, the industry is growing by 11.7 per cent every year. But 90 per cent of that growth is in just two countries — Egypt and Nigeria.
In Tanzania, aquaculture is still largely a small-scale rural initiative. It is characterised by small pond culture and contributes only 1.4 per cent to GDP. There is much greater potential.
Inland water covers about 6.5 per cent of the total land area, including the Great Lakes — Lake Victoria, Tanganyika and Nyasa/Malawi. The lakes are recognised as among 25 biodiversity hotspots in the world because they are home to hundreds of species of cichlid fish. These include around 30 species of tilapia, 11 of which are not found anywhere else on earth.
The Earlham Institute and Bangor University in the UK, as part of an international consortium of organisations, are working to characterise the genetics of tilapia species in Tanzania.
The other institutions that make up the consortium are the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, WorldFish, the University of Dar es Salaam, Sokoine University of Agriculture, and the Tanzanian Fisheries Research Institute. The aim is to improve aquaculture and fish production while preserving Tanzania’s natural diversity and resources.
Last year, the consortium drew up a resolution to establish a National Aquaculture Development Centre in Tanzania. The centre could help triple the contribution that aquaculture makes to the economy, double the production of fish in the country by 2025 and help improve access to fish as a source of protein for those most vulnerable to undernutrition.
Tilapia farming is a potential area. Tilapia are particularly suitable for aquaculture because they can tolerate different environments and conditions. Their growth rates are also relatively fast, and they have low system input requirements. They are second only to carp as the world’s most frequently farmed fish.
With the help of modern technology, the Earlham Institute, in collaboration with Bangor University, can identify tilapia species with traits of commercial importance such as good growth rates and efficient use of feed.
By developing broodstock from native tilapia, Tanzania has the potential to develop an independent industry. In the 1980s Oreochromis niloticus (Nile tilapia) and Lates niloticus (Nile perch) were introduced to boost fisheries in Lake Victoria. Indigenous tilapia species declined to extremely low levels or vanished from the lake altogether.
A Tanzanian aquaculture seed bank could be valuable for breeders worldwide, for example by offering strains adapted to harsh environments.
Bangor University and software development partners Geosho are also developing a new way to track invasive species. The smartphone app TilapiaMap, can help identify tilapia species in the field and map the distribution of recorded species. It could help highlight regions rich in pure species, where conservation measures could be put in place. It could also flag regions with a high number of hybrids that pose a biosecurity risk.
In this way, we hope to help preserve the natural biodiversity on which an independent industry could be built. This could make a real contribution to food security, and supply novel traits for breeding into the future.
Federica Di Palma is the director of science at Earlham Institute in the UK