When Elijah Murithi grew bananas in the 1980s and 1990s, Kenya’s increasingly erratic weather meant he could rarely make steady income from the thirsty crop.
Prolonged dry spells killed Murithi’s young plants and long, intense rainy periods produced a glut of bananas that forced him to lower his prices to sell them in the market.
Even when he shifted to coffee, which needs less water, the farmer still struggled to produce reliable yields.
But that changed in 2021 when he added an unusual crop to his farm: fish.
A fishpond — with more than 1,500 tilapias — allows him to harvest rainwater during heavy rains and use some of it to irrigate his crops when dry spells hit.
Now, he said, he makes a decent living through drought or downpour, growing coffee and vegetables year-round while making extra income selling fish.
“This really worked to my advantage,” he said, explaining how water he regularly drains from his 10-by-25-metre fishpond, built just uphill from his coffee plantation, allows him to water other crops on his 1.25-acre farm in Kibingo, 130km northeast of Nairobi.
Since he started fish farming in April last year, Murithi’s coffee harvest has more than doubled, to 2,000kg a year, and his overall income has tripled.
As the country grapples with climate swings that batter crops and choke incomes — including a current drought that is the worst in four decades — some farmers are discovering that adding fish to their farms can help with water storage, make their diets more nutritious, and boost earnings.
Economic stimulus programme
Since 2019, the Kirinyaga County government has helped farmers build fishponds under an economic stimulus programme. The fisheries department has so far supported about 20 farming groups and more than 1,350 individuals.
The county covers the cost of a pond liner, and, for the first year, pays for baby fish (fingerlings) and enough fish feed to sustain them until they mature.
The government said in October it was working to increase annual fish production from 29 tonnes — valued at Ksh12.8 million ($104,000) — to 62 tonnes.
At first, most farmers resisted the idea of raising fish, said Harrison Mwangi, chairperson of the Kamwaka Self-Help Farmers Group, which has 26 members.
Alien to many
He said the prospect was alien to many of the members, who instead thought they would have better results raising chickens.
But after county officials provided training on how to successfully raise fish — as well as help with key costs — many farmers have given it a try.
Ultimately, Mwangi said his group decided to convert a field of Napier grass at a farm owned by one of its members — a field that was producing less and less fodder, especially during the dry season — into a fishpond at the start of 2021.
Through the rest of year, the farmers then sold Ksh17,000 ($137) worth of fish to farm visitors and at local market, Mwangi said, describing the sales as “quite encouraging” for a first harvest.
“The group could not have found a better way to utilise the farm,” he said, plus, farming fish was easier than managing other livestock.
The Kamwaka farmers — who each have an annual income of between Ksh100,000 and Ksh150,000 ($807-$1,211) — should see even higher earnings from fish farming as their stocks multiply, according to Mwangi.
John Wilson, manager of Mwea Aquaculture Farm, which raises tilapia, catfish and also offers training on fish farming termed it good business that provides an alternative source of protein for Kenyans.
Apart from the challenge of convincing drought-hit farmers in Kenya that fish is a realistic future crop, the project still has a few other kinks to work out, Murithi and Mwangi said.
While the ponds can be a buffer against drought by storing rainwater to be used for irrigation in the dry season, farmers hit with extended dry spells can struggle to find ways to top them up.
For Ntiba Micheni, a professor of marine and fisheries biology at University of Nairobi, the solution to excess production is getting more Kenyans to think of fish as dinner in a country where eating them is not common everywhere.