Kenya looks to mariculture as fish demand outstrips supply

With its wild catch increasingly supplemented by imports, the government aims to boost salt water aquaculture, but these efforts have run up against a host of issues
<p>A trader holds up an octopus before weighing it at the harbour fish market in Shimoni, a coastal town in south-east Kenya. With its wild catch shrinking due to overfishing, the country is looking to develop its aquaculture. (Image: Justus Wanzala / China Dialogue Ocean)</p>

A trader holds up an octopus before weighing it at the harbour fish market in Shimoni, a coastal town in south-east Kenya. With its wild catch shrinking due to overfishing, the country is looking to develop its aquaculture. (Image: Justus Wanzala / China Dialogue Ocean)

Kenya has a problem brewing in its waters: the country is increasingly reliant on fish imports. While annual fish consumption has risen to 600,000 tonnes, the natural catch is shrinking and national fish production stands at 400,000 tonnes. Kenya primarily meets the supply shortfall with imports from China, which accounts for 83% of the value of such imports, followed by Norway, Tanzania, India and Uganda.

In a bid to reverse this trend, Kenyan aquaculture must develop beyond its lakes and Indian Ocean zone, which are both already overfished. The government and local fishers are therefore increasingly hoping “mariculture” will feed Kenya’s growing population. The practice of cultivating and farming fish in salt water, mariculture is the focus of a deal between Kenya and the World Bank worth US$100 million.

For Kenyan mariculture to thrive, fisheries policy experts say the country must build and develop fish hatcheries, boost production of the necessary fish seeds (meaning baby fish) and update its farming technology. The World Bank initiative could help to deliver these outcomes, but its development has suffered several setbacks, including construction delays and implementation difficulties.

$100 million for fisheries

Launched in March 2020, Kenya’s World Bank-funded mariculture initiative is called the Marine Fisheries and Socio-Economic Development Project (KEMFSED). As well as relieving Kenya’s reliance on fish imports, KEMFSED was conceived to cultivate sustainability among the country’s fisheries and raise the incomes of coastal fishing communities.

Under the project, the state’s Marine and Fisheries Research Institute is establishing the National Mariculture Resource and Training Center (NAMARET). This $8-million development is under construction in the south-eastern coastal town of Shimoni, Kwale County.

Man speaking while standing next to waist-height blue tank
Rishad Hamisi, head of the Shimoni Beach Management Unit, stands next to the National Mariculture Resource and Training Center’s hatchery tanks. The centre is still under construction and the hatchery is only partially operational. (Image: Justus Wanzala / China Dialogue Ocean)

NAMARET will feature a large-scale marine hatchery to nurture fish seed and fingerlings, designed to meet maricultural supply demands. The centre will also train up fish farmers to cultivate shellfish, finfish, milkfish and rabbit fish, both in cages and ponds.

China Dialogue Ocean spoke to David Mirera, a mariculture scientist and assistant director at Kenya’s Marine and Fisheries Research Institute, who says this hatchery should be a game-changer for Kenyan mariculture. According to Mirera, NAMARET will also offer fish processing and cold storage services, which are often unaffordable for small-scale fish farmers.   

Mariculture farmers in Kwale County welcome NAMARET’s arrival. The Kwale village of Makongeni is home to a collective of mariculturalists called the Baraka Women’s Conservation Group. The group’s chair, Mwalimu Mariam, told China Dialogue Ocean that NAMARET will boost their fish production capacity and save them from buying fingerlings.

Four women in colourful clothing stand on the bank of an artificial pond
Members of the Baraka Women’s Conservation Group inspect their fish ponds near the village of Makongeni, just up the coast from Shimoni. They welcome NAMARET and hope it will help them boost production. (Image: Justus Wanzala / China Dialogue Ocean)

Alice Jesse, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) fisheries coordinator for Kenya, says the country’s short supply of fingerlings drives some fish farmers to capture wild, juvenile fish in coastal waters to stock their ponds. This interferes with natural breeding processes and places fish farmers in direct competition with wild-catch fishers.

Beyond the NAMARET facility, Mirera says the institute and its partners plan to assist fish farmers in establishing backyard marine hatcheries to produce tilapia fingerlings. Starting with the counties of Kilifi, Mombasa and Kwale in 2022, Mirera says the plan is to eventually fulfil the fingerling supply needs of every coastal county in Kenya.  

Mariculture project setbacks

However, many of these plans are on hold due to construction delays. The centre’s official opening date is yet to be announced and Mirera says NAMARET’s hatcheries are only partially operational.

Rishad Hamisi tells China Dialogue Ocean that the building contractor for NAMARET failed to reach the anticipated standards. Head of the fisheries management community group, Shimoni Beach Management Unit, Hamisi says the government is now searching for another builder: “This is a presidential directive, which we hope will be done without delay.” Hamisi adds that the delay is holding up employment opportunities and generating extra costs.

Furthermore, KEMFSED’s overall progress was deemed “moderately unsatisfactory” in a World Bank status update in July. 

A concrete building under construction, low white building in foreground
The construction of NAMARET is currently on hold while a new building contractor is sought (Image: Justus Wanzala / China Dialogue Ocean)
Inside of a building without walls, containing large blue tanks and plastic sheets on the floor
The facilities are relatively specialised, making it difficult to find builders with the right expertise (Image: Justus Wanzala / China Dialogue Ocean)

Mirera points out that the Covid pandemic and subsequent reductions in workforce capacities have contributed to the delays: “It’s important to note that the process has not been slow; being a specialised field and having no local expertise, it takes a long time to get the right contractors for the job.” The World Bank is providing technical support from Australia to fast-track the project, Mirera adds.

Kenya’s rocky mariculture journey

Kenya has 640km of coastline with productive bays and creeks that provide opportunities for mariculture to flourish. However, developing it in Kenya has long been an uphill battle.

In the late 1980s, Kenya’s fisheries department and the FAO began to develop the mariculture industry with the Ngomeni Prawn Farm. This spawned two more farms, before funds were withdrawn and the enterprise collapsed.

The sector nevertheless expanded to include oyster, crab, milkfish and seaweed farming, with mixed success. For example, 10 million oysters were produced in Mtwapa Creek and Gazi Bay during the 1990s, but an underdeveloped market meant this industry could not be sustained.

Women bend over to plant mangrove seedlings
Members of the Baraka Women’s Conservation Group tend to mangrove saplings, which will be planted in Gazi Bay to help preserve its ecosystem and promote oyster growth (Image: Justus Wanzala / China Dialogue Ocean)
Mangrove partially submerged in water
Oysters growing on mangrove roots at Mida Creek, 200km up the coast from Shimoni. This is their natural habitat, from where they are harvested to support local tourism. (Image: Justus Wanzala / China Dialogue Ocean)

In 2015, the United Nations Environment Programme published its “Regional State of the Coast Report: Western Indian Ocean”. Regarding Kenya, it concluded that the country’s mariculture sector had not “realised its economic or ecological potential”. This was attributed to conflicting government policies, insufficient investment and technological expertise, inconsistent donation-driven projects, and difficulties in accessing international markets.

Some of these factors persist today, but the fact remains that overfishing has caused Kenya’s inland fresh-water and wild salt-water catches to decline. So, the government and local fishers are pushing for mariculture development once more.

National policy support

Kenya’s stalling mariculture sector does not have the support of government policy or legal frameworks.

Mirera says Kenya’s existing fishery management policies are outdated and preoccupied with ocean fishing. He adds that the Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute is currently reviewing and reshaping these policies, “after which a strategy will be [developed] to operationalise the policy”.

A set of comprehensive and coherent national policies are essential if Kenya’s marine farming sector is to grow sustainably and become adequately regulated, Mirera adds. He envisages a Mariculture Act for Kenya: “With time, there will be a need to ensure we have a one-stop shop for investors [wishing] to undertake mariculture, to ensure a seamless flow through the processes.”

Man stood in a murky river next to several rafts
These floating cages fatten sustainably farmed crabs in the brackish waters of Mida Creek, which are served at a local restaurant, The Crab Shack. This community initiative was established to help conserve the surrounding mangrove forests. (Image: Justus Wanzala / China Dialogue Ocean)

According to the FAO’s Alice Jesse, Kenyan mariculture farmers and small business owners often have little idea of which species to farm, what quantities to produce and which markets to target. These knowledge gaps need to be tackled if Kenya’s mariculture goals are to be realised. She says government policy must “fully engage coastal communities for uptake of these technologies”.

China Dialogue Ocean reached out to Kenya’s Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock, and Fisheries for comment, but has not yet received a response.