CORVALLIS, Ore. – Aquaculture is helping jump-start Kenya’s struggling economy, thanks in part to an international program led by Oregon State University.
Kenya is in the midst of rebirth: The East African nation signed a new constitution in August, and has launched an economic stimulus program that includes a novel $16 million effort to increase fish farm production from 1,000 tons in 2008 to 15,000 tons in 2012.
The initiative comes as natural fish stocks in Lake Victoria are declining from overfishing and demand for fish is increasing. Government officials are counting on fishponds — which will be home to millions of tilapia, catfish and ornamental fish — to supply a more sustainable source of protein and income.
A key partner in the efforts is the Aquaculture & Fisheries Collaborative Research Support Program, known as AquaFish CRSP. It's funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and is headquartered at OSU. The program works with developing countries to improve the livelihoods of the rural poor while growing their aquatic product industry. Other projects include researching beneficial bacteria for tilapia ponds in Mexico and evaluating the effects of invasive species in China and Vietnam.
"It's less about fish than about poverty reduction," said OSU's Hillary Egna, the director of AquaFish CRSP. "We work with people who work with the poor, and we help them build capacity for small-scale economic development."
AquaFish CRSP has been helping improve Kenyan aquaculture since 1997. One beneficiary is George Ambuli, the CRSP-trained chairman of a fish-farming cooperative in a small village near Lake Victoria.
“I’m proud to say that fish farming has made me what I am today,” he said. “I eat fish, I have a cell phone in my pocket, and I am paying the school fees for my 9-year-old daughter, all with my fish money.”
The aquaculture component of the stimulus package was created in late 2009. The program aims to increase the country's fishponds from 7,500 to 48,000.
“Fish production in Kenya was a very small industry prior to this cooperative research program,” said Kwamena Quagrainie, a lead U.S.-based researcher for CRSP’s projects in Africa. “CRSP started with research to understand the whole fish production industry, including pond construction, management and the varieties of fish species that can be produced.”
The initiative is expected to benefit some of the country’s poorest farmers, as well as two traditionally underprivileged groups: women and youth. Though fishponds continue to be owned almost exclusively by men, women are increasingly involved in all phases of fish farming, including feeding, fertilization and predator control. Kenya’s vastly underemployed youth, meanwhile, are finding jobs and gaining skills in pond construction.
But the huge growth in fish farming has presented some cultural and economic challenges. The demand for fingerlings to stock the fast-growing number of fishponds has skyrocketed from 1 million to 28 million in less than a year, forcing the government to lean heavily on private industry. Officials plan to upgrade more than 30 of the nation’s hatcheries to help meet demand.
Another obstacle is a sudden need for programs to train new fish farmers how to manage their ponds and market their fish. On top of that, farmers who have built their own ponds without stimulus funding are looking to the government for guidance and training. The government is working to meet these demands as it phases out its involvement over the next 18 months.
As Kenya’s aquaculture program expands, fisheries officials plan to put additional marketing structures into place. Outreach efforts include encouraging farmers to improve their income by including value-added activities like gutting, scaling and drying fish for market. The government is building 80 small refrigeration centers around the country, which will help farmers sell fish beyond neighborhood markets. Although perception persists that farmed fish are not as good as captured fish, Fisheries Director Godfrey Monor is confident that in time, half of the fish consumed in Kenya will be farm-grown.
About the AquaFish Collaborative Research Support Program: AquaFish CRSP, which supports aquaculture and fisheries research in 16 countries, aims to improve diets; generate income for small-scale fish farmers and fishers; promote sustainable environmental practices; and enhance trade opportunities. It is funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development and by participating U.S. and host-country institutions. Oregon State University serves as the lead institution responsible for technical and programmatic leadership of CRSP in the United States and abroad.