CHINA - A partnership between Great Lakes University in western Kenya and the China Fisheries Academy in Henan province has started a process to increase fish production in East Africa.
The $19 million agreement promises to improve the region's food security by introducing hybrids that reproduce and mature in a short time.
The project is expected to push up domestic supply of fish over the next couple of years and reduce production costs, one of the main obstacles to consumption, reports ChinaDaily.
Overfishing, declining investment in research and extension services, and introduction of new predator species such as Nile perch have contributed to the depletion of indigenous varieties such as tilapia, a rare delicacy in many Kenyan households. The government says stocks of wild fish fell from 200,150 metric tons in 1999 to 163,300 metric tons in 2013.
In Nairobi a tilapia sells for between $1.90 and $3.80, out of reach to most people in a country where the minimum wage of an unskilled worker is $46 a month, and the average family consists of five people.
Average annual consumption of fish per person in the country is 5 kilograms, the government says, whereas the global average is 18.4 kg, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization says.
In 2003 China consumed about 25.8 kg per capita, with fish representing a share of 18.9 per cent in animal proteins and 7.4 per cent in total proteins consumed. The report was released in 2007.
Bob Madanji, a spokesman for Kenyan Private University, says that under the deal, the Chinese institute will build an aquaculture training center, guest house, laboratory test units and fish ponds. It will be on 50 hectares of land that the private university will provide as part of the deal.
"We want to boost fish production to serve the regional market," says Mr Madanji, adding that it will also alleviate poverty by creating jobs.
The technology behind the 20-year renewable partnership will introduce cage cultures and ponds, he says. This means the fingerlings may either be hatched and matured in underwater cages in Lake Victoria or in farm ponds before being released into the wild.
Worldwide production of farmed fish accounts for about 30 per cent of global fish production and is expected to account for half by 2030, Mr Madanji says. Aquaculture accounted for 14.4 per cent of fish production in Kenya in 2013.
In the laboratory, the researchers will be able to match the expected market demand by breeding and hatching more fingerlings and feeding them in a controlled environment to improve their chances of surviving bacterial diseases.
"The hybrid will accelerate the repopulation of our lake with this rich source of protein," Mr Madanji says. "We will also benefit from variety to cater to different markets. Each kind will be in separate cages until they mature."
Besides halving the time it takes fish to mature, to six months, the variety puts on weight up to 300 percent more quickly, ultimately reducing farming costs. The optimal harvest size of a tilapia is the size of a standard plate, Mr Madanji says.
The Chinese research institute has about 28 species of Kenyan tilapia. "About 30 varieties will be introduced in this project, with two types being breeds from China."
The project will be replicated in farms and other bodies of water such as Lake Naivasha and Lake Nakuru, which are also freshwater breeding grounds in the country.
In 2009 the Kenyan government launched a $54.3 million campaign in fish farming under its economic stimulus program. The program netted at least 150,000 new fish farmers with 90 per cent depending on the ponds for income generation, especially in central Kenya.
Unfortunately, the consumption uptake has been low and farmers have cited a lack of market as their biggest hurdle.
Stringent quality standards have locked most fish farmers out of the lucrative European Union market.
Mr Madanji says the partnership will also increase the skills of Kenyans.
"The economic stimulus program was a failure because farmers were not instructed on how to take care of the fish. The program will train trainers besides advancing fish technology.
"We also look forward to advances in the pharmaceutical industry as a number of fish extracts are used as additives in herbal medicine in China. This can be very effective in boosting the body's immunity, especially in patients who have the HIV virus.
"What pricked the Chinese scholars is the unique taste of our fish, especially from the lake. That is why they sought this partnership on condition that the research was done close to the lake."
The fisheries academy expects to export the surplus to China. This would also open another avenue in packing and preservation of fish because the market prefers it fresh.
"On our trip to Henan last year we witnessed an advanced packaging method using special polythene that will see all the nutrients retained during the eight-hour journey to China from Kisumu International Airport," Mr Madanji says.
The fish breeding program will increase the country's export earnings from fish.
China continues to be the leading producer and consumer of fish in the world. According to UN data from 2007, the country generated 67 percent of world aquaculture production of fish and plants. Its exports were valued at $7.7 billion.
While the world reported the total number of fish farmers to be about 12 million, China reported that 4.5 million of its people were employed full time in aquaculture in 2003. About 500,000 Kenyans are engaged in aquaculture.
TheFishSite News Desk