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Putting Fish on the Table
After overcoming challenges, Kenya and China are cooperating in the fish industry for the benefit of consumers
By Godfrey Olukya | VOL.11 April ·2019-04-15

To most Kenyans, millet flour or maize flour bread with fish is not only their favorite dish, but also a staple food. With the country's ever increasing population, the amount of fish caught in local lakes and rivers is not enough to meet the needs of all consumers.

However, a solution has been found to meet this challenge through cooperation between China and Kenya in the form of sharing knowledge on fish farming and importation of fish from China to close the shortfall in demand.

Need not met

''In Kenya, we eat a lot of fish. The Samia, JJaluo, Luya and other tribes traditionally regard fish as the most important part of their menu. But local sources of fish are getting depleted due to over-fishing and use of wrong nets which catch under size fish," said Nelson Ouma, an officer from the Department of Fisheries in west Kenya's Kisumu Town. "Our cooperation with China, which is one of the leading fishing countries, has gone a long way to solving the problem.''

Ouma said that when the quantity of fish from local fishermen became insufficient, Kenyan businessmen initially started importing fish from neighboring Uganda, but that country has since begun experiencing its own fish shortages.

Kenya has a variety of lakes and rivers from which to get fresh fish, especially tilapia, which is the most popular fish among consumers in the country. Kenya shares Lake Victoria, the second largest fresh water lake in the world, with two other East African countries, namely Uganda and Tanzania. Unfortunately, Kenya has the smallest part of the lake. The other lakes scattered in different parts of the country are small with limited fish stocks.

The total catch from Kenyan waters dropped from 147,000 tons in 2016 to 135,000 tons in 2017 according to a report from the Kenyan National Bureau of Statistics.

Ouma said that two years ago, cooperation between Kenya and China improved the situation, leading to the importation of fish from China, as well as the provision of assistance with local fish farming techniques and facilities.

Differing opinions

But Bena Kituyi, head of Records Section at the Department of Fisheries, which falls under Kenya's Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Fisheries in Nairobi, said the importation of Chinese fish into Kenya was at first severely opposed by local fishermen and dealers. They tried to sabotage the fish from China, saying that they contained lead and were not suitable for consumption. However, laboratory tests have since proved this was not true.

At the time the local fishermen and dealers convinced the government that if the country did not stop the importation of fish from China, the Kenyan economy would be negatively affected.

"They argued that the Chinese businessmen were interfering with their business by importing cheaply [priced] fish into the country,'' said Kituyi. The local fishermen and dealers threatened to protest if the government did not act immediately.

Henry Wamukuyu, a fish importer based in Mombasa, said that it was ironical that those who were advocating for the banning knew that Kenya could not produce enough fish to meet its own demand. "They ignored the fact that Chinese were also teaching many Kenyans modern fish farming practices," said Wamukuyu.

Due to pressure from local fishermen and their dealers, on October 15, 2018, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta issued a ban on the importation of Chinese fish.

Local media quoted Kenyatta as saying, "While we have good trade relations with China, we must act to protect the interests of our people. If it is fish from China that is causing misery to our fishermen, we will impose conditions to stop the exports [from China] to safeguard the local [fish] industry.''

Kenyatta said that it did not make sense to import fish from China when local fishermen could satisfy the demand.

Resolving supply

However, after the ban was put in place, there was a huge shortage of fish in the country and prices shot up by over 50 percent.

"A few days after the president banned importation of fish from China, the price of fish went up because there was not enough fish in the market,'' said Jackson Osinde, a shopkeeper in the country's capital Nairobi.

Osinde said that after two weeks, people started complaining about the shortage of fish and the escalating price of the little that was available.

In a reversal of the situation that led to the banning of imports, ongoing public discontent persuaded the government to lift the ban in January 2019, just under three months after being put in place.

''We are working with China to see that local production of fish in Kenya increases. Currently, we are importing fish from China but we want to see that in future we have enough fish [of our own]. [To this end] Chinese fishing experts are [busy] helping us improve our fish farming [facilities],'' said Henry Wandera, head of cage fish farming at the Department of Fisheries.

Kituyi said while Kenya's annual fish production was about 135,000 tons, annual fish demand is over 500,000 tons. It is therefore necessary for the country to import fish to make up the deficit. She said the country currently imports more than 1,500 tons of fish every month from China, but that still does not fully meet demand.

Last year, fish imports from China hit Ksh1.7 billion ($17 million) and this year the figure may increase due to demand, according to the Kenyan National Bureau of Statistics.

Patrick Mwanji, an economist in Kenya's Ministry of Industry, Trade and Cooperatives, said that importing fish from China is currently necessary and it will in no way affect the Kenyan economy.

''There is a shortage of fish and we are importing fish to address that shortage. Our fishermen are not affected because they sell all of what they catch at local markets. The economy is not affected in anyway,'' said Mwanji.

The people on the ground in Kenya, especially small businesses, are feeling positive about the ban being lifted and fish from China being amply available. Silivia Auma, a fish vendor in Kisumu City market, said it is good that China and Kenya are cooperating in the fish industry because it means the country will have more fish to address its demand.

"A short time after the ban was put in place, we had run out of business because there was no fish to sell," said Auma. She said that before the ban, a kilogram of tilapia sold for about $1, which doubled in price during the ban, hammering local consumers.

Her thoughts are echoed by restaurant manager Stella Kitosi in Nairobi who said her customers have now returned to dine on tilapia and she is happy about it.

"Nowadays, I get enough fish for my customers and [I am happy that] the government realized that we needed fish from China and agreed that it is imported for us to buy," said Kitosi.

(Reporting from Kenya)

(Comments to niyanshuo@chinafrica.cn)

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