Nathan Ombuni, bird story agency
At her stall in the Kambi Somali market in Kakamega County, western Kenya, Caroline Atieno proudly showcases the fish she has on sale. Atieno has a right to be proud - she has had a hand in growing every fish on display. For Atieno and her family, the switch from farming crops to farming fish has been transformational.
She is one of 5,000 fish farmers who have benefited from a program set up by a local county fish factory.
Atieno's fish farming journey started when a friend convinced her to attend a field day in Kakamega in early 2019. There, potential fish farmers were introduced to fish farming techniques and opportunities. She decided to test the waters on her swampy, two-acre farm in Butsotso Central Ward.
First, she sank two fish ponds and stocked them with 1000 fingerlings each of the Nile Tilapia species.
After six months, the first harvest was disappointing.
“I did not feed the fingerlings as required since I thought there is enough food in the pond, the same way fish in large water bodies like rivers and lakes survives and grows to maturity,” Atieno said.
“I visited the fisheries department at the County Government of Kakamega and was assigned officers who visited my farm and helped me to make three extra ponds to the required standards,” she added.
At the time, the county government was setting up a fish processing factory and was actively seeking out farmers interested in commercial fish farming, to receive training and be given fingerlings to rear. Atieno was given 3,000 fingerlings and nine 50 kg bags of pellets for free, to support her five ponds.
The fingerlings were mono-sex and two months old and according to the fish farmer, she started feeding them on fish pellets and substituted pellets with fish mash and plankton.
In the seventh month, she realised a bumper harvest.
“I harvested all the stock and sold it locally. The mature fish at that time had attained between 250 grams to 300 grams and I sold them at 120 shillings (81 US cents) each, totalling to 324,000 shillings (U$2,192),” Atieno said.
Four years later, Atieno has 15 ponds, a wealth of knowledge about fish rearing and a ready market in the county's Kakamega Fish Factory.
The factory has been transformational not only for Atieno but for an extended ecosystem of local providers and sellers. Set up at a cost of 120 million shillings (US$806,450) the factory is the brainchild of the local county government.
“We made the decision to set up a fish processing plant to add value to the farmers produce and give the fish a longer shelf life,” explained Kakamega Governor Fernandes Barasa.
Located at Lutonyi area in the heart of Kakamega town, the factory has the capacity to process 20 tonnes of fish per day.
“The fish factory was ideal since we had a ready market within the Lake Region Economic Bloc (LREB) that has a population of 14 million people,” said Barasa, adding that "value addition" was how the region could benefit from the operation.
Once operational, the factory was leased to DAS Group Kenya Limited for 20 years and the county government then secured a ready market in 27 European countries. Fresh and processed fish will now be exported to those destinations.
“Fish processing plant international standards certification... gives us the green light to process, store and export the fish to the European market,” explained DAS Group chief executive Samwel Ondieki, who said that the factory was now exporting ten tonnes of fish a week to Italy.
“We are in the process of expanding our international reach to targeting our next markets in the Netherlands, UK and Dubai," he said.
“Currently we are working with 1,100 fish farmers whose fish has matured and have been listed in the harvesting schedule. We will harvest their fish in stages as per the demand of the fish in the market and we are involving them in the fish value chain to identify more farmers and bring them on board.”
According to Ondieki, DAS has pumped an extra 50 million shillings (US$338,400) into the technology used in the fish processing plant, machinery and human resource needed to effectively run the factory.
The Aquaculture Business Development Programme (ADBP) and the International Fund for Agriculture and Development (IFAD) have rated the factory as one of the "best fish factories" in rural Kenya in terms of adherence to standards, both locally and internationally.
In addition to local sales and exports, the factory also sends five tonnes of fish every week to Nairobi.
Fishmonger Lilian Akoth gets her fish from Kakamega Fish Factory and sells it at Ikonyero market along the Kakamega-Mumias Road.
“The factory has helped us cut on transportation costs in looking for fish to sell. They buy in bulk from farmers, have it refrigerated while the rest is smoked. We can now see value from our fish business,” Akoth shared.
For Professor Gordon Nguka, head of the Department of Nutrition Sciences at Masinde Muliro University of Science and Technology (Mmust) the addition of the fish - rich in Omega-3 fatty acids and nutrients - is a dietary boon for the local population.
"Babies whose mothers ate the most fish while pregnant give birth to healthy babies. Omega-3 fatty acids also help in lowering the risk of heart disease among the general population," he said, adding that fish also helps promote optimal foetal development and brain development for babies up to their fifth birthday.
In addition to consumers, farmers and fishmongers, the other beneficiary in this "virtuous cycle" is the local hatcheries.
In order to sustain the project, the neighbouring county of Vihiga is supplying the fish farmers within the LREB region with fingerlings.
According to Vihiga County Executive Committee Member (CECM), Nicholas Kitungulu, the Mwitoko Fish Hatchery and Aquaculture Training Centre produces at least two million fingerlings every month, specialising in Nile Tilapia and Catfish fingerlings.
“Ten out of the 31 fish ponds have parent stock, mainly Nile Tilapia (Oreochromis niloticus) and catfish for brooding fingerlings. The remaining 21 (nursing) ponds are used to keep fingerlings before they are distributed to fish farmers across the region,” Kitungulu said.
He noted that fish farmers as far as Kisumu, Siaya, Busia, Kakamega, Bungoma, Uasin Gishu and even Nakuru County buy fingerlings from Vihiga County.
Cyrus Akhonya, a fish farmer from the same area as Atieno, said that on average he was harvesting 800 to 950 mature fish for every 1,000 fingerlings he purchased from the Mwitoko hatchery. He also sells his fish to Kakamega Fish Factory.
Atieno said that according to her latest contract, the factory is now offering 150 shillings (over 1 US dollar) per fish of the same size that she previously sold for 120 shillings.
While the lack of a ready market like the Kakamega Fish Factory may have hindered fish farmers in the area previously, the assurance of a ready market has meant that farmers like Atieno and Akhonya can venture into local retail too; helping their families with extra cash as well as the community with an extra source of protein.
“The extra fish that doesn't meet the standards of the factory is what I sell at the market in the evening. From the business, I have been able to educate three daughters at the university and I am happy, all of them will be graduating in December this year,” Atieno said. No wonder she is smiling.
bird story agency