Fish is a critical source of dietary protein in sub-Saharan Africa, providing an estimated 22% of protein intake. But with marine fisheries over-exploited, African fish production is failing to keep up with rising populations. How should that gap be filled to protect this vital source of nutrition?
Aquaculture can do it, according to experts from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation and the WorldFish research organisation. But it will only work if there’s a shift away from decades-old approaches to aquaculture development, which uses farm ponds. For real impact on overall fish production and access, they say, there needs to be a greater emphasis on smallholders joining forces and helping to develop a commercial fish farming sector.
“Per capita fish supplies in Africa are dwindling,” says Malcolm Beveridge, director for aquaculture and genetic at WorldFish, one of the CGIAR research centres. “In Malawi, they fell from 10kg to 6kg per person between 1986 and 2006. Aquaculture has the potential to increase supplies of this affordable nutritious food for poor and vulnerable consumers.”
Historically, aquaculture development in Africa has targeted the poorest people to address hunger through small on-farm ponds. This has proven valuable for household food and nutrition security and will continue to have a place. But on-farm aquaculture isn’t meeting the overall supply gap now, and isn’t likely to do so in future for a rapidly growing and increasingly urbanised population.
“Small ponds reliant on meagre household scraps and on-farm waste will produce only a few kilograms of fish per year,” says Beveridge. “This is often important for the family and worth supporting as part of building livelihood diversification strategies. But the benefits rarely extend beyond the household and immediate neighbours.”
This partly explains why, to date, African aquaculture has remained insignificant in global terms. Total production was 1,288,320 tonnes in 2010, representing just 2.2% of global production. Discount Egypt (Africa’s major producer) and the figure for sub-Saharan Africa on its own was just 359,790 tonnes for 2010 – a mere 0.6% of world production.
But things are already changing. It may be starting from a low base, but aquaculture in sub-Saharan Africa is growing: in 2000, production was just 55,690 tonnes, so it saw almost seven-fold growth between then and 2010.
Much of this growth is taking place in countries including Ghana, Nigeria, Uganda, Kenya, and Namibia, thanks partly to initiatives such as the FAO’s Special Programme for Aquaculture in Africa (Spada) and the Nepad action plan for the development of African fisheries and aquaculture, which are providing policy and technical support to a groundswell of aquaculture enterprises.
Spada, established in 2007, stated an aim of increasing aquaculture in Africa by 200% over the next decade. But the extent to which that will impact upon food security depends on how it is achieved. In theory, more fish should mean lower prices and greater access, but that isn’t guaranteed if production is concentrated amongst a small number of large-scale producers near urban centres, or if the fish is exported.
It’s therefore essential that smallholders help drive the growth, according to Rohana Subasinghe, senior aquaculture officer at the FAO. This will help ensure that the most food insecure benefit from increased production. But smallholders can’t do it individually, because entry costs can be prohibitive for small-scale producers, who tend to be risk-averse.
“Smallholders are extremely important in Africa, but you have to operate on a certain scale in aquaculture,” says Subasinghe. “So smallholders will need to work together in clusters, so they can be more empowered and operate as a group with better market access. These SMEs – made up of smallholders – will help keep the ultimate objective of agriculture in mind, which is alleviating poverty and improving food security.”
Another factor to get right is the type of fish produced. The vast majority of farmed fish in Africa is freshwater, mainly the Nile tilapia and sharptooth catfish. These omnivorous fish are relatively easy to raise, and there is strong demand for them. New strains of the Nile tilapia released this year in Egypt, Ghana and Malawi are also up to 30% faster-growing than traditional strains, and have been heralded as a leap forward for African aquaculture. But bigger is not always better, in food security terms.
“Although African fish farmers produce the right sorts of fish, they often target the production of big fish, in the belief that higher prices mean better profits,” says Beveridge.
“These fish, however, are too expensive for many, especially poor, consumers. Targeting the much bigger markets of poor consumers may be just as – if not more – profitable. Fish get to market in a shorter time, more crops per year may be produced, risks of losses through disease and predation are minimised and costs of borrowing reduced.”
For development actors, then, the challenge is to provide the right kind of support to aquaculture in different places. On the one hand, on-farm ponds will remain important and can be developed further to improve household food security. For the very poorest, this is crucial. Work in Malawi, for example, has shown how successful Integrated Agriculture-Aquaculture can be at the farm level, providing not just the protein from fish but raising overall agricultural productivity.
On the other hand, NGOs can also play a vital role in developing and fostering networks of aquaculture SMEs formed of smallholders, and helping the sector develop in such a way that it contributes to wider food and nutrition security.