Adrian Piers, an expert on aquaculture in Africa, discusses the prospects for this sector on the continent.

What is the size of the industry in Africa relative to other continents?

It is actually very small; aquaculture has taken a long time to take off in Africa because of the great wild fish resources on the continent. Most aquaculture in Africa is in Egypt (Egypt is responsible for 80% of the farmed fish production on the continent). About two years ago, there was a NEPAD meeting in Nigeria where fish production in Africa was discussed. A declaration was issued stating that just to maintain the present per capita consumption of fish in Africa, fish farming will have to expand by 250% in the next 10 years.

Which countries in Africa are most suited to aquaculture projects?

That is difficult to answer. Most countries have good natural resources that will support aquaculture but traditionally development has been in inland countries like Zambia where the population has a custom of eating fish and the fish in rivers and lakes have been exploited to the maximum.

Are fish very susceptible to disease? Is pollution a problem in aquaculture?

Not normally, fish are pretty hardy animals because they are recently domesticated species and therefore have the hardiness that comes from their wild ancestors.  When you look at cattle and pigs which have been developed over so many years, they have lost the ability to remain healthy without intervention by human beings. But when you start farming fish in intensive conditions you can get disease outbreaks sometimes.

Chemical pollution is a problem for any kind of fish but some nutrient pollution is very good. I’ve set up farms in Zambia where effluent from the pigs is pumped into the ponds and this stimulates photosynthetic activity and the fish then feed on algae. You are getting two crops out of it and solving the problem of disposing of waste from another animal production unit. It’s called integrated farming and works very well. It doesn’t sound nice but it is common practice all over the world - it is using nature’s nutrient cycle to your advantage.

Which countries are doing the most to stimulate the industry?

There is a big push in South Africa to promote aquaculture. Historically the industry that has taken off is abalone - it’s an indigenous species and South Africa has legislation that makes it difficult to bring in other species that are not indigenous and farm them here. They are looking at other indigenous fish like yellowtail and dusky cob in South Africa.

In the rest of Africa, the most commonly farmed fish is tilapia (which is indigenous to Africa). Tilapia are easy to cultivate even on a small scale; a smallholder can dig out a pond and fertilise it and fish live off natural production from nutrients and sunlight.

Aquaculture has become more sophisticated and more intensive and when you keep fish in an intensive system they need a completely balanced prepared feed. One of the real limitations in Africa is the number of feed production companies that have the capability of producing feeds like that.

Can you import the feeds?

The problem with the feeds is that they deteriorate with time so you need a feed production plant quite close to the area and this is a constraint in Uganda at the moment. There is a lot of interest in addressing that because once it has been addressed aquaculture can take off quite phenomenally in Uganda.  

Do you feel the best prospects lie in feeding the local population or exporting fish? Which nationals (African) are the largest consumers of fish?

It’s a mixture of both. Import regulations on fish products to the European Union are very stringent and that denies that market to a lot of farmers in Africa. However the large commercial companies that have been exporting to these places have found that although a large proportion of production goes to the EU there is a portion of the production which doesn’t fit the bill, it’s not a question of quality – it’s a question of size. There is a ready market locally for “undersized” fish.

There are a lot of fish farmers producing fish for the local market especially in Zambia – it is a growing business in that part of the world.

Other than Zambia, the West Africans traditionally consume a lot of fish. Countries like Nigeria are going for aquaculture in a big way because a lot of these countries have sold off their fishing rights to other country’s fishing fleets. Locals have been denied the opportunity to fish and for that reason they have turned to aquaculture.

Are entry-level requirements for new fish farmers daunting?

Aquaculture is quite capital-intensive to start-up. Even on a small scale you need to prepare the infrastructure (excavate the pond, put in a water system) but after that the maintenance costs are minor. Like any business it is how long it takes you to get a return on investment that is important.

What is the average length of time from set-up to market?

Fish are rapidly-growing, especially in a tropical environment. Cold water fish grow more slowly. I make the comparison with poultry (with broiler chickens it takes 6 – 8 weeks) - it takes a bit longer with fish but they are far more efficient convertors of feed to protein than other livestock. Normally if you set up a farm you would be looking at bringing your product to market within two years (that is from initiation of the project on the ground).

How profitable is the aquaculture business?

It is not easy to generalise because, as with any business, profitability depends on the management. As far as aquaculture is concerned, certain species of fish have taken off and worldwide tilapia has grown from insignificant levels to one of the major traded commodities in fish in the last 20 years. The growth rate of aquaculture around the world was sitting at 18% one year so that shows that investors do have a lot of confidence that it will bring some return.

Has there been a growth in fly fishing and recreational fishing? Does this present another business opportunity?

Most of the trout fished for in SA are grown on a farm and transferred as a fully grown fish to the “catchment” area. As soon as they are caught another load is transported to the area. There are some that are placed as small fish and then grow to full size in the river system itself. It is an enormous industry not only in SA but worldwide. The aquaculture industry is operating hatcheries and grow-out facilities to supply this industry.

I’m also aware of several farms that make up to 30% of their revenue from visitors coming to look at how people grow fish.