Investors swim in success with aquarium trade

When seafaring voyagers marvel at the beauty of aquatic life, Martin Mwimbi’s clients can relate from the comfort of their houses.

Mwimbi makes and sells aquariums, those pretty glass entrapments inside which multi-coloured fish showcase their swimming abilities.

For him, it has been a successful job. He is 31. He started making aquariums five years ago. At the time, the man from Chuka was a civil engineering student at The Technical University of Kenya.

“I visited a friend who had a small aquarium in Chuka. I asked him to teach me how an aquarium was made, and he did,” Mwimbi says.

When he came back to the city, Mwimbi stayed with a cousin in Syokimau. The engineering student offered to make the cousin a wall-mounted aquarium.

“The result was fascinating and I took photos and posted them on social media platforms.”

One by one, customers started trickling in with enquiries. He soon opened Aquacentury Interior Solutions, now at Star Mall on Tom Mboya Street in Nairobi, and has never looked back.

He has so far built over 300 aquariums, with sizes and décor dependent on customer preferences. A look at some of the aquariums he has made does not hint at a self-taught professional. One would think he was born making them.

To make an aquarium, Mwimbi has to know how much space in the client’s house has been set aside for it. Although they have some standardised designs, sometimes he has to go to the customer’s house to make measurements before the construction can begin.

He has to ensure that the glass that acts as the walls of the aquarium is thick enough to withstand the pressure of the water inside. The sealant used on the contraption should be waterproof and made from material that is fish-friendly. The aquarium is then fitted with a filtration system for cleaning and aerating the water.

“And when it comes to the décor, the client will choose what to have — the colours, including the lighting of the aquarium, probably a floor of river stones or pebbles, and artificial plants,” he says.

Most of his clients are women

Which is why most of his clients are women; the detail of colours and other elements of décor is mostly a preserve of ladies.

The cheapest aquarium goes for Sh13,000. These are the small ones. There is, however, no upper price limit, with customisation meaning that a client could ask for as many features as they may please and as big an aquarium as they may fancy.

The materials used to make the aquarium that he will sell at Sh13,000 may cost Sh9,000.

“I have even sold one for Sh130,000,” he says. It has been good sailing for him. The aquarium-making business is his full-time business. He has employed four people.”

Mwimbi can make the small aquariums in five days. A significant part of that time is used in the curing of the aquarium. The bigger ones can take up to 14 days, against a bulk of the time to cure.

The aquarium-making business is also beneficial to Kenya’s fish farmers. Mwimbi, when introducing fish into their new houses, identifies the number of fish it can accommodate, and which species can coexist in that environment. Then, from farmers around the country, he sources the fish.

Knowledge gap

After that, it is the responsibility of the owner of the aquarium to feed the fish.

“The fish are usually fed only once a day; overfeeding them could kill them,” he says.

Aquacentury Interior Solutions advises their clients on how and what to feed the fish. They even have a weekend, a vacation, feeder; where if the owner of the house is traveling for a period of time, they drop a particle in the water, and it dissolves slowly for the fish to feed on for the stipulated period of time.

The biggest challenge that Mwimbi, and other people who deal with aquarium making and selling business, suffer is a knowledge gap among the population, that is the reason many who would want to have aquariums in their houses.

“People think that maintaining the fish is expensive. It is not. Sh300 is enough to feed ten fish in a month,” Mwimbi says.

But the tendency of the affluent to flaunt theirs is often intimidating; many people shy away from what they think are high costs.

Unlike what many may fear, the aquariums do not consume a lot of electricity. “We are dealing with power saving gadgets that will make consumption actually even lower,” he says.  

Most of Mwimbi’s customers are mostly individuals even as businesses continue to put a lot of emphasis on decorating their offices with such aquariums, plants and chandeliers.

Mega aquariums

Nick Sitima is thrilled that Kenyans are now more receptive to the idea of aquaculture. He is the founder of FishPet and Aquariums Kenya but, unlike Mwimbi, he is focused on fish ponds as well. 

His business is located in Kikuyu and Rongai, and has a presence online too. He has seven employees. Sitima agrees with Mwimbi that rearing fish is not as costly as many may believe, claiming it is less expensive than keeping other pets. He reckons that as more people go into fish keeping, the misconception that aquariums are impossible to maintain is slowly fading away.

Sitima’s main focus is on mega aquariums. “Those mounted on walls, under staircases; we make some very big ones,” he says.

This not to mean someone who wants a small, portable aquarium will not get it. For as little as Sh3,500, Sitima will get you a glass aquarium.

On the upper side of the scale, it can go into millions, such as when the client wants it fitted the entire length of a wall. “The biggest we have installed cost Sh1.5 million,” he says.

The changing local markets have also meant that the aquarists have it easier than ever before, with local glass companies now manufacturing glasses that can be used in aquariums.

Further, modern architecture allows for seamless integration of aquariums in houses. Sitima says some of the aquariums are imported, and can cost up to Sh5 million. 

But FishPet and Aquariums mainly customises based on clients’ needs. The final cost of the aquarium depends on its size and design. 

“You will find people trying to fit one in a 10ft by 10ft wall. That is, of course, huge and thus expensive,” he says. 

Fish Pet and Aquariums has designed and fitted aquariums in hospitals and restaurants. Sitima says hospitals like them since they have a calming effect, which is great for mental wellness.  Like Mwimbi, Sitima says food for the fish should be one of clients’ least worries, considering it inexpensive.

“Sh300 worth of food could actually last two months,” he says. “Neither is power used to light and heat the ponds. The pumps are not do not consume a lot of power.”

He, however, insists that a lot of caution should be exercised when sourcing the fish, as there as species which cannot coexist. Also, fish that thrive in saline water will not survive in fresh water and vice-versa.

For fish-keeping enthusiasts, Satima says a lot of reading is needed. “I would advise them to take some online courses, which help them learn the finer things of making aquariums and maintaining them,” he says.

A lot of dedication is needed as well, with the most critical part being how to handle the pets. To know which ornamental fish to use where, and details such as how many an aquarium can support, the reading should be regular.

With people’s attitude towards keeping fish in their houses, or homesteads, changing, and more information becoming available, Sitima believes that within no time, aquaculture will be commonplace in Kenya.

For this reason, aquarists such as himself are constantly evolving, bringing a little ocean up here. 

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