Booming eateries boost fortunes for Mt Kenya fish farmers

Ann Mwangi scaling Nile Perch at her establishment, Samaki Centre, in Makutano town, Meru County. [Lydiah Nyawira, Standard]

As fish farmers in Central Kenya continue to embrace aquaculture, local consumption of the hitherto unpopular delicacy has gone up as more people diversify their diets.

Health concerns about lifestyle diseases such as hypertension, obesity, and diabetes, have created a demand for alternative sources of nutrients, and fish eateries have started thriving in various towns across the region.

In Meru, Tharaka Nithi and Nyeri counties, more eateries have started including fish on their menus to meet the growing demand for the dish that is mostly associated with the Nyanza region and Western Kenya.  

In the bustling Makutano town, Meru County, Ann Mwangi is always busy at her establishment, Samaki Centre.

Ms Mwangi, who started as a street vendor, set up the eatery in 2014 and has since turned it into the go-to fish joint in the busy town.

“I started my fish business in 2014 with a capital of Sh150,000. At the time, most of the funds went to sourcing fish and paying for the necessary licences,” she said.

Initially, she says, it was baptism by fire, trying to sell fish in an area that is typically known for foods such as githeri and njahi (black peas).

“It was not easy at first but I did not give up. I decided to diversify by making other fish products such as fish oil, samosas, soup and fish balls that were easy to consume for my clients,” she noted.

At her roadside café, Ms Mwangi extracts fish oil from Nile perch, with a 150ml bottle going for Sh100. 

She then minces the flesh of the fish for snacks such as fish balls which each cost Sh20 and samosas which retail at Sh30. 

Judith Mukiri serves deep-fried fish at her eatery in Maara Constituency, Tharaka Nithi County. [Lydiah Nyawira, Standard]

“The rest is filleted for meals, and the bones are used for soup, nothing goes to waste in my shop, which is why I love this business,” said Ms Mwangi. 

Locals have embraced fish oil and soup as they are said to boost the immune system. 

Currently, her eatery is known for fresh tilapia, Nile perch and omena (silver cyprinid).

“I often source my fish from both Meru fish farmers and also from Lake Victoria,” she said.

On a good day, she can sell between 15kg and 20kg of fish at Sh1,100 per kilo.

One of the biggest challenges for Ms Mwangi has been ensuring the fish stays fresh for long from the time of harvesting on the farms to when it gets to the eatery.

She also has to contend with high electricity, transport, and cooking oil bills amid a spiralling cost of living crisis in the country. At the heart of Maara, Tharaka Nithi County, Mukiiri’s Hotel is making waves for its fish dishes.

Ms Mukiiri started her business in 2021 after she turned to fish farming. She was one of the beneficiaries of the Aquaculture Business Development Programme (ABDP), which is jointly funded by the National Government through the Department of Fisheries and the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD)

The programme provided farmers like Ms Mukiiri with fish liners, fingerlings, and feeds, while the farmers provided labour and land for the setting up of fish ponds.

“I was one of the first beneficiaries of the programme, but after my first harvest, I did not have a market for my fish. That is where my idea for an eatery was born,” she said.

She reared catfish and tilapia. Despite having no prior knowledge of how to prepare fish, Ms Mukiiri was determined to learn from YouTube videos with the assistance of her daughters.

“I had no experience in how to cook fish, so I started small, selling fried fish to my neighbours. Once I finished my stock, I bought more fish from other group members, who had also benefited from the programme and did not have a market,” said Ms Mukiiri.

She got more training from the programme on how to prepare the fish.

Julius Mwangi at his business, Jiqoni Cuisine, which he set up in Nyeri Town in 2022. [Lydiah Nyawira, Standard]

“Fisheries officers came to my rescue by teaching me how to improve my cooking. Initially, I could only prepare and sell 10 pieces of fish a day. Now, I sell up to 20kg of fish daily at Sh300 per meal of fish and ugali,” she said.

Ms Mukiiri soon could not meet the demand for ready-made fish as it became more popular. She has since opened two fish joints in the county. “I have two fish cafes, and we often serve fish till we run out and have to order more from our farmers. Our customer base has been growing rapidly,” she said.

This has led to Ms Mukiri coming up with a list of farmers who she can contact and source fish from daily to meet demand.

For Julius Mwangi, a resident of Nyeri town, he always loved fish from a young age, which motivated him to start  Jiqoni Cuisine.

The café, which has been in operation for one year, is reaping big from the growing demand for fish in the town.

However, it wasn’t smooth sailing for him at the beginning, just like Ms Mwangi and Mukiiri.

“Many people did not know how to eat fish, so they would ask if it had bones, while others did not like the smell,” he said.

Mr Mwangi gradually created a niche for himself, focusing only on tilapia from Homabay County. He sells up to 50 pieces of fish daily, with a meal of the same and ugali going for Sh350 per plate.

“Our target market is anyone who would like to taste some fish. Our prices are fair, and we do our best to cater to both takeaway clients and those who would like to sit and have a meal at the café,” he noted.