Central fish boom as processing plants remain idle

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

Fish farmers in the Central Region have gradually tripled over the last four years, increasing production to over 183,444 kilogrammes of fish per year from 37,301 kilogrammes in 2020.

The key fish-producing counties in the region are Kirinyaga, Nyeri, Meru, Kiambu, Embu, and Tharaka Nithi, which currently boast over 7,308 farmers, up from an estimated 120 farmers in 2019.

This data comes from the Aquabusiness Development Program (ABDP), a programme jointly funded by the National Government and the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) that covers 15 counties across the country.

However, while fish production continues to grow in the region, the majority of fish farmers have failed to secure large-scale markets for their produce and are forced to sell locally.

Rebecca Wambui, a fish farmer from Chinga ward, Othaya Constituency, explained that she usually sells her fish to her neighbors to supplement her income.

Her situation is echoed in Meru and Tharaka Nithi, where farmers must identify clients before harvesting their produce. 

Wamagana Fish Factory in Nyeri which has been nonoperational since it was officially opened in October 4,2017. [Kibata Kihu, Standard]

Steve Ken Mugambi, 30, from Chogoria, Tharaka Nithi, stated that his main customers are sourced online, with the majority being locals. He posts his orders on social media platforms at least a day before harvesting and often finds his stock sold out by the end of the day.

Before the ABDP programme began in the region, the national government had envisioned aquaculture development under the Economic Stimulus Program during the President Mwai Kibaki Administration.

This led to the construction of two processing plants in the Central region: the Kanyakine plant in South Imenti, valued at Sh54 million, and the larger facility at Wamagana in Tetu, Nyeri, valued at Sh61 million. However, for nearly a decade, these facilities remained closed due to a lack of capacity by county governments to revive them through Public-Private Partnerships.

Without processing capacity, farmers have resorted to selling their fish in fresh fish markets and hawking on the streets to meet growing market demands.

After devolution, these facilities, which were run by fish farmers’ cooperatives with the assistance of county governments, gradually deteriorated to the point of closure.

Now, the counties are seeking to lease out the fish processing plants through PPP agreements, a process that has yet to kick off despite several investors expressing interest.

In Meru County, the Kanyekeini processing plant lies abandoned and closed, despite the increasing embrace of aquaculture by farmers.

According to Meru County Fisheries Officer and ABDP Coordinator Eliud Kirinya, the number of farmers has increased from 1000 to 2500, with production growing from 21,827 to 225 tonnes of fish annually.

The county government and the donor program have supported farmers extensively with extension services and inputs. However, there are still challenges in securing an organized market for the fish.

Meru County Investment and Development Corporation (MCIDC) Managing Director Angelo Gitonga stated that the facility was handed over to the county by the farmers’ cooperative in 2022.

Although there has been a delay in identifying an investor to partner with the county on operationalizing Kanyekeini, they are hoping to organize farmers’ groups to take up the facility.

In Nyeri County, the Wamagana fish processing and bulk factory has the capacity to process 21,000 metric tonnes of fish daily.

The facility was leased to the Nyeri Fish Farmers’ Cooperative by the county government but has been operating below capacity for over six years.

Wamagana factory was handed over to the county by the national government to hold in trust for local fish farmers. Plans are underway to find a private investor to run it.

So far, the county has advertised three times for investors to take up the facility, but none have been secured to date.

Nyeri Agriculture Executive James Wachihi stated that they have faced challenges in market linkages for farmers and attracting investors to this project.

The county is working on setting up an aquapark at Wambugu Farm, which will consist of 50 to 100 ponds with youth and women groups to boost production. This initiative aims to guarantee 25 tonnes of fish per year, which would attract investors to the processing plant.

Nyeri County is also working on smart fish markets, specifically designed for the sale and storage of fish.

They are collaborating with ABDP to fund a new fish kiosk at the Asian Quarters Bus Termini and have identified land in Mathira and Mukurweini for fish collection and value addition before sale.

The CEC noted that production had increased to over 35 tonnes of fish per year, indicating an uptake by farmers towards aquaculture.

Investors are expected to ensure that the facility is utilized effectively, allowing farmers to focus on production while marketing and processing are handled by private entities.

Wachihi admitted that there was a misconception regarding the availability of fish to power the facility, noting that the challenge lies in organizing the value chain.

Although the factories were intended to produce fish feed as well, no timeline has been given for when the fish processing plants will be revived, and the focus remains on alternative markets.

Fish farmers are now waiting to see if the freshwater markets and kiosks will provide an alternative link to the much-needed markets for their products.

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