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Kenya can reap big from blue economy

OPINION
By Suleiman Shahbal | March 16th 2021
Kenya Ports Authority pilot boat arrives with 6 Kenyans and one Zimbabwean at Mombasa Port. [Omondi Onyango,Standard]

The first time I visited Oman in the mid-1990s, the best beaches of the capital Muscat were smelly. Many times, entire beaches were full of dried fish, and you could smell it from miles away. I could not understand why they had so many fish drying up on the beaches.

Then I found out that the fish was being used as fertiliser. Oman was producing more fish than it could eat or sell and a lot of it was rotting. Somehow, Oman got its act together and fishing is now one of its most profitable exports. This story has lessons for us. 

There are two approaches to commercial fishing. One is large commercial fishing where large or mid-sized trawlers go far out into the deep seas and fish. These trawlers can stay out at sea for long periods. Many of them have freezers, mini processing plants and storage on board. The trawlers then return the fish to factories on land where it is processed and exported.

The Seychelles has done a good job with this and even attracted Heinz to set up a large fish processing plant there. This plant is so successful that it now contributes a significant part to their economy and provides jobs. Kenya needs to set up such factories to attract fishing trawlers to come and process here. This approach works very well but does not create many jobs.

On Lake Victoria, such factories exist, and they provide the market for the large Nile Perch, which is filleted and exported. They employ hundreds of people. The jury is still out on whether this has helped the fisherman or the factory owners – but fish is exported in large numbers.

The second type of fishing is what is more interesting to us at the Coast as it could provide massive job creation opportunities. This approach is also less expensive and can quickly be implemented across the Coast of Kenya. On this approach, we have much to learn from the Omanis.

Oman studied the whole value chain of fishing and identified four critical components. First are the fishermen to go out to sea. Second, the storage facilities on board the boats and on land. Third is the financing and buying the fish from the fishermen. Fourth is the processing and exporting component. They are all separate but closely interrelated.  If one part of the chain is ignored, the whole chain collapses.

Kenya is fortunate that it has a large reef that runs parallel to the shore. This reef runs down the entire coast from Lamu down to Lunga Lunga and lies about three to four kilometres from the shore. Any serious fishing is done at least one or two kilometres outside the protective reef. Within the reef area, fishermen can only get small fish and these are declining year after year.

To fish outside the reef, the fishermen would need larger fiberglass boats of about seven to 10 metres, outboard engines, nets and an inbuilt freezer on board.

The cost of the equipment is not astronomical. In Oman, the total cost of this equipment would be approximately $5,000 or Sh500,000 which would be loaned to the fishermen. Each boat would employ at least five to six people. Self-employment is the key to success.

Second, when the fishermen come back with their catch they ought to have freezers on shore to store it. In Oman, they have placed these freezers on all landing sites. If they are not there, the fish will rot.

Coastal counties

Third, they created a co-operative whose sole job was to buy fish. They come around in the morning, weigh the fish and give the fisherman a receipt. With this receipt, the fisherman goes to the bank to collect his cash.

It is not practical for the fisherman who has been fishing all night or day to then come back to shore and go marketing his fish. By 9am, the fisherman has completed his work and received his pay for the day.

The co-operative then sends the fish to the factory for processing, packing and export. This co-operative was set up by the government, given initial working capital to buy the fish and is now self-sufficient. It employs hundreds of people.

The whole process is neither rocket science nor very expensive. Instead of conducting too many feasibility studies and writing too many reports, we should study how other countries have done it. Then we should run a few pilot projects and implement across the coastal counties.

Let’s not complicate things too much. If we don’t do this, then we will be talking about the blue economy for another 20 years.

It’s time to act while we still have some fish out there.

Mr Shahbal is chairman of Gulf Group of [email protected]

 

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