For some 200 million Africans fish is the main source of animal protein. This is one third of the continent’s population. 10 million Africans, many of them artisans, are directly depended on fisheries for their livelihoods. On top of this, fish is one of Africa’s prime export products, contributing significantly to some of the national economies.
These facts alone should make evident that fisheries have a significant social and economic value. So, it is the more surprising, that scant attention is paid to how fisheries can push Africa’s agricultural development.
“But why is that?” That is the question I asked Msekiwa Matsimbe, Aquaculture and Fisheries Scientist, working with the NEPAD Regional Fish Node in Malawi. NEPAD is the New Partnership for Africa’s Development, a body of the African Union aimed to eradicate poverty and create economic growth.
A growing appetite for fish
“What we see is that the supply of fish cannot longer meet the demand”, Msekiwa explains. “In the past three or four decades many factors have disturbed the balance. The population has grown and demand has also risen, from urban consumers, who are becoming richer and now can afford to buy more fish, as well as from developed rural communities.
Many marine and inland fisheries have been over-exploited, because of both local and foreign fishers; some inland fisheries have declined because of pollution and environmental degradation.”
These issues have been sidelined up until now, as fisheries were rarely incorporated in any of the main agricultural development programs and policies such as the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP). Attempts to change this have only started recently, but building the much needed capacities to acquire change will need time.
Running out of time
But how much time is there? To keep up with the present levels of consumption, as the population grows, fish harvest will have to increase. As there are only few possibilities to increase the harvest from Africa’s coastal fisheries, aquaculture seems to be left as the one plausible alternative. While worldwide 35 percent of fish production already comes from aquaculture, in sub-Saharan Africa it’s only 3 percent.
“The slow development has been there for several reasons”, explains Matsimbe. “We are mainly lacking adequate technologies and human capacities for research. We lack advisory services in the development of relevant management strategies and policies. What we need here is strong North-South and South-South cooperation. We need better collaboration and draw lessons from leading aquaculture countries such as China.”
And certainly there is a great potential to learn from Asian countries, including China, on aquaculture and methods such as integrated fish farming systems. But looking around Africa will give you great examples too.
Ghana for instance has been promoting aquaculture actively for almost two decades. The government has been pushing the development of the sector by setting up institutions that are responsible for developing fisheries and aquaculture policy as well as directing and establishing research priorities; the objective there has been to produce enough fish to cover 60 percent of the protein intake of Ghanians.
Not as gloomy as it might seem
So maybe the situation for fisheries in Africa is not a gloomy as it might seem at a first glance. It is clear that the development of the aquaculture sector is an important aspect to improve the livelihoods of millions of Africans. But to achieve this certain conditions have to be fulfilled.
“There is huge potential. We see many farmers getting more and more interested in aquaculture”, Matsimbe tells me. “In some of the areas where we are having pilot projects, other farmers see how well aquaculture works and also want to get involved. This is great, but we also need to improve governance and management systems. We need to make sure the sector development is included in general agricultural development plans. Apart from aquaculture, we also need to better protect the capture fisheries to manage and maintain their contribution to livelihoods, and to protect coastal and freshwater environments…”