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Kenya's empty nets: How cheap Chinese fish imports have hooked buyers

CNN logo CNN 2018-04-17 Tanni Deb and Chris Giles, CNN
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With nets in hand and the boat's motor chugging along on still waters, dozens of fishermen set out to Lake Victoria, Africa's largest lake, at the crack of dawn.

It's a scene that's been repeated for generations.

Fishing is the mainstay of lake-side communities in Kenya. It has fueled the economy and provided employment for decades, but these days, overfishing, a lack of infrastructure and cheap Chinese imports have hit the industry hard.

In the past 20-30 years perch and tilapia catches have declined by 60-80% throughout the region. At the same time Kenya's population has roughly doubled to nearly 50 million.

Kenyan fishermen, Charles Otieno, told CNN: "It's a trend that's been happening for a long time."

Superpower fish

Kenya's fish stocks have been ailing and its main competitor is China, one of the world's largest economies and leading fish producers.

Kenyan fisherman pull up their nets in the early morning as they fish on Lake Victoria on March 3, 2016. Nile perch which are common in the lake can grow to the size of a man and weigh up to 200 kg. In the 1970's 50,000 fishermen and 12,000 fishing boats were present on Lake Victoria. Now according to the Lake Victoria Fisheries Organisation (LVFO), the body charged by the East African Community with safeguarding the lake's future, over 200,000 people fish from 60,000 boats, with more than 2,000 new vessels appearing on the lake every year. Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania all border Lake Victoria and intensive fishing has put severe pressure on fish stocks. / AFP / CARL DE SOUZA (Photo credit should read CARL DE SOUZA/AFP/Getty Images) © CARL DE SOUZA/AFP/AFP/Getty Images Kenyan fisherman pull up their nets in the early morning as they fish on Lake Victoria on March 3, 2016. Nile perch which are common in the lake can grow to the size of a man and weigh up to 200 kg. In the 1970's 50,000 fishermen and 12,000 fishing boats were present on Lake Victoria. Now according to the Lake Victoria Fisheries Organisation (LVFO), the body charged by the East African Community with safeguarding the lake's future, over 200,000 people fish from 60,000 boats, with more than 2,000 new vessels appearing on the lake every year. Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania all border Lake Victoria and intensive fishing has put severe pressure on fish stocks. / AFP / CARL DE SOUZA (Photo credit should read CARL DE SOUZA/AFP/Getty Images) The increased demand from Kenya's fish-hungry population means the country is relying on frozen farmed imports.

"We know that the demand in Africa is very big," Ling Wang, executive vice president at agricultural firm Baiyang Investment Group, which exports to Kenya, told CNN.

Many other Chinese companies are flooding the Kenyan market with frozen fish. In 2016, China exported $30 million of fish to Kenya -- double the year before.

"It's a good thing that we have fish coming in to fill in the gap, the deficit that we have. But on the other hand, we have to compete in terms of production and either lower the cost or increase our volumes so that we can avail fish to our communities," former Kenyan Fisheries Secretary Charles Ngugi, who now runs his own fish farm, said.

Local consumers

Despite China being thousands of kilometers from Kenya, intensive, large-scale farming, and a willingness to keep prices low, even at a loss, means prices of Chinese fish are often considerably cheaper than local offerings.

"If you can get a fish from China, one piece is selling at 150 shillings per kilo while we sell at 400 shillings. It is a very big challenge because people will always go with the cheaper things," fisherman and trader Maurice Muma told CNN.

Kenya's fishing industry has started looking to fish farming to increase competitiveness with Chinese companies.

A collection of tilapias. A popular fish in Kenya. © TONY KARUMBA/AFP/AFP/Getty Images A collection of tilapias. A popular fish in Kenya.

Victory Farms was founded in 2015 and harvests 80 to 100 tonnes of fish per month.

"The Kenyan fisheries of the regions where we operate is currently harvesting two tons per year from hundreds and hundreds of fishermen, whereas at Victory Farms we are able to pull five to 10 tons on any given day," Joseph Rehmann, co-founder and CEO of Victory Farms, told CNN.

However, industrial fish farming has been criticized because of the negative impact it can have on the ecosystem, health and the environment, if not done sustainably.

Victory Farms says it is committed to farming fish in the same water for years to come.

However, it is likely to take more than fish farming to solve Kenya's fishing deficit. Unlike China, Kenya has to import most of its fish feed.

Cold chain infrastructure

Additionally, Kenya's fishing industry lacks a cold chain infrastructure -- a supply chain, from source to sale, that keeps fish fresh and cool.

"The quality of the fish will be degraded by not being properly preserved," Rehmann said.

Women sell dried fish at the Kawangware market on the outskirts of Nairobi. © SIMON MAINA/AFP/AFP/Getty Images Women sell dried fish at the Kawangware market on the outskirts of Nairobi.

An inadequate power network is also preventing the cold chain system from working.

"Ice needs power and power is not, let's say, consistent in this part of the world," Steve Moran, co-founder and COO of Victory Farms, said.

While the heydey of Lake Victoria's fishing boom in the 1980s and 1990s is a way off, better environmental protections and infrastructure could help restore the fishing industry.

"This lake is presently undeveloped, but as it begins to develop environmental protection -- keeping diseases out, keeping foreign fish out is a very important part of the long-term sustainability of aquaculture," Rehmann said.

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