By Peter Oliver Ochieng

Fish farmers in Kakamega County are a delighted lot.  After several years of hustles directed at netting a ready market for their fish, the solution is now right at their doorsteps, in the frame of a fish processing factory.

Commissioned by Wycliffe Oparanya, the Kakamega County Governor on July 12, 2021, the plant at Lutonyi, Shieywe Ward in Lurambi Constituency has breathed a whole new lease of life in the entire fish farmer folk in the County, which has for long been known for sugarcane farming and the crying stone of Khayega.

Kakamega, like most Counties in Kenya lacks a sea, a lake or a widely known river to enable fishing. As such, farmers in this part of the World are using fish ponds to practice their farming. According to the Governor, the County is home to some 6, 976 farmers who own 9, 988 fish ponds.

The fish factory in Kakamega

Laban Mwanzo, a resident of Malava Constituency is one of those farmers. Mwanzo owns 240 fish ponds and with the availability of the fish processing plant in Kakamega, there is no better time to focus on fish farming than now, he says.

He has been into fish farming for 15 years. Just before the plant was commissioned, Mwanzo who is the Chairman of Kakamega Fish Farmers Cooperative Society supplied half a tonne of fish to the plant, used for conducting a test run. That is an equivalent of 500 kilograms.

The factory pays Ksh300 (about EUR 2.3) per kilogram. From the supply, Mwanzo pocketed a cool Ksh150, 000 (EUR 1, 171). “The Ksh300 the factory is paying is very good for farmers. It returns all the expenses incurred by a farmer. I was given my money instantly,” said the farmer.

He says that the company has provided two solutions at ago – providing a ready market and paying farmers instantly.

“Before the factory came, I was selling my fish to various customers in towns within Kakamega County and other Counties. Getting a ready market would be difficult. I could end up selling 1-3 kilograms of fish per day. Most of the fish would end up in my deep freezer which in turn increased the cost of production because the freezer needs power to operate.”

Mwanzo also owns a hatchery for production of quality fingerlings. Before the advent of the factory, he would still sell a kilogram of fish at Ksh300, but the difference is that he could not trade in bulk. “But now, I can harvest a whole pond knowing clearly that a market is ready at the factory. They can take even 1-3 tonnes of fish from a farmer. I am happy that we have a factory that is operational,” he added.

In South Kabaras Ward, still in Malava Constituency, I meet Tom Oreno and his wife Jenifer Awino. Oreno and Awino are Chairman and Coordinator of Lukak Association respectively, a group comprising of 28 members.

The group was formed in 2018 with an aim of venturing into farming. They wrote a proposal directed to the Kenya Climate Smart Agriculture Project (KCSAP) before receiving funding to a tune of Ksh1 million (about EUR 7, 812) in September 2020.

Lukak Coordinator Jenifer Awino and Chairman Tom Orina

The group invested part of the money in two giant ponds after getting relevant training spearheaded by officers from the Kakamega County’s department of fisheries. They then bought 43, 000 tilapia fingerlings and fish feeds. 18, 500 fingerlings were stocked in one pond, while the second one carried 10, 500 fingerlings.

The 29, 000 fingerlings were supplied by Labed Cash, a fish feeds and fingerlings supply company owned by Mr Laban Mwanzo. “Out of the 43, 000 fingerlings, we were supplied with 29, 000 which means 14, 000 remained with the supplier. We plan to take the fingerlings in the coming weeks,” said the Coordinator.

Just before the fish factory was opened, they harvested fish from one of the ponds. They managed to get 294 kilograms which was supplied to the factory. The factory has paid a  cheque of Ksh 88, 200 (EUR 689) to the Lukak group.

Lukak group members had planned to sell their fish in hotels, eateries and within local markets; a move that would have taken them ages to raise the amount they got after trading the fish at the factory. Their next harvest is in October and they know for sure that market is readily available.

“The factory is a blessing to us. During harvesting, they come with their own lorries which means the farmer does not incur transport costs,” said the Chairman.

He urged residents of Kakamega County to venture into fish farming because of the returns involved. “Compared to sugarcane which can take up to two years before maturity, fish takes six to seven months and you get the returns. Anyone planning to practice fish farming should go ahead.”

During their next restocking, they intend to go for catfish in order to maximize profits. A well fed catfish grows faster and can weigh between 5-6 kilograms after six months. Likewise, they intend to invest the proceeds of the first harvest in backyards fish ponds, instead of sharing out the money among members.

At the Biloti Aqua Fish Farm in Lurambi Constituency, Washington Ojuang is the Manager, a position he has held for the last five months. The Bachelors of Science in fisheries and agriculture holder from the University of Nairobi is in charge of 24 fish ponds and a fingerlings hatchery.

Biloti Aqua farm Manager Washington Ojuang in his office

The farm is owned by a Kakamega based magistrate. In order to attain a table size fish weighing between 250 and 300 grams, the Manager said his team needs a production cycle of seven months. Each pond can accommodate at least 3, 500 fingerlings, that eventually turn into edible fish within seven months.

The farm’s standard price for a kilogram of tilapia is Ksh350, while a kilogram of catfish costs Ksh400. The cost of fingerlings ranges between Ksh5 to 15 depending with the length. Ojuang said that the market for fingerlings is very ripe as they have customers from as far as Siaya, Kisumu and Homabay Counties.

But challenges have always been visible during selling of fish. “Our market is local and maybe a few restaurants in town. Our fish is normally in the ponds so when we get an order, let us say somebody in town wants 6 kilograms of tilapia or catfish, then we get our men on the ground, we harvest the six kilograms and take to the customer,” said the Manager.

Biloti farm is yet to supply fish to the fish processing factory, but Ojuang said that it is a big plus to those in the fish farming sector. The factory’s quality and assurance officer recently paid them a visit and informed them of the set standards.

“The commissioning of the Lutonyi fish factory is a plus for us in the sector. We have been going extra mile and cost to advertise our fish on social media, going out to fetch for customers but now we are sure of a market where we can get our fish from the pond and take to the factory,” he said noting that plans are already in place to have fish from Biloti Aqua Farm taken to the factory.

At the factory, the Managing Director Samuel Ondiek said it is now fully operational and their main aim is bridging the gap within the value chain, which involves production, cold chain management, infrastructure, processing and marketing. “So it is a 360 degrees value chain development.”

He said Kakamega County has enough fish to sustain the plant, urging more farmers to join the venture because there’s a ready market. The factory can process 30 metric tonnes of fish per day. He did not rule out the possibility of taking fish from the other 13 Lake Region Economic Block (LREB) Counties.

Samuel Ondiek, Kakamega Fish processing factory Managing Director

The process of taking fish to the factory is simple. Through the department of fisheries in Kakamega County, the factory has a data base of farmers. The factory officials normally call farmers to get to know who has ready fish. After confirmation, a day for harvesting is set. The factory lorry goes to the farmer’s place to pick harvested fish. No documents are required besides having an account number. A farmer is paid through cash or cheque.

“Immediately the fish is received, weighed, graded and processed, payment is done. We expect that a farmer who is keeping his feeding regime properly and having the right fingerlings will definitely give us good yield. If the fish is above 300 grams, then it will be around and about Ksh300 per kilogram. If it is below that, then we agree with the farmer,” Ondiek said.

Members of the public are also free to purchase smoked fish from the factory at a cost of Ksh150 per piece. The factory currently takes tilapia fish, but plans are in high gear to ensure catfish is also taken up for processing.

Concerning exports, Ondiek said they are laying the ground work for Kenyan fish to start landing in overseas markets. “We are actually working with our customers in Europe so that we can start sending fish to Europe, Middle East and also to the US.”

The challenge the factory is facing is that most of its 46 staff were initially not conversant with operations of a fish plant. As such, they are being trained on the job.

In order to produce quality fish, the Managing Director urged farmers to consider the following three aspects; quality of water in fish ponds (inflow and outflow of water must be consistent), quality feeds and quality fingerlings. “Farmers need to be trained to handle all those properly,” he added.

“With fish farming, you can predict the quantity that will be harvested in 1, 2, 3 years. But captured fish (as is the case for Lake Victoria) can never be predicted because we don’t have a clear sensor of fish within the Lakes. We don’t know whether the stocks that are there can last 10 years, 20 years. That is unpredictable.

But when we are dealing with feeds that are of quality, water that is of quality and fingerlings that are of quality then you can predict that you will have this number of tonnage within this number of years,” he said as a parting shot.

Governor Oparanya’s administration has already identified the high cost of fish feeds among the challenges affecting fish farming in the region. That is why the County Government will soon set up a fish feeds warehouse for production of quality and affordable fish feeds.