When Elijah Murithi grew bananas in the 1980s and 1990s, central Kenya’s increasingly erratic weather meant the farmer could rarely make a steady income from the thirsty crop.
Prolonged dry spells killed Murithi’s young plants, and long, intense rainy periods produced a glut of bananas that forced him to lower his prices to sell them.
Even when he shifted to coffee, which needs less water, the farmer still struggled to produce reliable yields.
But that changed in 2021 when he added an unusual crop to his farm: fish.
A fishpond filled with more than 1,500 tilapia now allows him to harvest rainwater during heavy rains and use some of it to irrigate his crops when dry spells hit, Murithi said.
Now he makes a decent living through drought or downpours, growing coffee and vegetables year-round while making extra income selling fish.
“This really worked to my advantage,” he said of his 10-by-25-metre (33-by-82-foot) fishpond, built just uphill from the coffee plants on his 1.25-acre (0.5-hectare) farm in Kibingo, about 130km (80 miles) northeast of Nairobi.
Since he started fish farming in April, Murithi said his coffee harvests have more than doubled to 2,000kg (4,400 pounds) a year and his overall income has tripled.
As the East African country grapples with climate swings that batter crops and choke incomes, including a current drought that is the worst in four decades, some farmers are discovering that adding fish to their farms can help with water storage, make their diets more nutritious and boost earnings.
Since 2019, the Kirinyaga county government has been helping farmers build fishponds under an economic stimulus programme.
The county covers the cost of a pond liner and, for the first year, pays for baby fish, also called fingerlings, and enough feed to sustain them until they mature.
The fisheries department said it has so far supported about 20 farming groups and more than 1,350 people.
Kirinyaga’s government said in October it was working to increase annual fish production from 29 tonnes, which has a value of 12.8 million Kenyan shillings ($104,000), to 62 tonnes. It did not provide any information about the cost of the initiative.
At first, most farmers resisted the idea of raising fish in an often parched region, said Harrison Mwangi, chairperson of the Kamwaka Self Help farmers group, which has 26 members.
He said the prospect was alien to many of the members, who thought they would have better results raising chickens.
But after county officials provided training on how to raise fish and said they would help with the costs, many farmers have given it a try.
Ultimately, Mwangi said, his group decided to convert a field of napier grass at a farm owned by one of its members – a field that was producing less and less fodder, especially during the dry season – into a fishpond at the start of 2021.
Through the rest of the year, the farmers then sold 17,000 shillings ($137) of fish to people visiting the farm or at local markets, Mwangi said, describing the sales as “quite encouraging” for a first harvest.
“The group could not have found a better way to utilize the farm,” he said, explaining how farming fish was easier than managing other livestock.
The Kamwaka farmers, who each have an annual income of 100,000 to 150,000 shillings ($807 to $1,211), should see even higher earnings from fish farming in the future as their stocks multiply, Mwangi said.
John Wilson – the manager of Mwea Aquaculture Farm, which raises tilapia and catfish and also offers training to farmers – said fish farming is not only good business but also provides an alternative source of protein for Kenyans.
A fish surplus
Apart from the challenge of persuading drought-hit farmers in Kenya that fish is a realistic crop, the project still has a few other kinks to work out, Murithi and Mwangi said.
While the ponds can be a buffer against drought by storing rain to be used for irrigation in the dry season, farmers hit with particularly extended dry spells can struggle to find ways to top them up.
Murithi said he has at times replenished his pond using agricultural water rations provided by the county to help farmers during dry periods.
Kamwaka farmers also have to pump clean water from nearby rivers to their ponds on a weekly basis when there is no rain. They use a generator, which is costly to run, Mwangi said.
Another challenge is how to deal with a surplus of fish now filling local markets as more people take up raising them, according to industry insiders.
“Farmers need to be aggressive in looking for a market for their produce and should not wait for the county government to do the marketing for them,” said Michael Manyeki, a fingerling producer in Sagana, a small industrial town in Kirinyaga.
For Ntiba Micheni, a professor of marine and fisheries biology at Nairobi University, the solution to excess production is getting more Kenyans to think of fish as dinner in a country where eating them is not common everywhere.
“If there is no robust ‘Eat More Fish’ campaign for young children, for schools and for communities, [selling] fish will forever remain a challenge,” said Micheni, a former official at the government’s fisheries department.