In November 2007 Rwanda ran short of fish supplies. Consumers demanded to know why.
Vincent Karega, state minister for industry and investment promotion, said commercial fish farming is not a priority. So government is not about to spend its scarce resources on the fisheries sector.
"Our priority is methane gas. We have not attracted any investor(s) in the fisheries sector," Karega said in a telephone interview with The New Times. Lacking investment in Rwanda’s fisheries is partly responsible for the dwindling stocks.
To a lager extent, fisheries are collapsing either due to over-fishing or water pollution.
Erias’Ngirente, a fisherman on Lake Kivu, has woken every day for twenty years at 5 am, however, today he rarely catches the number of sambaza (small sardine-like fish) he used to.
"I used to catch 70 fish in an hour but these days it takes me twelve hours to catch 15 fish," Ngirente says.
Because of the scarcity of fish in the country, what used to be called the sambaza section of the Kibuye market is now full of cassava and tomatoes.
Rwanda now depends on fish imports from Burundi, Tanzania and Uganda. The Uganda fisheries department ranks Rwanda among the leading markets for unprocessed fish.
Rwandans have begun paying more for fish since the country’s largest lake, Lake Kivu, has become terribly polluted. Soil from the surrounding hills is deposited in the lake, killing the fish and washing away the eggs laid on the banks. Fisheries experts also say using illegal fishing gear, such as the beach seine net, has added to the depletion of water bodies.
So the rate at which fish are breeding does not match the rate they are harvested, the fishery experts say.
The high prices of this protein-rich delicacy have forced some families to leave fish out of their diet.
"The doctor advised me to give my baby ndugu soup [a fish soup] but it’s very expensive for me to buy it thrice a week, as recommended," Geraldine Kamariza lamented.
A kilogramme of sambaza used to cost Frw450. Today it can reach as much as Frw800.
To ensure a steady supply of fish and to tame the soaring prices, government is encouraging fish farming. Fish farming was introduced before independence by the colonial government and became popular when, in the early 1960s, Rwanda’s lakes were stocked.
While fish supplies are dwindling, fish farming, very popular in the 1980’s and early 1990’s, is enjoying renewed enthusiasm in Rwanda, according to Bosco Kabagambe, the entrepreneurship and business growth director at Rwanda Private Sector (RPS).
Kabagambe explains why fish farming appeals to Rwandans: "Fish is a good source of protein, fish farming can be very lucrative and fish farms make practical use of land. "
The Twitezimbere Fish Association is proof that fish farming can be hugely profitable.
Gilbert Mutanguha, president of the association, told The New Times that four years ago they began with 20,000 fingerlings in two fish ponds on one hectare of land. Now they are harvesting about 16 tonnes annually.
Kabagambe compares tilapia fish farming to that of beans.
One hectare produces roughly 4,000 kilogrammes of fish yearly. A kilogramme of fish is worth approximately Frw1,200. Thus, one hectare can make Frw4.8m annually. One hectare of beans yields on average 3,000 kilogrammes of beans, worth Frw150 per kilogramme. The total yield for a hectare of beans is only Frw450,000 per year.
As stocks diminish, the main challenge is finding fingerlings (baby fish) to be put in ponds to breed. Fingerlings need to be imported from neighbouring countries. There is also a need to build man-made ponds if sufficient levels of production are to be reached.
"By developing the stocks in our lakes alone, we wouldn’t be able to reach the demand," Kabagambe said.
While fish farming is not a government priority, some steps are being taken to improve the supply of fish in Rwanda.
"The Ministry of Agriculture has been renovating old fish ponds to subsistence farming only, with the aim of privatizing all but one. The solitary government pond would be used to grow fingerlings to stock the market," said Kabagambe.
It is hoped that such steps will decrease Rwanda’s dependence on imported fish and prevent the shortages experienced at the end of 2007.