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If aquaculture is to help feed Africa's urbanising populations, we must support small and medium enterprises, says Malcolm Beveridge.

Aquaculture — the farming of aquatic plants and animals — makes a vital contribution to nutrition. Fish is a rich source of protein and fatty acids, vitamins, minerals and other micronutrients.

Fish is a critical addition to starchy staples in the diets of millions of poor people in the developing world and demand for it is increasing. Meeting this demand from wild fisheries, which are largely dependent on fully or over-exploited stocks, is not an option.

By contrast, aquaculture has been the world's fastest growing food sector for the past two decades. Worldwide, almost half of all fish eaten is farmed rather than caught.

A growing industry

Throughout the half-century following the end of the Second World War, fish farming in Sub-Saharan Africa was promoted by donors and development organisations as a means of diversifying livelihoods among smallholder farmers.

Farming fish provides food for smallholder families, and fishponds, by providing a constant source of water, can reduce vulnerability of an entire farm to unpredictable rains. We also know from Malawi and elsewhere that it makes excellent use of on-farm wastes and increases nutrient recycling.

But family-owned ponds in Africa are generally small and, because they depend on scant on-farm resources, unproductive, generating little surplus for sale. Moreover, my experience is that many years of technical advice are needed for smallholders to sustainably adopt fish farming.

Yet aquaculture production in Sub-Saharan Africa is growing fast, albeit from a low baseline.  Aquaculture has increased three-fold in the past seven years, though it remains less than 0.2 per cent of global production. According to recent Food and Agriculture Organization figures, fish farming in Malawi, Mozambique, Nigeria, Togo and Uganda is among the fastest growing in the world.

This growth has largely been achieved through a relatively new phenomenon on the continent: the development of small and medium enterprises (SMEs) in aquaculture.

Bigger ponds, more fish

SME producers are primarily motivated by profit. They have larger ponds, use off-farm resources and produce tonnes rather than kilos of fish. SME aquaculture producers create market chains, providing jobs not just for producers, but also those who supply credit, fry and fingerlings to stock ponds, fertilisers and feed, as well as those who distribute, process and trade the farmed fish.

Many of these job opportunities are for women and the socially marginalised. In Cameroon, a number of the larger commercial catfish hatcheries are run by women, while the majority of those engaged in seaweed farming in Tanzania are also women.

Increasing the support to the SME sector is vital to help aquaculture improve the diets of Africa's rapidly urbanising populations. First and foremost, this means working in partnership to develop productive, profitable technologies.

As well as ponds, cages — net enclosures, installed in lakes, reservoirs and river margins — are the most widely used production systems. While fish production can be readily increased by stocking more and larger fish and by using more fertiliser and feed, it is critical to understand how these actions contribute to profits.

From farm to table

For the SME aquaculture sector to flourish, producers also need a sound understanding of business. Encouraging SME producers to use a simple spreadsheet-type tool, for example, can help them make crucial decisions on pond size and number, stocking density, feed type and sources, harvesting and marketing strategies.

SME producers must be able to access affordable credit and be connected to reliable and affordable supplies of quality fry and fingerlings, fertilisers and feed.

They also need ways to get their highly perishable products to market in good condition. The best opportunities for such producers are often in areas close to large towns and cities, where roads are better and markets easier to access. Periurban aquaculture has proved successful in many areas of Asia and should be developed in Africa too.

Of course, aquaculture will not work everywhere. Moreover, like all means of producing food, it comes at a price — aquaculture needs land and water, and fertiliser and feed.

But, if farmers grow the right species using the right technologies in the right place; if they acquire solid business skills; and if they can better access markets and credit, then aquaculture can provide an important pathway to reducing poverty and hunger in Africa.

Malcolm Beveridge is director of aquaculture and genetics at the WorldFish Center in Cairo, Egypt.