How we built a Sh4 million fish enterprise
When the Government was rolling out fishing as part of the Economic Stimulus Plan in Central to jump start the economy following the 2007/08 downturn, many enthusiastic farmers dived into it full throttle.
The State constructed ponds, donated fingerlings and trained interested farmers. Mr Joseph Mutwiri was one of the beneficiaries in Meru County.
The former police officer used his savings to construct a larger pond on top of the one that had been built for him.
“I had opted to take early retirement to concentrate on fish farming. I started with tilapia,” Mutwiri says at his Gakurine farm in Imenti North.
Elsewhere, his now co-partner Domiciano Maingi, was also caught in the fish farming wave.
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“I started with six ponds. I kept tilapia and catfish. I did everything right, I ensured the water temps were right and the fish well fed. Within eight months, they were ready for harvest,” he says.
But the farmers had not envisioned one major challenge when the fish reached maturity and were ready for harvest.
Given that the area is a ‘sworn potato and maize zone’, there was no market for fish.
“Many people did not understand the nutritional value of fish, how to cook and even eat it,” Mutwiri says.
He had to think out of the box. Fast.
“I had to literally hawk the fish and many times I had to sell below the market value. I suffered heavy losses,” he says.
He recalls how he would fill his pickup with water and put in the fish to stay cool and drive all the way to Makutano and deliver the catch to hotels and institutions.
“Catfish can survive out of water from Meru to Nairobi but the tilapias die within minutes when they are removed from water,” he says.
Separately, Maingi was also facing similar challenges and it was draining.
“Many locals were not familiar with this delicacy and convincing them that it was a healthy dish was a hurdle. I also lost several stock due to lack of market,” Maingi says.
Then an idea struck them – how about teaming up.
Joseph Mutwiri and his workers at the fish farm (Phares Mutembei, Standard)
Maingi, chairman of the Aquaculture Association of Kenya and Mutwiri, vice chairman (Meru chapter) used to meet at different fish forums. On several occasions, they would exchange notes.
“Maingi is a fish farmer in Nairobi and has ponds in Meru while I am based in Meru. Being both in the fish business we met many times during farmers’ seminars in Nairobi,” Mutwiri says.
Since they were facing similar challenges and had shared business interests, it made economic sense to team up.
“We put our minds together and partnered to overcome the challenges we both faced which included lack of market and availability of good fingerlings and quality and affordable feeds,” Mutwiri says.
Mutwiri says they are in a 50-50 partnership.
“… we share the same goals and have an elaborate written contract that caters for each of our interests,” he says.
To deal with the problem of sub-standard feeds in the market, the two came up with their own fish feed miller.
“Now we were producing our own feed, we are able to cut down on feed costs by up to half,” says Maingi.
To further tap into value addition, the two recently established a fish eatery expected to meet the demand for fish in hotels, schools, hospitals and homes.
“Before we launched, we did research and found out that Meru people keep away from fish because they do not know how to prepare nor eat it properly. But they are willing to learn!” says Mutwiri.
To address that, the duo ‘imported’ experts from the lakeside to teach locals all things fish. With the eatery, Mutwiri says fish farmers now have a ready market to deliver their harvest. The Kanyekine Fish Processing Factory also offers a ready market for fish.
The two pooled Sh4 million to start the fish eatery. They have invested in modern equipment for making fishsausages and samosas.
With the right investment, the duo hopes to reap maximum benefits from their agribusiness model.
“We have hope things are picking up as awareness on nutritive value of fish is undertaken. The demand for fish is growing in Meru because it is a cosmopolitan area,” Mutwiri says.
Mutwiri and his business partner Maingi watch as chefs prepare fish sausage at the restaurant. (Phares Mutembei, Standard)
So how do they make the snacks?
The moment the fish are harvested from the ponds which are not far from the restaurant, they are put in a freezer and ferried to the facility.
“Once the fish are received at the restaurant it is gutted immediately. It is turned into fillet which is then minced to make sausages, mixed with other ingredients”. They include bread crumbs, cooked rice and others.
For those interested in rearing fish, Mutwiri has helpful tips. Usually he feeds the fish twice daily, at 6:30am and 6pm.
But when it is a bit cold, the fish are fed around 8am as they do not like coming to the surface. To prepare fishfeeds, Mutwiri uses raw material like maize jam, rish polsh, sunflower and omena.
He says for a pond containing 1,000 tilapias he introduced 300 catfish when the former are three months old, for survival reasons.
“The catfish feed on the small tilapia and ensures the pond is not over populated,” he explains.
Unlike the two who are still standing strong with their fish projects, many have fallen along the way weighed down by challenges. “Lack of support discouraged many who abandoned their ventures,” he says. Many of the ponds were turned into rubbish pits as disillusioned farmers opted out to engage in other fulfilling ventures.
The national Government stepped in when it built the Sh54 million Kanyekine Fish Processing Factory in South Imenti. The facility which has a capacity to process 15 tonnes a week it was supposed to receive fish from Meru and neighbouring counties and to make various products to achieve value addition, but it took time to become operational.