Let me tell you a fish storyâ€”or rather, a fish-farming story.
Unlike some fish stories, this fish-farming story is all true, and it reveals how technology can improve the lives of ordinary people in amazing ways.
Thousands of my fellow Kenyans farm fish as one of the main socio-economic activities for their family. Their livelihood depends on fish farms that are land-based (pond farmers) or lake-based with most on Lake Victoria. Itâ€™s the largest lake in Africa and the second-largest lake by surface area in the world (after Lake Superior in the United States and Canada).
Itâ€™s also full of fish. Beneath its waves and along its coasts, large and small fish farmers raise and harvest tilapia, catfish, and more.
Yet itâ€™s a hard business. Smallholder fish farmers suffer from poor access to the high-quality feeds that are essential for raising healthy stocks. Whatâ€™s more, many of them lack the technical skills and tools to do their jobs well. Producing excellent fish, for example, requires feeding the right food at the right time, based on growth cycles and water temperaturesâ€”factors that can be tricky to monitor with precision.
Even if these farmers raise their fish successfully, the market for what they produce has almost no structure. Its chaos leads to the frustration of low prices, which foster economic stress. There are social problems as well because the low prices fuel the notorious â€œsex for fishâ€ trade, which involves the exploitation of women and contributes to the spread of HIV/AIDS.
I saw this up close for years. I donâ€™t come from a fish-farming familyâ€”my mother raised chickens and horticultural crops on landâ€”but I became professionally involved in fish farming as an adult. I was one of the few farmers who had the benefit of being trained by various feed suppliers on certain basic technical skills in fish farming. But I witnessed several of my fellow farmers go through difficult times by not being able to access quality inputs, unstructured markets which led to low prices and lack of technical skills that made output very low.
These experiences allowed me to observe and understand what goes on in the fish-farming business. I saw the low productivity that plagues so much food production in Africa. Instead of despairing over our plight, however, I saw an opportunity for improvement.
We can do a lot betterâ€”and I came up with an idea.
I recognized that a simple app on a mobile phone would transform fish farming, if it could accomplish several basic tasks: improve the connections between suppliers and farmers, so that farmers can receive the inputs they need; improve the technical skills of farmers, so that farmers can raise their fish successfully; and improve the connections between farmers and buyers, so that farmers can earn fair prices in a market free from sexual abuse.
My company, AquaRech, now provides this tool. Our app helps farmers buy inputs and sell fish. In between, it allows them to track water temperatures, feed-conversion ratios, and daily growth.
The results are impressive. Farmers who use the app lower their production costs by 35 percent and raise their yields by 60 percent. Because of this, they put more money in their pockets.
This has so many benefits. It gives them a better living. It helps women resist the lure of the â€œsex for fishâ€ trade. And it provides an excellent example of sustainable food production, as fish farmers use technology to do more with less. Our app also supports environmentally sustainable fish production by enabling smallholder fish farmers access to high quality floating fish feed and precision feeding technology that reduces pollution to lakes and rivers and greenhouse-gas emissions.
Right now, weâ€™re focused on tilapia and catfish raised by producers in Kenya. Weâ€™re growing strongly in this sector, and we plan to expand into other types of fish as well as to work with fish farmers in Tanzania and Uganda, which are the other two countries that have shorelines on Lake Victoria.
The opportunity is tremendous. In Kenya, the deficit of fish is more than 450,000 tons per year. Today, only 35,000 tons come from local aquaculture, and we import 50,000 tons of tilapia from China.
I am confident that improvements in markets and technologyâ€”driven by tools such as my companyâ€™s appâ€”can help Kenyans produce as much as 11 million tons of tilapia per year.
Thatâ€™s enough to meet our countryâ€™s demand as well as to build a big export industry that makes seafood abundant, affordable, and sustainable.
Thatâ€™s my fish-farming story. You can believe it right now, and over time itâ€™s only going to get better.