Sustainable fish farming on Lake Kariba

HUSK Biochar Product

Introducing Siavonga Breams

Siavonga Breams Multi-Purpose Co-operative Limited (SBCL) is a group of small-scale fish farmers domiciled around lake Kariba in Siavonga district of southern province, Zambia. The cooperative is a mother body to which individuals and women groups affiliate for social and commercial benefits. The vision of the cooperative is to improve livelihoods of people living in poverty by lifting small-scale fish communities out of poverty through provision of income generating opportunities along the aquaculture sub-sector value chain.

Since its inception in 2013 the Cooperative has evolved from fish trading, sourcing the fish from capture fishermen and small-scale fish farmers to expanding to aqua garden out grower schemes. In 2021, SBCL became a recipient of IAP financial and non-financial support to implement a plan based on an inclusive Innovation on the Lake Kariba. The business plan aimed at developing eight floating fish cages on Lake Kariba for practicing sustainable fish farming and engaging women participation in the fish value chain as distributors.

Business model and women groups

Overtime, the implementation of the business plan has been dynamic so as to adapt to the changing economic and social climate in the country as a whole. The initial business model at start and towards the end of the project varied. In the initial plan, eight women groups were to be enlisted comprising 45 members each. And each group was to contribute towards their participation through cost sharing in procuring feed and fingerlings among other costs. As of 2022, eight women groups were enlisted, five from Siavonga and three from Lusaka. The primary activity was to be small scale fish farming (360 persons) followed by distribution (70 persons) activities. The women groups were eventually registered as legal bodies in the form of cooperatives. Due to increasing fish feed prices as well as predatory competition from other players, none of the women groups could raise their funds to participate in growing tilapia fish at the aqua gardens. Subsequently, SBCL assisted the women cooperatives to apply for grants from the Zambian Government women’s empowerment schemes. However, upon receipts of the grants, the women groups opted to venture into what they considered to be less risky ventures that seemed to provide short and better returns, such as poultry farming and community-based banking.

Sruoy, a HUSK super farmer, with her long bean crop

Commercial viability

By end of 2022, the Cooperative had enlisted over 170 distributors in Siavonga, Lusaka and Kasumbalesa boarder post but could not satisfy their demand because of inadequate production and lack of continuity or sustained monthly harvests from the Aqua Garden to meet their demands. The low fish production volumes and harvest was compromising the commercial viability of the business. Even by this time, still no women groups participated in small scale fish farming on the garden due to perceived high risks through theft, high cost of production and price fluctuations for fish feed and fish selling price. Only six cages were operational at the Aqua Garden instead eight because of the increase in prices of fish cage manufacture against the budget. In turn cages seven and eight would be hired based on production circle and availability of operating capital. The same situation extended to fingerlings and fish feed procurement over the period.

The implementation phase of the project was also hampered by rise in inflation from 2021 to the final milestones in early 2023. The Cooperative had to handle the price variances/increments on inputs and remaining capital assets from its own resources were possible otherwise the deliverables had to be adjusted according to the planned budget.

Some of the lessons as why the Cooperative did not meet all its intended expectation is due to both internal and external factors. Internally, most of the members, especially from the women groups did not take ownership and avoided taking business risk to invest resources to run the cooperative. Another, learning is that of in adequate separation and sharing of different responsibilities among SBCL management for instance the Managing Director would be actively involved in day-to-day operations whilst other members would not but mainly show interest during fish harvest period. One other challenge that the Cooperative faced was not having a fully integrated and dedicate team available on daily basis to tackle the different operational issues of running the Aqua Garden. Although company received support from IAP to integrate different systems and policies, there was still allow adaption and need for continuous coaching.

As part of IAP non-financial support, training was provided to the Cooperative and women groups in business skills and Safety Health and Environmental Quality as a way strengthening the cooperative.

Struggling with theft and competition

During the last quarter of 2022, Siavonga Breams experienced pilferage of fish on the aqua garden for the first time and the risk was addressed through holistic approach. The Cooperative suffered loss in production and ultimately sales. Some of the security measures that were put in place to prevent pilferage included hire of a pontoon which was stationed at the Aqua-garden during the harvest period, installation additional solar CCTV, installing mesh-wires on top of the cages and working with police to patrol the lake in the period towards harvest.

The coming of other players such as Chinese fish farms in Siavonga District aquaculture value chain has brought both positive and negative experiences. Theft of fish from small scale fish farms has reduced as there is over supply of fish and perception now is that the criminals have drifted to the Chinese fish farms, where there is abundant fish and in numerable fish cages. The fish pilfered from these farms has flooded the black market and informal sector thereby reducing the incentive for thieves to continue taking the risk.

The Chinese investors entered the fish market with “predatory” pricing to kill off the competition.  Their farms were churning out tons of fish into the market daily at reduced prices, putting a number of small-scale fish farms out of business and it proved to be cheaper for the commercial fish farms to buy fish from the Chinese compared to producing their own.

However, with time, the Chinese model backfired on them because the massive production levels could not be swallowed by the market, resulting in their fish overstaying in cages and growing to sizes not preferred by the local market. With time, they could not sustain the reduced prices and started offering their products at a commercial rate like all other farms. The scale of small to medium size fish is also not overpopulated by Chinese fish, thereby opening a window for small scale fish farmers to compete favourably by supplying that size.

HUSK Super Farmer using biochar

Handling production, sales, and distribution challenges

The Cooperatives business plan was for stocking fingerlings/fish in a staggered fashion to allow for a continuous and sustained harvesting and supplying of fish to the market. However, to meet production levels within the budget and agreed milestones whilst considering the off-stocking season, stocking for the initial project cycles were lumped with a corresponding pattern on harvests. This created a challenge when it came to selling the fish – especially with the absence of cold chain facilities, the fish had to ultimately be sold off cheaply to clear the stock before it went bad. As end of December 2022 the cooperative was able to hit sales of Euro 42,316 against a total project cost of Euro 136,304 and with IAP contribution amounting to Euro 57,955 with balance of euro 78,349 being co-investment from the Cooperative.

More distributors were enlisted but not all could be served because some were seasonal marketeers whilst others would already have stock on the days SBCL was offloading its stock. In other instances, the distributors lacked the money or had ventured into other business undertakings that offered quick daily or weekly returns.

The journey

In terms of capital investment, before IAP, SBCL had four floating fish cages on site but had increased to six while investments were also made into CCTV security system, digital scales and holding containers. SBCL also made strides in the marketing and operational activities with the opening of a wholesale fish depot in Lusaka complete with a cold room and deep freezers.

SBCL’s social and commercial impact in the community of Siavonga was non-existent but through IAP, the project helped church women groups get registered as cooperatives and applied for Government sponsored women empowerment grants with 100% award. Before IAP, SBCL was supplying its fish onto the open market but by the end of 2022, the cooperative was marketing and selling its brand of fish “LITAPI”’ through small chain stores, community markets and other sales leads.

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