Why Chinese fish will continue to land on Kisumu tables

What you need to know:

  • Chinese fish on Kisumu tables is a great wake up call for policy makers to start fish farming more aggressively than in the past.
  • Yet if Lake Victoria were placed in America and filled with tilapia, its distribution would rival the salmon in availability and as a global delicacy. 
  • Leadership at every level should often have state of environment speeches, and possibly have one day dedicated to the environment. 

News about the presence of Chinese fish in Kisumu seems to have caught many people by surprise. 

Without any basis, leaders reacted angrily and condemned imported fish as not fit for consumption.   

The truth of the matter, as Rowena Ryan says on News.com.au, is that Africa’s biggest lake is on the verge of dying and is no longer producing the amount of fish it used to.

The problem, as stated by Ryan, is that the breeding grounds for fish are being destroyed by pollution and illegal fishing methods such as the use of gillnets (vertical panels of netting), beach seines (nets deployed from the shore) and plastic fishing lines, that capture pretty much anything.

These fishing methods have depleted the lake’s waters.

Another investigative article by one Tim McDonnel states that one of the world's biggest lakes is dying and we're to blame. It blames global warming, in addition to pollution and overfishing. On environmental matters we are largely reckless. 

Political statements of protectionism will never resolve the problems those who depend on the lake will face in the days to come. 

Chinese fish on Kisumu tables is a great wake-up call for policy makers to start fish farming more aggressively than in the past.

Numerous other articles have been written locally and internationally but our response to the emerging crisis has been mute. 


I have recently taken to preaching in this column, so let me do it one more time.

God gave us dominion over every living thing (Genesis 1:26–28). But we have used the wisdom He gave to curve out national boundaries that we should not use as an excuse to exterminate God-given resources. 

Dominion did not mean destruction or domination. It simply meant that we live in this world sustainably. All evidence indicates that we have largely failed. We live as though we are the last species on earth.

We as Africans risk being chased away from the kingdom of heaven because we have failed to sustainably multiply the resources that God gave to us (the parable of the talent). Indeed we have not done much with what He gave us.

The Western world, and the Chinese too, will be rewarded for creating more wealth that they share or make available to those who are sleeping or busy propagating political innuendos in what is clearly a commercial issue. 

In the parable above, God never put any physical boundaries and so the Chinese or the Western world sees no boundaries in business as we often do.


When we put imaginary physical boundaries in trade, we fail. When Facebook was developed, the target market was the seven billion people living on earth, perhaps guided by Adam Smith’s invisible hand. 

Truly, we need to develop expansive commercial fish farming to feed the seven billion people on earth and effectively compete with the Chinese.   

This is the Chinese mindset, perhaps emanating from Sun Tzu’s The Art of War

The Swahili saying Dawa ya moto ni moto (the medicine for fire is fire) should guide us as to what our response to Chinese fish in Kisumu should be. 

We have an advantage of the labour dividend as well as many unpolluted rivers. We receive good rains and can harvest water in most regions of the country.

We should aspire to feed the entire world and not just protect the little we consume. 

Even when East African countries had plenty of tilapia, it was never marketed properly. Our production methods are poor, with some sixty thousand boats out fishing every night. 

This peasant approach to fishing in an increasingly commercialised world, makes Kenyan fish too expensive to compete.


Even if Lake Victoria is restocked, it will mostly be for consumption largely because we never think there is a market beyond Kenya and Europe. Our annual consumption stands at 800,000 tons yet we only produce about 400,000 tons.

Yet if Lake Victoria were placed in America and filled with tilapia, its distribution would rival the salmon in availability and as a global delicacy. 

Indeed, if githeri were to be popular in America as it is in Kenya, there would be a chain restaurant called something like John’s Fried Githeri offering creative cuisine around traditional githeri.

It would probably be marketed as the ultimate in healthy, natural eating.

We do not aggressively market the resources we have especially when we can ride on athletics. 

We just have our talent in the pocket. In the end we turn it exactly as it was when God gave it to us yet opportunities keep on knocking on our doors.

India’s Prime Minister Nahendra Modi is knocking on Kenya’s doors. The trade balance between Kenya and India heavily favours India. 

We import automobiles, pharmaceuticals and other machinery worth more than $2.5 billion every year. 

Kenya is India’s sixth largest trading partner. We export mostly primary commodities such as soda ash, vegetables and tea for less than $200 million. 

India’s neighbour Pakistan is our largest tea customer. They do not import our tea unless we purchase their rice. Should we not negotiate practical ways of reducing the trade imbalances just like Pakistanis do?


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, during his recent visit, said that Kenya has an opportunity to increase her GDP by 40 times as Israel has done. 

Israel is a technology powerhouse. It has managed to improve agricultural productivity to unimaginable levels. If Kenya combined Israeli technology and her abundant land resources, Kenya would perhaps become an agricultural powerhouse. 

With increasing pressure on Europe to lower emission levels, by growing less food during winter, the market for produce in Europe will only get better.

We can sort out matters of trade and productivity but if we do not deal with environmental issues, we are doomed to fail. 

Climate change is noticeable even today with the uncharacteristically cold weather. There is a greater need, therefore, to develop mechanisms to trigger serious discussions on matters affecting the country. 

The environment, which we have failed to conserve, remains the greatest concern because it will easily become our downfall. 

The question is how citizens will become motivated to discuss environment issues. One way is to incorporate it more intensely into the school curricula. 

Leadership at every level should have State of the Environment speeches often, and possibly have one day dedicated to the environment. 

Without such effort, many will wake up to a realisation that some of the actions taken have an irreversible devastating effect. 

We must leverage the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to sustainably create the necessary environmental awareness. 

The environment is, after all, a matter of collective responsibility and we need to avoid denial, given that it is pretty obvious that things are headed in the wrong direction. 

Having Chinese fish in local supermarkets should act as a wake-up call to invest in fish farming and take advantage of the growing market.

We must ask ourselves why fish farmed more than 6,000km away is cheaper than locally available fish in the lake next door.

Helen Clark, the UNDP Administrator once said: “Adopting and promoting sustainable production practices require concerted effort, something which in practice is too often missing or insufficient. Making this shift at the scale required demands forward-looking leadership in the public and private sectors alike.”

Let us embrace sustainable production practices as a strategy for sustainable development.

The writer is an associate professor at University of Nairobi’s School of Business. Twitter: @bantigito


You're all set to enjoy unlimited Prime content.