Some 300 metres past Kambi ya Juu Catholic Church in Isiolo, you will find a semi-arid rocky area with black cotton soil, which hosts dozens of real estate projects.
It is here that Robert Mugambi keeps fish in eight ponds at his one-acre homestead, which also hosts a 5,000 litres water tank and a stone house.
“I have named my farm Ecotek,” says Mugambi, whose farm is near Isiolo River.
He went into farming last year, after writing a proposal and getting funding from Livestock Market System, a programme supported by USAID.
“I used the cash to excavate the huge rocks on my farm and dig the ponds. Initially, I had estimated this would cost Sh5 million but it rose to Sh7 million. The Isiolo county government also supported me with Sh1.5 million,” says Mugambi, 37, a natural resources management graduate.
Getting all the requisite documents, including authorisation for water abstraction from the adjacent river, cost him Sh500,000.
“I had to set up the infrastructure in phases. I established the ponds for mature fish and then hatcheries for fingerlings.”
Squared earthen ponds
He later populated the eight-metre squared earthen ponds with 1,000 tilapia fingerlings bought at Sh10 from a hatchery in Kirinyaga, but they all died due to fungal and bacterial infections.
Determined, he bought 550 catfish fingerlings but again lost nearly all, remaining with 25.
“But this did dampen my quest to be a fish farmer, I bought 2,200 more tilapia fingerlings but only 200 survived. I again bought 500 but only 300 survived,” he recounts.
But Mugambi has since learnt from his mistakes and got the business running. Six of his ponds host 5,000 fingerlings at various stages of growth.
“I am now wiser. Through local workshops and trainings, I have learnt some tricks such as adding lime and magadi soda to pond water to disinfect and increase salinity,” says the farmer, who is a member of the Aquaculture Association of Kenya.
Isiolo director of fisheries Felix Muthomi says warm water fish such as tilapia and African catfish thrive well in dry conditions like those in Isiolo, whose temperature ranges between 27 and 300C. “Growth of fish depends on temperatures, oxygen and feeds. The water must be saline as it helps curb diseases and farmers can add lime to increase the salinity but we recommend it done periodically,” says Muthomi.
The farmer says starting his own hatchery has helped him curb losses he incurred when buying fingerlings from other counties, where temperatures are lower.
Mugambi says demand for fish, whose kilo goes at Sh700 in the region, has increased.
“I have already sold a majority of the fish that survived when I was starting, I am happy with the progress.”
Mugambi, who intends to open a hotel on his farm, manages the business with his two wives, Ann Kendi and Rebecca Kendi, and employs at least 10 local youths to assist in the work.
“I have learnt at local workshops how to cook fish with just onions and tomatoes and using little oil. We are considering starting offering fish fingers, sausages and samosa.”
He is working on making his own fish feeds to cut costs since he sources fish feeds from Meru County, spending at least Sh15,000 a month.
The farmer pumps water from the fish ponds to his crop farm where he grows vegetables and tomatoes.
Mugambi is now happy that the about Sh12 million venture is paying off and hopes to become the leading supplier of fish in the Northern region.
“Youths must get the idea out of their minds and implement it. You just need a good and viable idea and not money,” he advises.