Trust Proscovia Alando’s tongue, which has its origins in the shores of Lake Victoria, to tell you when a fish is sub-par. She will judge it by the taste and the texture and it won’t take long before the verdict is out.
There is another reason you should trust her opinion about a fish: she is trained in fish rearing up to master’s level.
With a degree in aquatic science from Egerton University (2017) and a master’s in sustainable aquaculture from the University of Stirling (2019) – and with her rural home in a fishing community in Asembo, Siaya County – Ms Alando knows a thing or two about fish.
“Substandard fish tastes like plastic or it doesn’t have any taste at all. For instance, there is a huge difference between tilapia that is correctly farmed and one that is just farmed to be mass-produced,” she tells Lifestyle, adding that what and how a fish eats determines its taste.
Ms Alando, 28, would not be discussing fish with us had she not taken a leap of faith while joining university five years ago. She chose a new course that most people close to her were unsure about. She remembers being asked: “Why can’t you do something related to law or business management?”
Had she wavered, perhaps she wouldn’t be having the kind of profile she has today: a co-founder of Ressect, a start-up that engages in production of larvae that fish and other animals can feed on; the founder of Samaky Hub, a firm that offers aquaculture consultancy to fish farmers; a fellow at the first ever African Food Fellowship programme; a recipient of a fully funded Commonwealth scholarship to study master’s in the UK between 2018 and 2019; a columnist with an international aquaculture magazine; among others.
“When I joined my undergraduate in Egerton University, I picked a course called Applied Aquatic Science. And I remember friends and relatives asking me: ‘With this course, what are you going to do?’ It was a new course; so no one really knew a lot about it,” says Ms Alando.
“But I was telling myself: ‘If it’s a new course that has been introduced, then it means there is a need for it.’ Some would even ask me, ‘Are you going to be a fisherman?’ They didn’t even say ‘fisherwoman,’” she laughs.
Almost a decade later, she says she is pleased with the decision she made.
“As much as it has been a difficult journey, I’m happy because it has led me where I am. As much as I’m not where I want to be yet, at least I’m not where I used to be. Most of the people who were questioning my choice are now realising how important it was because at the moment, there is a lot of conversation about the blue economy,” says Ms Alando.
Social entrepreneur. That is how she wants us to describe her. She was thrust into that field after her studies in the UK. She made many job applications with no returns, and the Covid-19 pandemic didn’t help matters.
“As a frustrated, young, ambitious graduate feeling defeated in the job market, I started looking for ways to lower the cost of production for young entrepreneurs looking to establish a fish farm. My quest led me to Ressect,” she told The Fish Site in December 2021.
She tells Lifestyle: “I joined them and I eventually became one of the co-founders. At Ressect, we do insects to provide alternative protein for animal feed formulation.”
When we visit her at the Ressect farm where black soldier flies are reared, she is at home in a setting some would find abhorrent. Before she interacted with the insects for the first time, she watched a number of videos to mentally acquaint herself.
“As such, I was mentally prepared to touch them. So, when I went to the ground, it was easy to work with them and handle them,” she says.
They feed the insects on organic waste like fruits, vegetables, food processing waste, hotel leftovers, among others. The adult flies lay eggs that later move to the larva stage. A number of larvae are not allowed to grow to maturity, instead getting dried and packaged for clients.
“Our target market is pig farmers and poultry farmers,” says Ms Alando, who notes that it is possible to have a circular arrangement where waste is consumed by insects then fed to animals.
They prefer the black soldier flies because, unlike houseflies that also feed on decaying matter, the former is neither invasive nor aggressive.
“If it lands on your hand, it can just walk. You can hold it and put it somewhere else. It is not like the housefly that keeps running away. Also, black soldier flies are not pests. Mostly, you’ll not find them in human settlements or flying around the house,” she says.
The Ressect team hopes that the larvae production will help plug the protein gap in fish farming. If fish get enough protein, Ms Alando says, their quality improves.
“The most important (nutrient) for fish, because it’s a source of protein, is protein in the correct quantity,” she says, noting that there have been hitches in the supply of protein-rich fish feed.
“There was a time when feed millers would sell fish feed and they’d tell customers that it contained 25 or 26 per cent of protein. But when you do the test, you find that it’s 18 per cent protein. So, that’s going to impact the quality of the fish,” says Ms Alando.
She is one of four co-founders of Ressect. Two others are Kenyans with an interest in aquaculture while one is from Switzerland who is “mostly responsible for the financial aspect and also planning and expansion” as Ms Alando explains.
She handles the business development aspect of the start-up.
“At the moment, we are working at the African Food Fellowship to influence the agriculture policies to be sustainable and inclusive especially for women and youth. So, we are really vocal about policies, sustainability and inclusion,” says Ms Alando.
She has been raised in Nairobi along Ngong Road but she often travels upcountry. On most such trips when she was younger, they would go fishing in Lake Victoria.
“We have boats, and we would go fish ourselves; get fish straight from the lake,” she recalls. “My relatives engage in fishing as a side gig.”
She adds: “So, growing up, I’ve eaten a lot of fish since I was a child.”
Training and consultancy
To help fish farmers meet the required standards of production, Ms Alando started Samaky Hub.
“What we do with Samaky Hub is training and consultancy on aquaculture production, especially for small-scale fish farmers,” says Ms Alando.
“We started this way back during my undergraduate studies. We formed a youth group working with the government to train farmers around Nakuru County on aquaculture management practices,” she adds.
Whenever she visits fish farms, she tries to educate practitioners about common misconceptions on fish.
“Most farmers don’t know that when you are feeding fish, it’s not like poultry that you just give food and go then come back to see if they’ve eaten,” she says. “Tilapia, for instance, feed on things that float. So, once the food has sunk, they can’t go down to feed. And when the food sinks, it’s going to pollute the water and the quality is going to be compromised.”
She looks forward to a day when fish farmers will know how to profitably farm the animal and how to make the various by-products as an alternative to selling them whole.
“When a farmer adds value, maybe by smoking it or making fillets or making products like fish sausage, fish samosa or fish cake, it can really multiply their earnings. It also saves on the cost because when you add value, you gain more from it instead of selling it live or just killing the fish and selling to people,” says Ms Alando.
Her work is being noticed by a number of entities. Earlier this year, Smaky Hub was shortlisted in the Total Energies Startupper Challenge of the Year.
And in June 2021, Ressect was shortlisted for the Food Systems Game Changers Lab – an initiative by the Rockefeller Foundation and other stakeholders – as one of the enterprises with the potential to transform food systems.
And beginning earlier this year, she has been a columnist with The Fish Site, which she describes as “one of the highest ranked international online magazines on aquaculture”.
Ms Alando’s parting shot to the youth is that they should not despise agriculture.
“As one of my friends says, ‘Ukulima si ushamba.’ It’s a business and it’s also an opportunity to give back to the community because it involves a lot; like you can do so much more when farming than when you’re employed,” says Ms Alando.
“They can try farming in their homes and see how it goes. It’s a really good thing to look into; don’t wish it away and run for a white-collar job. You might be surprised that a farmer earns more than a person in a white-collar job,” says Ms Alando.