As drought ravages northern Kenya and the rest of the country’s food security is threatened by the escalating cost of living, two scientists are burning the midnight oil, transforming agriculture.
At the Sagana-based National Aquaculture Research Development Training Centre, the talk all day long is fish, fish and nothing but fish.
Welcome to the world of Dr Harrison Charo-Karisa, the man who heads the institution, and Dr Jonathan Munguti, his deputy.
Much of this training is on-farm, with the objective of having multiplier effects since those trained pass new skills to other farmers.
At the Sagana station itself, training is carried out all the time, with more than 1,000 fish farmers trained there so far.
Other farmers have been trained in their own districts in places such as Kakamega, Taita, Kitui and Bungoma.
The rapidly growing numbers of fish farmers is deemed as a sign of the economic potential of the sector, which seems set to become critical in Kenya’s economy.
PhD holders from different European universities, they teach, guide farmers, supervise graduate students from around the world, and travel around Kenya and in neighbouring countries promoting fish farming.
The energetic and extremely focused young men – neither of them is in his 40s yet – are the only two aquaculture specialists in Kenya.
The world of fish is also their world, and their CVs are overflowing with the numerous honours they have been awarded by institutions across the globe.
It is little wonder, then, that the duo go about their jobs with a passion, criss-crossing the country as they carry out fieldwork research and advise farmers on the best practices in fish farming.
Apart from the fact that the two scientists and the specialists working under them, who include eight research officers trained to at least Masters level, six other senior fisheries officers specialising in extension work, have been training farmers on feed production both inside Kenya and in other countries including Ethiopia, Uganda, Tanzania, and Rwanda.
The team has carried out intensive research on feeds, in addition to producing pedigree fingerlings for sale to farmers and conducting two-week induction courses at the centre for those aspiring to go into fish farming.
While Dr Karisa is a specialist in the genetics and breeding of fish, the subject of his PhD, which was awarded by the Wagennigen University in the Netherlands in 2006, Dr Munguti is a specialist in aquatic nutrition, a field that fascinates him up to this day, and which he discusses with much excitement.
Dr Munguti was awarded his PhD by the University of Natural Resources and Applied Life Sciences in Vienna, Austria, where he studied between 2004 and 2007.
He had earlier been awarded an MSc degree in Environmental Science and Technology by IHE, a top institution in the Netherlands.
Between 1995 and 1999, he studied for a Bachelor of Education degree (Zoology/chemistry) degree at Moi University, Eldoret.
Dr Charo-Karisa, who attended Mang’u High School for his secondary school studies, was awarded his MSc degree in 2001 by the Swedish University of Agricultural Science, based in Uppsala, after obtaining his BSc from the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology.
He did his doctoral research in Abu Hamad, Egypt, focusing on the Nile tilapia.
The top scientists’ jobs involve continuous laboratory and in situ research into issues relating to fish farmers’ problems, and how the sector can be improved in Kenya.
The two are considered authorities on fish farming in Africa.
Discussing the merits of fish farming, Dr Munguti explained that returns from it are way above those from terrestrial farming.
“This is because fish only live in water, but do not use it, so fish farming is not adversely affected by drought,” he said during a recent interview. “The nutritional value of fish is also tremendous, and we are looking forward to seeing more Kenyans migrate from consuming red meat to eating fish, which have white meat and are, therefore, healthier.”
They also believe fish is the answer to Kenya’s elusive food security.
Due to that recognition, the two are regularly invited to present papers at top aquaculture forums around the world.
Some of their research findings have been published in a 99-page book titled A Fish Farmer’s Manual for Beginners, Students and Hatchery Managers.
Published by the Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute, KMFRI, the book had an initial print run of only 1,000 copies.
“There has been a rising demand for copies among stakeholders in the fish farming sector, and the thin but extremely informative volume seems set to become the bible of every fish farmer in Kenya and elsewhere in Africa,” offered Dr Charo-Karisa.
A beneficiary of the scientists’ efforts is Mr Josephat Murimi Karima, who deep inside Kariru sub-location in Kirinyaga County’s Gichugu constituency, is hard at work tending to his modest agricultural holding.
A trained primary school teacher, he teaches at Mburi Primary School in nearby Ngariama.
Agriculture is his real passion, however, and he is the epitome of the accomplished mixed farmer, keenly sticking to the guidelines given to him by specialists regarding integrated farming.
It is the principles of integrated farming that have led him to embark on a fish farming project in which he rears mud fish from prime fingerlings obtained all the way from the Animal Health Training Institute in Kabete, Nairobi (AHITI).
“I paid seven shillings each for the 1,200 fingerlings and I have also invested heavily through the purchase of feeds for the fish, which come in the form of a combination of six or seven 50kg bags that cost Sh8,500 at a time,” he says.
To meet this and other costs, Karima carries out horticultural farming, having long ago cut down the coffee bushes he used to grow.
He replaced them with napier grass, French beans, courgettes and tomatoes, which he grows using project water, while occasionally pumping it from the sparkling Kamweti River down the slope whenever necessary.
“This way I kill two birds using one stone,” he says.
His horticultural produce brings in reasonable returns and complements his fish farming undertakings.
Still, he is looking forward to a rich harvest of mudfish in seven months’ time, and already has a ready market for his mudfish, which he sells to an itinerant trader at Sh220 per kilo.
He knows he could fetch more if he had access to the markets, but is not complaining yet.
Healthier white meat
Regarding the increasing consumption of fish in traditionally non-fish-eating areas, the scientists attribute it to the desire of people to move from red meat to the healthier white meat option provided by fish.
As a result, they say, eating fish has in recent times become very popular in places such as Kerugoya in Kirinyaga County, among other places in the country and in the region.
As for the economic benefits of fish farming, Dr Munguti says they are enormous, and points out that the returns from it are considerably higher than those from terrestrial farming.
It is because of this that the two top scientists have been mandated by the Ministry of Fisheries Development to promote feed production in the country.
The consumption of fish is also becoming popular, even as specialists in aquaculture educate local farmers on how to maximise production.