Isiolo County is normally dry, sometimes cruelly dry that only resilient plants, animals and reptiles survive.
The sun burns with vengeance making the black cotton soil crack. Dry twigs snap and break from the unforgiving heat.
But despite this harsh weather, farmers in the semi-arid area have taken up fish farming.
“Since I was born 32 years ago, I had never known fish to be a delicacy for any of the pastoralist communities in the region,” says Sylvester Kinyori, who operates a fish kiosk in Isiolo town.
“But the last four years have seen farmers keep fish, enabling our business to thrive.”
Fish are aquatic animals that only survive where there is enough water, which is scarce in places like Isiolo.
But farmers are keeping the fish in home-made water ponds made from pond liners to hold surface run off when it rains and prevent it from percolating into the soil.
At Kinyori’s kiosk situated opposite Isiolo Boys High School, and a stone throw away from Isiolo town, customers queue outside the window to buy fish fillets, known in the region as fish sticks.
To prepare the fish sticks, catfish – the favourite species - fillets are dipped in wheat flour and later immersed in crumbled eggs.
The mixture is then fried in a pan over medium heat on each side for not more than three minutes.
Kinyori makes an average profit of Sh40,000 a month from the business. He buys the fish from farmers like John Njiru.
NEW SOURCE OF LIVELIHOOD
Njiru, who farms in Mashamba village in the drought-stricken Mbeere South sub-county, has constructed three water ponds, one for catfish mixed with tilapia of both sexes, another for only male tilapia, and the last one is the main source of water for irrigation.
“Catfish adapts well in this hot climate, thereby growing much faster than tilapia, so long as they are given proper care,” says Njiru of the fishing technology that he learned from ActionAid International.
Naturally, catfish are not just carnivores, they are opportunists and will eat anything available, including vegetables growing faster than tilapia if they get enough proteins.
Njiru mixes the catfish with tilapia, the latter providing the much-needed protein.
“The catfish feeds on the tilapia getting food and at the same helping to check on pond population as tilapia is a prolific breeder.”
Rise in fish farming has upped demand for catfish fingerlings leading to breeders.
Rhoda Mwende from Kanyonga village in Makima Division of Mbeere South sub-county is among farmers breeding catfish fingerlings. “This is my new source of livelihood,” said the single mother of three children.
Some months ago, she sold 40,000 catfish fingerlings to local farmers at Sh10 each and she has an order for more than 80,000 fingerlings as it has rained in the area recently filling the water ponds.
On her 1.5 acres, Mwende has a small pond for the parent stock where mature male and female fish are kept. She also has a ‘theatre room’ where fertilisation of the eggs is done manually and an incubator where breeding is done.
CHANGING LIVES IN SEMI-ARID AREAS
The winning chamber is used for hardening fingerlings so that they can grow to the right size that can be taken by farmers.
She has mastered the entire process from injecting the female fish with some hormones to stimulate production of eggs, harvesting eggs and semen and fertilising the two.
Mwende acquired the knowledge from exchange visits with other fingerling producers in the country.
Jamick Mutie, the ActionAid project officer in Isiolo, said that fish farming is changing lives in the semi-arid areas.
“We are happy that the farmers have come up with innovative ideas to add value to their produce.”
Njue Njangungi, the agricultural extension officer for Kyome Thaana Ward in Kitui, said while the water ponds are serving the farmers well, it can be disastrous if it fails to rain for long, making the ponds to dry.
Once the water is overused, it is used for irrigation, and the farmer will wait for more rain to introduce new fingerlings.
“To the very extreme, rainfall sometimes fails for more than three years, and in such a case, fish farmers may suffer much because they basically depend on surface run-off water to fill their dams whenever it rains,” he said.