Mt Kenya Forest is vast, stretching yonder and seemingly touching the sky when one looks at it from far.
No doubt it is one of the most important natural resources in central Kenya as it is the source of many rivers and streams that crisscross the agriculturally rich region.
It is in this dense, cold forest that a group of youth are keeping trout fish in a thriving venture that has seen them supply their produce to the government.
The weather is cold and the ground wet as we venture into Kabaru forest, part of the expansive Mt Kenya forest, through Kimahuri village to meet members of the Jitunze Fish Group.
About 100m into the forest, we meet Stephen Mburu, an employee.
“Our fish farm is a few metres away,” says Mburu as he leads us to the ponds.
At the site, we meet Robert Wambugu, the leader and managing director of the group.
He is clad in a white coat and he is holding a fishing net in his right hand.
Theirs is a modern trout fish farm consisting of a hatchery with a capacity to produce 1.5 million eggs a year from a breeding stock of 2,200 fish.
“We have 18 cemented fish ponds each measuring over 9m wide and a metre deep,” says Wambugu.
They get their pond water from the nearby Thegu stream that runs through the forest.
“The water first enters a tank, which we have on the farm. Then it is pumped into the fish ponds and the hatcheries,” he explains.
All the fish ponds have an underground outlet that takes the water back to the stream as trout fish requires a lot of oxygen, which can only be available in the pond when water runs in and out.
Once the breeding stock lays eggs, they are extracted gently by pressing their abdomen from the pectoral fin towards the genital papilla.
“The eggs are then put in a container and fertilised using semen also extracted from the male fish. Each female fish has a capacity to produce 5,000 eggs at a go.”
Like catfish, trout fish does not reproduce on its own especially when in ponds, according to Wambugu, a 2002 graduate of horticulture from Maseno University.
Once the eggs are fertilised, they transfer them to the hatchery made of wooden structures measuring about 0.5m squared.
The eggs are covered in the hatcheries using an iron sheet and they hatch from 22 to 28 days.
“The iron sheet helps to provide a dark environment and warmth. Trout fish hides their eggs in dark caves for hatching to take place. These are the conditions we provide.”
After hatching, the fingerlings are transferred to rectangular trays, which are also covered.
They will be uncovered after two weeks, when feeding using commercial trout feeds starts and continues for a month.
The fingerlings are later fed with growers’ fish meal in separate trays.
“After three to four months they attain three inches and will be ready for sale.”
The farm sells the fingerling depending on their sizes. A fingerling measuring an inch goes for Sh15, three inches Sh45 while mature fish goes for Sh500 per kilo.
Before selling, they select the best fingerlings depending on shape and body size, which they rear to maturity for breeding purposes.
Wambugu says they conceived the idea in 2004. Then, they were a group of 74 fresh graduates but currently the group consists of 26 members. It took them four years to contribute enough capital to register the outfit, apply for licences from the Kenya Forest Service, National Environment Management Authority, Water Resource Management Authority and Fisheries Department
The 26 members dedicatedly raised Sh405 a month for four years to end up with Sh505,440 capital.
They used the cash to dig three ponds, cement them, construct a small hatchery, buy water pipes and procure a stock of 500 fish from the government trout farm in Nyeri.
The government offered them several trainings on rearing the fish and they received sponsorship from the Danish and Swedish governments and the Community Development Trust Fund.
Through the aid they were able to construct the modern hatchery and ponds they have today.
While they sell mature fish to hotels in Nairobi, their main business has been selling trout fish fingerlings to the government’s National Trout Fish Farm Kiganjo, also located in Kabaru forest. The farm is about 9km from theirs.
“About 60 per cent of our fingerlings we sell to sport fish clubs, 30 per cent to the government who also help us in marketing them to organisations while 10 per cent we sell to other farmers,” he said.
Since January, the group says it has made Sh6.8 million from selling fingerlings, Sh300,000 more than what they sold the entire last year.
When they run out of eggs, they import them from Denmark, South Africa, Britain and America where trout fish farming is mostly practised through the help of the government. Each egg goes for Sh5.
The farm has become a major tourist attraction as it receives an average of 2,500 visitors yearly that include students, researchers and international visitors referred to them by NGOs that have been funding them.
They have started training farmers, supplying them with fingerlings and later helping them harvest at a fee.
For trout fish to thrive, Wambugu says they ensure both the water in the hatchery and in the ponds is below 13 degrees Celsius.
“We achieve this by planting over 1,000 trees in the forest surrounding the farm every year as agreed by the water and forest sector regulators,” says Wambugu, adding they clean the ponds monthly.
Trout does well in cold and uncontaminated water which is mostly found in mountain forests. Kabaru forest on the slopes of Mt Kenya offers the required 12 to 15 degrees Celsius temperatures.
Milkah Githui, the groups’ vice-chairperson, says the fish project has enabled them to start other businesses and to advance their education. They elect new leaders every year and meet every month to plan how to run the daily activities.
All members of the group meet two times a year, in June and in December when they also share dividends.
Their biggest challenge is competition for water with farmers who use it for irrigation. However, by planting trees yearly, they reduce the chances of the nearby Thegu stream, where they get water, from drying.
“Getting trout fish formulation, comprising of all nutrients such as proteins, vitamins, carbohydrates and fats is also a challenge because of the high cost of feeds,” says Githui.
Dr Joyce Maina of University of Nairobi, Department of Fisheries, says trout fish should be kept in very low temperatures of below 15 degrees Celsius making the slopes on Mt Kenya the best place to keep them.
“The fish also requires running water to ensure there is enough supply of oxygen.”
ponds should have plenty of oxygen
Regardless of the fish species, low dissolved oxygen lowers their activity particularly feeding. Low dissolved oxygen can arise when the water temperature decreases or there is invasion by algal bloom.
Stocking density of a fish pond depends on fish species and pond productivity.
However, in extensively managed earthen ponds, a stocking rate of about one to two fingerings per m2 is recommended in the case of tilapia.
“The fish also requires running water to ensure there is enough supply of oxygen,”