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July 29, 2008

High fish demand in DRCongo creates aquaculture opportunities

Give a woman a fish, she will eat for a day. Teach a woman to grow her own fish, and she may soon have so many that theft becomes a problem.

The issue of thieves stalking the handful of fish farms coming back to life in the Congo speaks volumes about the sheer demand for fish as an essential source of protein in the former Belgian colony.

Yet the problem is relative – and containable. Here in Kipushi, near the headwaters of the mighty Congo River, the tidy series of rearing ponds dug and now run by 150 women – mostly widows, resettled refugees and former combatants of the Congolese civil war – lie an inconvenient 30 kilometres from the hungry city of Lubumbashi. Hence, no thieves here, and the women are making a tidy, sustainable profit on the delicious and nourishing 600-gram tilapia they raise from fry, selling their stock to local villagers.

A different story is told in the vast, lush market garden of Quartier Congo on Lubumbashi's outskirts, where so many fish were stolen that the seven farm associations representing smallholders simply abandoned their aquaculture ponds, deciding instead to concentrate on the thriving vegetable beds that have doubled farm incomes in the past four years, lifting the neighbourhood just above the poverty line.

Location, location, location, therefore, will be a crucial factor in whether fish farming will make a splash as part of a green revolution Congolese agronomists hope to bring to the war-torn central African country.

It matters because the Congo, like all of sub-Saharan Africa, is crazy for fish. Last February alone, the eastern province of Katanga imported 2,250 tonnes, mostly dried, smoked or salt-cured.

Perversely, some of that imported fish actually originates in Congo: it's netted in Lake Tanganyika and then shipped to Zambia before coming back through the borders at the bustling border city of Lubumbashi. The circuitous route says much about the state of Congolese infrastructure, where a simple 100-kilometre journey can take up to seven hours on roads barely worthy of the name.

The need for the Congo to more than dabble in fish farming is all the more acute, given doubts about the long-term viability of Lake Tanganyika's fishery. It was all but destroyed during the Congolese war, but now nearly 1,200 fishers are back on the lake, thanks to a UN Food and Agriculture Organization program that has replaced stolen nets and tackle. Some are line-fishing with dugout canoes; others are working in two-boat teams by lamplight to net bigger hauls overnight. Anecdotally, some say the stocks are not what they used to be.

The books of one of the seven fishing co-ops show a haul of 257 tonnes in 1993 dropping to 3.24 tonnes in 2003, a figure doubtlessly impacted by war, which saw some fishers drown in a bid to flee to neighbouring Tanzania.

Today, nobody knows the stock levels, says Adelard Mambo, 43, president of Kalemie's MPK fishing association. "There is no state regulation, no enforcement. We fish freely, yet we are seeing fewer fish."

Despite its lofty title, the provincial Centre for Aquaculture Research at Lubumbashi is actually just a small cluster of ponds tucked behind a tiger enclosure at the city zoo. There, head researcher Jules Lwamba leads a team of three working to supply the region's rearing ponds with the best possible local stock, focusing on tilapia and several variations of African catfish.

"We would like to follow the path of Asia, where they successfully combine rice paddies with fishing in dual-use projects," says Lwamba. "But we are so far behind. Before the war we had 8,000 fishponds, but at least half were abandoned. The goal of this centre is to restore them all and then keep going."

The problem is not demand, nor even technology. It is simply a question of building up capacity to help people help themselves – arguably the most common refrain heard today in eastern Congo.

"Everyone here wants fish," notes Lwamba. "We have to guard this place by night, otherwise people would steal them."

The Star

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