The dry spell that troubled Kenya for the past few years has shaken the country’s rural food systems. But Japheth Nthiga, a farmer from Karethani village in central Kenya, has been netting some comforts during the difficult stretch.
That’s because Nthiga has converted part of his land to fish ponds, and while the rest of his farm supports livestock and food crops — green grams (mung beans), sorghum, millet and corn — it’s the liquid half-acre that has kept him smiling since 2013.
“The fish I farm here are for local consumption. I also earn some good income when I sell the catch at the local market. I do not feel worried when my food crops fail to produce a harvest,” said the 51-year-old father of five, who farms tilapia and catfish.
It’s easy to understand Nthiga’s sense of fulfilment. His village, which sits about 150 kilometres (90 miles) from the edge of Mount Kenya Forest, has been wracked by prolonged and repeated droughts for most of the past decade.
To navigate the dry spells, farmers, especially those from upstream communities, have intensified their use of synthetic fertilizers to boost crop yields, leading to pollution of rivers and loss of soil nutrients in the region, according to Venter Mwongera, the communications and advocacy coordinator at the nonprofit African Biodiversity Network.
As a result, rural food systems are facing threats of declining yields, Mwongera said.
“Agrochemicals are poisoning Africa’s food systems, but few farmers are aware they are importing this problem from richer continents. Adopting agroecology for food sovereignty is the continent’s last defence against this threat,” she said.
Agroecology is a term for systems that increase agricultural yields while reducing environmental degradation through practices like organic farming. Onshore fish farming can be one such practice.
This is because it doesn’t require the application of harmful agrochemicals like synthetic fertilizers. All that one needs is a reliable water supply and passion, Mwongera told Mongabay.
Nthiga’s two well-maintained fish ponds keep visitors streaming into his compound. Some come to learn the art of fish farming, including students from the region working on their research projects. Others come to buy fish directly from the source, while others settle in for a meal of freshly cooked fish served at his home, he said.
“There isn’t a moment I am not busy since I began my fish farming project. I am happy that I am inspiring other farmers to invest in this promising livelihood,” he said, adding that there are now six fish farmers in his village who followed his lead, while the larger Gatunga region has more than 300.
There are no official records on how many Kenyans practice small-scale fish farming in the country. But by the end of 2022, nine counties had already invested in supporting it, according to Micheni Ntiba, former principal secretary of the national fisheries department.
Nthiga is from one of these counties, and one of the first to personally invest in fish farming, proving that most of Kenya is suitable for onshore fish farming, just as Ntiba had said during a 2022 public meeting with farmers in central Kenya.
Nthiga harvests rainwater from a roof collection system to fill the ponds, which are lined with polyethene to prevent water loss. Nthiga also receives water supplies from the village’s irrigation project.
John Macharia, the national coordinator of the Schools and Colleges Permaculture Programme (SCOPE-Kenya), said onshore fish farming in Kenya is supported by permaculture, an agriculture system that taps nature to do regenerative farming based on crop diversity, resilience, natural productivity and sustainability.
For instance, he said, the system relies on water harvesting to service the fish farms. It also taps into agroforestry to provide shade for the ponds and serve dinner to the fish when some of these trees drop edible leaves into the water.
Implementing agroforestry, which incorporates useful fruit, fodder and timber trees into agricultural systems, has been an easy feat for most smallholder farmers like Nthiga. But when it came to feeding the fish, things got a bit expensive.
This is because fish require a diet rich in proteins, an ingredient that is usually provided in the form of food pellets sold in rural retail shops stocking animal feed. Pellets are expensive for smallholder farmers (and unsustainable when made from wild offshore fish, squid and shrimp meal), but SCOPE-Kenya has taught farmers a few tricks to navigate that challenge.
“Some farmers recycle food leftovers from family meals and also use greens from their vegetable gardens to feed the fish. Others are growing algae within the ponds, which can serve as feed and oxygen booster for the fish,” Macharia said.
At Nthiga’s home, dinner for the fish is mostly sourced from his farm by collecting corn husks, cowpea pods, sunflower and cotton cake, as well as the blood drained from livestock slaughtered in local abattoirs.
He then cleans the plant ingredients and treats the animal blood with boiling water to kill bacteria and viruses, then blends them. After taking this mix to the local grinder for milling, he adds two drinking glasses of wheat flour or three glasses of cassava flour as a thickener, and some water to soften it
This produces a mixture that is then processed into thin rolls and spread out under a shade to dry. Once dried, Nthiga chops the rolls into fish pellets.
“I also feed the fish bread, rice and other kitchen leftovers. This way, I ensure there is no food waste at my home,” he said.
A working paper by the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (AFSA) said fish farming encourages agroforestry, too, by irrigating the trees, which in turn helps in preventing soil erosion and creating microclimates, among other benefits.
Million Belay, AFSA’s general coordinator, said if done properly, these nature-based agroforestry systems also create an environment attractive to honeybees, birds, wildlife and microorganisms.
All these creatures can sustainably support Africa’s food systems, which have recorded an overall reduction in food production capacity by 10-20%. At the same time, 13% of agricultural land has been lost due to climate change, he said.
“Agroecology can give Africa nutrition, health, [environmental] and biodiversity protection in addition to boosting food production. This is because the system is based on people’s knowledge and culture,” Belay said.
For permaculture systems like this to succeed, however, they must work with nature and not against it, as well as set sights on solutions and not problems, Macharia said.
Nthiga has applied these tips and is impressed by the results. Lately, he has seen new bird species nesting in his trees, while other wildlife like porcupines have begun returning to his village. And while the forestry on his farm provides him with fuelwood, fruits and herbs, the increased number of bees is boosting honey production in the hives that he keeps perched in the trees.
But the silver lining should not obscure the cloud: the success of his fish farming business has also attracted predators. African rock pythons stopping at the ponds to slake their thirst sometimes attack their livestock. Turtles, nocturnal birds and kingfishers also prey on his fish and can clean a whole pond of its stock. But the worst of all is water beetles, which sometimes swarm at the onset of the rains. The bugs feed on the insides of fingerlings, young fish 10-15 centimetres (4-6 inches) in length, leaving a floating mess of dead remains.
Because Kenya’s agriculture is mostly smallholder farming carried out on fields averaging just 0.2-3 hectares (0.5-7.4 acres), with most of the food produced for subsistence, there’s a great need to boost the food supply to meet demand: smallholder farmers account for about 70% of total agricultural production, meeting only about 75% of the national food demand.
Can fish ponds provide part of the answer to this gap?
“There is much more farmers like me can do to boost food and nutrition security in Kenya. But we need support in terms of good fingerlings and breeding sites near our farms,” said Nthiga, who plans to build his fingerling breeding site in the next five years.