August 23, 2021

Rwanda, The ‘Fish-less’ Country?

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  • Rwanda’s per capita fish consumption is 2.3 kilograms, far below its neighbours Burundi (3.6 kilograms), Tanzania (8 kilograms) and Uganda (10 kilograms). The global average of 20.5 kilograms per capita.
  • Reason? Rwanda’s lakes and rivers are producing insufficient fish to satify the demand, despite a five-fold increase in annual fish production.
  • From a year-long investigation, The Chronicles reports that the physiography of Rwanda’s lakes (how they were ‘born’), the country’s unfavourable climate and other man-made factors, have prevented fish development.
  • We also uncovered details on the impact of imports, especially from China, on Rwanda’s fish industry.
  • From the experts we interviewed and research data reviewed, we propose what needs to be done to avail the much-needed fish.

It is mid-July 2020, early morning on the Rubavu shores of Lake Kivu, a deep-water lake shared with the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). A group of nine men had returned earlier with 5 kilograms of silverfish after spending the entire previous night on the lake.

As is standard practice, a team of nine from COPILAC (Coopérative des Pêcheurs de Isambaza du Lac Kivu) fishing cooperative, operates a combined fishery fleet of 3 small boats. They are tied together. They leave late evening and return the next morning. There are very few such groups, as part of official measures to avoid overfishing.

At the arrival site, there is a small makeshift fish market. Three silverfish, known in Rwanda as “Isambaza”, small as they are, cost Rwf 100 ($0.10).

Reluctant buyers and eager sellers all agree this is a very high price and a strange way of measurement. A kilogram of Isambaza contains between 90-100 fish, but we later learn that a kilo goes for a far higher price – between Rwf 2,000 and 3,500 ($3.5) –  in Kigali and other regions, depending on how good the season is.

Silver fish is a national delicacy in Rwanda and its neighbours, Burundi and DR Congo. But the meagre production at the Lake Kivu site is a small piece of a very complicated puzzle that we have attempted to break down in an investigation we have conducted since April 2020.

The small landlocked Rwanda, petit as it is, has 101 lakes spread in different regions. However, Lake Kivu, according to FAO, makes up 75 percent of the country’s lake water. In 2020, Lake Kivu accounted for 44.9 percent of total national fish production (16,194 tonnes out of  36,047 tonnes), as per agriculture ministry data.

The government’s own fish development strategy from 2011 showed that a Rwandan consumed an average of 1.5 kilograms of fish annually ten years ago, far below the sub-Saharan average of 6.7 kilograms and the global rate of 16.6 kilograms at the time.

The per capita fish consumption has since increased more than 50 percent, to 2.3 kilograms per capita in 2018, according to an independent study by the Netherlands-based Wageningen Centre for Development Innovation at the Wageningen University & Research. Still, consumption remains far below the global average of 20.5 kilograms per capita in 2018,  the sub-Saharan Africa average of 10 kilograms per capita as reported by the FAO in 2018, and even its neighbours Burundi (3.6 kilograms), Tanzania (8 kilograms) and Uganda (10 kilograms).

Traditionally, Rwandans do not eat much fish. But following the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi, at least 2 million people who had fled decades earlier returned from different countries like Burundi, Uganda, Tanzania and the United States, where many had been born. They brought a fish eating culture, which has slowly been adopted by other Rwandans. Fish is mainly eaten in urban areas, especially Kigali, and around lakes.

Fish production has been increasing at a relatively high rate in Rwanda, but still the fish produced are unable to meet the growing demand. In 2020, fish production reached 36,047 metric tonnes – an almost five-fold increase from 7,300 metric tonnes in 2001, according to statistics from the Ministry of Agriculture and Animal Resources and the National Institute of Statistics of Rwanda (NISR).

But the population has boomed even more, and the quantity of fish produced still remains far too low to satisfy this growing population.

In other words, Rwanda’s 13 million people, the most densely populated in the region, consume the smallest amount of fish. This, despite the country’s many lakes.

Map by Code for Africa

Why doesn’t Rwanda support fish? The answer is in the science

Based on a review of troves of documents, interviews with scientists who spent years studying Rwanda’s fish industry, breeders and importers, we found a complex web of factors that prevent Rwanda from having the fish it needs.

The impediments are topographic – the elevation of the country, physiographic – how the 24 major fishing lakes were formed millions of years back, and man-made factors that prevent fish from growing.

For decades, scientists and the government have all been grappling to find a fine balance that could increase fish production, and thereafter consumption. It is puzzling that a country with so many lakes and other water bodies, has a very negligible amount of fish.

According to the government’s 10-year fish development master plan designed in 2011, the national fish production at the time was meager.

The strategy paper read: “With the projected 16 million people by 2020, the country will need 112,000 tons of fish annually if the population is to catch up with the average fish consumption in Sub-Saharan Africa.”

With the country already in 2021, the Rwanda Agriculture and Animal Resources Development Board (RAB) data shows that by the end of 2019, the country had 1,087 fish ponds – mostly run by cooperatives.

With the plans in place, the government hopes fish production, combining natural and artificial fishing, will reach at least 45,000 tons in 2021, according to the agriculture ministry projections issued in January 2021[5] . But still, this will be far too low to fill the needs gap.

What is wrong with Rwanda and fish?

In the wee hours of July 1, 2021, employees of commercial fish farmer Themistocles Munyangeyo arrived at their landing site on Lake Muhazi in eastern Rwanda. What they witnessed sent shockwaves across the nation. All the fish that they had been breeding for years in cages, and others naturally growing in the lake, had died. In total, more than 101 tonnes of dead fish had to be removed and placed on the landing site.

For more than two weeks, Munyangeyo locked himself in his home due to trauma. He had invested more than Rwf 270m ($271,000) in the fish cages. Now all of it was gone. Two days following the disaster on Lake Muhazi, the agriculture ministry issued a statement from a fact-finding mission, saying it had been caused by “depletion of dissolved Oxygen caused by water turnover.”

Different studies conducted since 1991 highlight overfishing as a major obstacle to sustainability of the fisheries industry in Rwanda. The study “Etude Sectorielle de la Pêche et al pisciculture au Rwanda,” 1991, noted excessive overfishing in Rwanda lakes, which is caused by too many fishermen, illegal fishing and use of destructive gears, according to the government’s 2011 master plan.

A 2008 French government-funded study attributed the collapsed fisheries in the Eastern Province lakes to Clarias gariepinus (African catfish) and the alien Protopterus aethiopicus (Imamba). This latter was ironically introduced by a government and donor supported project in 1985-87 to boost fisheries production.

As for fish farming, government and colonial archives show it started in Rwanda at the end of the 1940s during the monarch and the Belgian colonial administration.  In 1952 and 1954, the government constructed two main fingerling production centres at l’Ecole des Assistants Agricoles, Butare, in southern Rwanda, and the Kigembe Station in western Rwanda. It provided direct support to fish farmers including extension services, seed, and other inputs.

From the 1970s up to 1994, there were various UN and bilateral donor-funded projects for fish development. The Netherlands allocated nearly $6 million. The Canadians were also here. USAID financed another $52 million fish project between 1983-94. The Belgians, who were the colonial rulers of Rwanda, funded other projects as well.

However, according to Rwanda government’s own admission, a view shared by scientists, the common feature of these state interventions was always a boom during project times, followed by declined production and abandoning of the ponds at the expiry of the projects – clearly demonstrating lack of sustainability.

We traced one person who knows quite a volume on Rwanda’s fish troubles. American Dr. Karen L. Veverica led the USAID-funded National Fish Culture Project in Rwanda through Auburn University. She lived in Rwanda for more than 10 years as the Project’s Chief of Party doing everything fish, and is currently Director of the University’s E.W. Shell Fisheries Center Fisheries and Allied Aquacultures.

Veverica told us that before her team arrived, there had already been various other interventions to increase fish in Rwanda, and she needed to find a new approach. They looked at everything needed for fish to thrive, to try to answer: what is Rwanda missing in that ecosystem?

The team looked at a variety of issues including Rwanda’s climate, how Rwanda’s lakes were formed, and the culture of fish eating in Rwanda.

“When our faculty got the contract from USAID, Auburn University people were really skeptical because there were too many factors working against the success of the project,” explained Dr Veverica. “The factors were, as I described in the [1996] research: It’s a cool climate relative to other countries; the water is mostly wetlands or valley-bottoms, typically not a good place for aquaculture; the people don’t eat fish – they’re not fish eaters by their history. Extension was also going to be really difficult because people were dispersed so much, they weren’t really in villages.”

Climate – The entire country is at a high altitude, meaning it is above many other regional neighbors. The country’s topography is hilly and mountainous with an altitude averaging 1,700 meters. The highest point on Mount Karisimbi is 4,507 meters above sea level. Even though Rwanda is entirely situated within the equatorial zone, it enjoys a moderate tropical climate due to its high altitude, with average annual temperatures of 20°C, which is low and not favourable for most fish species to grow naturally.

According to RAB records[6]  as of March 2020, the climate around the different lake systems inside the country is also different because they are at different elevations. This determines how cold or warm the water becomes. While Kivu is 24°C, Lake Ruhondo is between 22-23°C and L. Burera between 21-22°C. Burera is about 150 meters above Ruhondo. Rwanda’s water temperatures range up to 30°C.

It is however important to note that different fish species have different climatic needs. The FAO has put together global estimates for various species.

“The low temperatures [for Rwanda] mean the growth rates for fish are slower,” says Dr. Veverica.

According to the Auburn University study, Rwanda’s unusual temperatures make it “not the ideal place to do fish farming” because all the country’s waters are “generally too cold for the warm water species – their optimum temps are 30°C, and too warm for the cold water species like trout, where water temperatures should be 18°C and lower. A separate project by the FAO once tried to introduce trout fish into the river streams in Nyungwe Forest.

Dr. Veverica explains: “So the growth rate for the Nile Tilapia that you have in Rwanda is much slower than what it is on fish farms in Uganda. Even Uganda’s climate isn’t that ideal… But, Rwanda has a lot of other advantages, as they call it the country of eternal springtime. You guys have great weather. In fact, I’m sitting outside my house right now in Alabama and the weather is just like Rwanda. You know, cool mornings, warm in the afternoon but not too hot.”

There have been suggestions that Rwanda tries out other warmwater fish species like catfish as they can grow well in warm water temperatures. However, catfish are full of bones.

Climate change will also have a direct and indirect impact on fish. Warming water bodies might affect the growth of fish, explains Leonce Ngirinshuti, a Limnology and Aquaculture expert at the University of Rwanda’s Rwasave Fish Farm and Research Station, Huye district.

“Take for example Tilapia Clarias found in Rwanda and some other species [that] need a temperature range of 26-30°C. When water temperatures reach 35°C, the fish get stressed and they don’t eat. The same situation happens when water temperature goes below the range,” explained Ngirinshuti.

This station, established in 2018, conducts research and farms fingerlings for local farmers, with some exported to Goma and Bukavu in eastern DR Congo.

The station farms African catfish, producing about 100,000 fingerlings monthly. Last year, more than 50,000 fingerlings were bought by Congolese. The week after our interview with Ngirinshuti, the Rwasave station had orders for 40,000 fingerlings from both Goma and Bukavu.

“At the moment, the impact of climate change is not widespread on Rwanda because we have very few fish species in natural environments and fish farms,” Ngirinshuti said.

For example, Lake Kivu, which supplies the largest quantity of fish, is home to about 40 species . As for fish farming, only three types are produced in Rwanda; Tilapia nilotica, African catfish and common carp (cyprinus carpio), according to the University of Rwanda’s Rwasave fish research station.

But Ngirinshuti agrees with other scientists that lakes are warming, thereby affecting the fish.

“You find our ponds [at the UR fish station] are drying up. To fill them, we have ended up in conflict with the local population because they also get their water from the same wells that are drying up as well,” he said.

With a combination of natural and man-made factors affecting fish production in Rwanda, the various researchers call first for a comprehensive study of Rwanda’s physiography, followed by a genetic improvement of fish species like Tilapia to fit into the conditions of Rwandan waters.

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  1. Very interesting – too cold for tilapia, too warm for trout. Are there any older literature on fish species surveys in Rwanda, to now what may have been there naturally? I remember villagers near the upper Nyabarongo tributaries mentioning that fish do not exist any more in those rivers because they have become very muddy.

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