When Elijah Murithi was growing bananas in the 1980s and 1990s, the increasingly erratic weather in central Kenya meant that the farmer could rarely make a steady income from the thirsty crop.
Prolonged dry spells killed Murithi’s young plants, and long, intense rainy spells produced a glut of bananas that forced him to lower prices to sell them.
Even when he switched to coffee, which requires less water, the farmer still struggled to produce reliable yields.
But that changed in 2021 when he added an unusual crop to his farm: fish.
A pond filled with more than 1,500 tilapia now allows him to collect rainwater during heavy rains and use some of it to irrigate crops when dry periods occur, Murithi said.
Now he makes a decent living from drought or rain, grows coffee and vegetables throughout the year, and earns extra by selling fish.
“This really worked in my favor,” he said of his 10-by-25-meter (33-by-82-foot) pond, built just up the hill from the coffee plants on his 1.25-hectare (0.5-acre) farm in Kibingo, about 130 km (80 miles) northeast of Nairobi.
Since starting fish farming in April, Murithi said his coffee harvests have more than doubled to 2,000 kg (4,400 pounds) a year and his total income has tripled.
As the East African country grapples with climate change that is hitting crops and choking off incomes, including the current drought that is the worst in four decades, some farmers are finding that adding fish to their farms can help store water, make their diets more nutritious and increase profits.
Since 2019, the Kirinyaga County Government has been helping farmers build fish ponds under an economic incentive program.
The district covers the cost of the pond liners and, in the first year, pays for the young fish, also called fingerlings, and enough food to sustain them until they mature.
The Fisheries Department said it has so far supported about 20 farming groups and more than 1,350 people.
Kirinyaga’s government said in October it was working to increase annual fish production from 29 tonnes, worth 12.8 million Kenyan shillings ($104,000), to 62 tonnes. He did not provide any information on the cost of the initiative.
Initially, most farmers resisted the idea of farming fish in the often parched region, said Harrison Mwangi, chairman of the 26-member Kamwaka Self Help Farmers Group.
He said the prospect was foreign to many members, who thought they would have better results in raising chickens.
But after county officials provided training on fish farming and said they would help with costs, many growers gave it a try.
Eventually, Mwangi said, his group decided in early 2021 to convert a napier grass field on a farm owned by one of its members — a field that was producing less and less fodder, especially during the dry season — into a pond.
During the rest of the year, the farmers then sold 17,000 shillings ($137) worth of fish to people visiting the farm or at local markets, Mwangi said, describing sales as “quite encouraging” for the first harvest.
“The group couldn’t find a better way to use the farm,” he said, explaining that raising fish is easier than managing other livestock.
The Kamwaka farmers, who each have an annual income of 100,000 to 150,000 shillings ($807 to $1,211), should see even higher earnings from fish farming in the future as their stocks multiply, Mwangi said.
John Wilson – the manager of Mwea Aquaculture Farm, which farms tilapia and catfish and also offers training to farmers – said fish farming is not only good business but also an alternative source of protein for Kenyans.
Aside from the challenge of convincing drought-stricken farmers in Kenya that fish is a realistic crop, the project still has several drawbacks that need to be addressed, Murithi and Mwangi said.
While ponds can act as a buffer against drought by storing rain used for dry-season irrigation, farmers affected by particularly long dry spells may struggle to find ways to replenish them.
Murithi said he periodically topped up his pond using agricultural water rations provided by the district to help farmers during dry periods.
Kamwaka farmers also have to pump clean water from nearby rivers into their ponds every week when there is no rain. They use a generator which is expensive, said Mwangi.
Another challenge is how to deal with the surplus of fish now flooding local markets as more people start farming, according to industry insiders.
“Farmers need to be aggressive in seeking markets for their produce and should not wait for the county government to do the marketing for them,” said Michael Manyeki, a fry producer in Sagana, a small industrial town in Kirinyaga.
For Ntiba Micheni, a professor of marine biology and fisheries at the University of Nairobi, the solution to overproduction is to get more Kenyans to consider fish as dinner in a country where eating it is not common everywhere.
“If there is no strong ‘Eat more fish’ campaign for young children, for schools and communities, [selling] fish will forever remain a challenge,” said Micheni, a former official in the government’s fisheries department.