Exporting Nile perch to the west leaves Ugandans eating bones

Thursday, 1st September, 2011

"Madam, buy Nile perch fish today because it might be the last time you eat it," Kalyesubula, a fish monger in Kaame valley market told me as I shopped for foodstuffs.

Kalyesubula, the sole trader of Nile perch, locally known as empuuta, says he is leaving the business and moving to something else because people are not buying the delicacy.

He explains that it is hard to get because it has dwindled in the lakes and there is a high demand for it from middlemen who supply factories.

When one finally gets some to take to the stalls, he has to literally beg people to buy it because they are reluctant to part with sh15,000 for a kilogramme, which they say is exorbitant.

Nile perch, which used to be the poor man’s source of protein, has become so costly that even the middle-class finds it unaffordable.

"These days a kilogramme of Nile perch costs as much as a gomesi. One has to forego two kilos of meat to have mpuuta on the menu," exclaimed one customer.

The high demand for the fish as a major raw material for the 15 fish processing plants in the country has pushed its beach price to sh9,000 per kilogramme, up from sh5,000 last year.

In and around Kampala markets, Nile perch costs between sh12,000 and sh15,000 per kilogramme. In restaurants, a plate comprised of three pieces of fried Nile perch costs sh10,000 up from sh3,000 previously, and clients have to order for it a day in advance.

Exported Nile perch now fetches seven Euros per kilogramme from 5.8 Euros per kilogramme last year.

Aida Naluyange, a market vendor in Nakawa, said: "I scrapped Nile perch off my menu because I could not afford it. Even fish bones that were affordable for the low income earners are now very expensive and people have to wait for hours under the scorching sun for them."

"Disregard for economic efficiency, pandering to special interests and a niche market for fishery products placed a lot of pressure on the fishery resource and now the population is paying the price," said a senior fisheries officer.

He added that all regulations intended to limit exploitation were overlooked by politicians in the responsible ministry.

"The votes were more important than the fishery resources’ contribution to the wellbeing of the population and national economy," the officer added.

"Abusive exploitation, eutrophication and fat wallets in Europe and the emerging markets are the reasons Ugandans will never afford fish unless they learn to grow it. As a technical person, I think the lake has been ripped and Nile perch exports are an ecological disaster," he said.

Eutrophication is the process under which too many plants grow on the surface of a lake or river often because of increased human activity on the shores of the water body and industrial effluents getting into the lake. The fisheries of Lake Victoria have undergone rapid ecological and social change in recent decades.

The rapid growth of the human population and continued dependence on Nile perch for export, regional and local markets, all threaten to exacerbate the ongoing depletion of the Nile perch.

The future of Nile perch exports is quite bleak because of the dwindling stocks and speculation of some factors feeding into the spiraling cost of doing business in Uganda.

Export volumes are dropping and the competition with cheap Vietnamese pangasius at the end markets is being felt.

The only hope for Uganda’s fisheries sector is adding value to the product through certification schemes and processors rejecting immature or illegal fish from unlicensed fishers and suppliers.

Nile perch exports to the EU reducing
Last year, Uganda earned $82m from 15417.16 metric tonne nes of Nile perch exported to the EU and Non EU countries compared to $100m in 2009.

Until recently, fish was the second largest non-traditional foreign exchange earner. Exports to international markets rose from about sh820m in 1990s to over about sh297.3b in the mid-2000s. Fish export earnings reached $145m in 2005, the highest returns from fish.

The earnings have since been dropping due to lack of raw materials that forced some factories to close down.

The recommended size of a mature Nile perch is 20 inches and tilapia should be 11 inches and weighing about 600 grammes. Over 80% of Uganda’s fish for exports are harvested from Lake Victoria, while Lakes Kyoga, Albert and Edward account for about 20%.

By Macrines Nyapendi: The New Vision Newspaper

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