Aquaculture veteran Malcolm Beveridge sees new solutions to the continent’s hunger problems through fish farming.
Fish has long been a prime food source for sub-Saharan Africa, but years of over-fishing have left the continent with a growing gap between the amount of fish that can be harvested and the needs of its burgeoning population.
That’s where aquaculture comes in, says marine ecologist Malcolm Beveridge, who has spent years working to help boost African fish supplies through WorldFish, an international nonprofit research organization dedicated to achieving large-scale, sustainable access to fish for poor consumers in developing countries.
Beveridge says he doesn’t have to look far to see how African nations could benefit from adopting and expanding local aquaculture facilities: Egypt has been an aquaculture success story, annually producing close to a million tons of farmed fish including tilapia, mullet and carp. After unused public marshland near the Nile Delta was identified for fish farming in the 1990s, farmed fish very quickly became abundant and affordable. WorldFish has been a strategic partner with Egypt in the effort, helping the nation take advantage of its existing agricultural production infrastructure.
This is a period of quite profound change. In the next few years we will find the majority of our fish and shellfish coming from farms as opposed to wild sources.”
“Now [fish] is the cheapest source [in Egypt] for animal protein, cheaper than poultry, cheaper than beef and goat meat,” says Beveridge, who retired earlier in 2014 after eight years as WorldFish’s director of aquaculture and genetics. Tilapia, for example, retails for the equivalent of approximately US$1.20 to US$2.40 per kilo in Egypt, while beef and goat can cost up to approximately US$12 per kilo.
“It’s a very effective short chain between the producer and the consumer,” Beveridge explains. “Almost all fish is bought fresh, on ice or even alive. There is almost no processing of fish. Keeping things very simple—with good connections to markets—has, I think, been the key to the Egyptians getting it right.”
Egyptian aquaculture continues to improve, he says, with researchers identifying better, more productive strains of fish through selective breeding similar to the process used with cattle. “In Egypt, we have got a new, faster-growing breed of fish that we have been breeding for about 12 years, and it is now being released to farmers,” says Beveridge. “And all indications show that this fish [abbassa, a strain of Nile tilapia] grows about 20 to 30 times faster [than Nile tilapia].”
Translating Egypt’s aquaculture successes—along with those of other African countries such as Nigeria and Kenya—to sub-Saharan Africa is the next big challenge, he says: “The rest of Africa has yet to try and figure out why Egypt has been so successful and [why] they, despite their efforts, have been less successful.”
Falling for fish farming
Beveridge has been one of aquaculture’s pioneers as fish farming has developed into a widely accepted sustainable solution to global environmental and food security challenges due to overfishing and dwindling supplies of fish in the wild. “This is a period of quite profound change,” he says. “In the next few years we will find the majority of our fish and shellfish coming from farms as opposed to wild sources.”
Until he left his small fishing town on the west coast of Scotland to study at the University of Glasgow in the 1970s, Beveridge had always lived within sight and smell of the sea. But Scottish fishing, like that in European countries, was undergoing dramatic change at the time, and many fishermen were losing their livelihood due to problems with overfishing.
“And then this miracle of fish farming began to appear,” says Beveridge. Television news programs about new salmon farms in Scotland first got him excited about the possibilities of aquaculture, and Beveridge went on to earn a doctorate in physiological ecology of aquatic invertebrates. He signed on at Stirling University’s new aquaculture institute in Scotland in 1980. “The main thing, which was very farsighted, was that they wanted someone to look at the environmental aspect of this new industry,” he says.
His relationship with Stirling continued for 20 years—and come September 2014, he rejoins the faculty there as an honorary professor—but during the next several decades he also had a fellowship with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) in the Philippines. After running a small freshwater fisheries laboratory in Scotland, and then spending four years in Egypt with WorldFish, he moved to Zambia to help build up the nonprofit’s capacity there.
Building Africa’s aquaculture harvest
Beveridge has worked with communities across Africa for WorldFish. When governments aren’t able to subsidize fish farmers, developing private partnerships becomes more important. “There are many small-businesspeople interested to sell feed, and if you work with them you can persuade them,” he says. “The more farmers that become interested and start [fish] farming, the bigger the market is for selling [fish] feed,” which is usually made of vegetarian crop residues. Businesspeople who sell fish feed “know that in order to grow that market, they have to provide good information, sensible information to farmers” that will help the fish farmers succeed.
Beveridge also believes that clusters of small farms working together could help make aquaculture more feasible in Africa, as this approach has already done in Asia. When farms stock at the same time, buy feed together at discounted bulk rates and secure affordable loans as a group, the cooperation literally pays off by producing sufficient quantities of fish at regular intervals for harvest.
With rapidly increasing urbanization and populations in developing countries in Africa, Beveridge says he expects to see major growth in street foods and convenience foods, some of which could be based on farmed fish. “Fried fish or fish curry or whatever’s provided at fast-food stalls—I see a marketplace only increasing,” he says.
But no matter how the end product is sold, keeping the fish farming process environmentally friendly is important for long-term sustainability in Africa and elsewhere in the developing world, says Beveridge. A number of integrated multitrophic aquaculture systems, where waste from one species is eaten by another species, are in place across the continent. Nigeria is already seeing good results using these types of systems with African catfish, as is South Africa with abalone.
“We use water more carefully, we use energy more carefully [in aquaculture],” Beveridge says. “We release fewer wastes into the environment. All of these things are essential if aquaculture is going to fulfill its promise to feed people without seriously affecting the environment.
“Fish is almost universally popular in Africa,” he adds. “People like it, and it’s culturally important. If people want to eat animal foods, farmed fish is in many instances far better for the environment than producing poultry or cattle or other animals.”