Malawi’s Chambo under ‘price’ siege

Investing in aquaculture—Not cheap as imagined

Tonny Craige, in company of four others, is a British tourist visiting Malawi for the first time and their destination are lake shore districts of Salima and Mangochi. They were captivated by an advert on the sparkling beauty of Lake Malawi and its delicacy, Chambo fish.

All along the way, the group does not hesitate to order a meal of Chambo but little do they know that some of the fish being served is not genuine Chambo from Lake Malawi.

Lake Malawi contains between 800- 1000 fish species and Chambo (Oreochromis) exists in three distinct genera of Oreochromis shiranus, (Makumba), Oreochromis mossambicus (Makakana) and Oreochromis Karongae (Chambo). Besides few morphological differences, they all taste similar.

Official statistics indicate that the country’s fish production increased by 8.9 percent with record 157,267 tons in 2017, ironically Chambo (Oreochromis), the country’s flagship specie remained low and is an instant luxury to the few.

Usipa species (eungraulicyrissardella) dominated annual fish production by over 70 percent while Chambo was 3 percent. Experts explain this is a manifestation of a disturbed aquatic ecosystem and a broken food chain flow that has eliminated potential predators and increased nutrient load, leading to a surge in Usipa and other less economically significant species in the equation.

The 2017 National Economic Report by Ministry of Finance, Economic Planning and Development predicts a further increase in fish production to around 174,774.7 tons in 2018, translating into overall revenue of K152.05 billion but Chambo figures will remain scanty.

Failure to uplift Chambo supply on the domestic market will continue providing business opportunities for fish imports to saturate local market, to the disadvantage of few existing local aquaculture industries.

A fish breeder with one of the country’s aquaculture companies laments that the market is not leveraged such that his company is struggling to break through because of the influx of cheap Chambo alike imports on the market.

“If we lower the prices further, we won’t make a profit because we are investing a lot to produce a ton of Chambo fish” he said adding that “consumers have to be sensitized on what constitutes a genuine taste and appearance of Malawi’s own bred Chambo over look-alike fish imports.”

Consumer rights Activist stress that it is difficult setting a minimum price on products as varying inputs, coupled by aspects of supply and demand, determine prices but consumers may make a choice depending on preferences and income levels as what to buy.

The fish breeder, speaking on condition of anonymity, suggested government imposing a ban on fish imports as a way of supporting local aquaculture industry to avoid price undercuts from fish imports from neighboring and Far East countries.

However, fish import ban is unrealistic step to take following government’s commitment to Comesa and Sadc free trade protocols that allows for free trade between signatory nations. A clause within free trade protocols stipulates that a ban on food commodities can only be imposed based on safety concerns but may be temporal.

A random visit to a number of supermarkets around Lilongwe showed that fish imports like Tilapiaare sells at K1200 per kilogram while pure Malawi Chambo is selling at an average of K1500 – 1600 per kilogram. Shop attendants interviewed separately admitted that the former easily sells quickly while the latter takes time to clear unless customer’s preference is priotised.

A technical fish breeder we talked to mentioned that producing a ton of Chambo fish under cage or pond system is input intensive, especially on feeds which are imported and use of generators to back up power outages, thereby pushing production costs higher than anticipated.

“Selling Malawi’s bred Chambo lower than K1600 per kilogram does not make any business sense, especially with cut throat competition from fish imports that are produced at a relatively low cost’ he bemoans.

James Yakobe Mwale, a chef at one of the fast foods outlets in Lilongwe contends that pure Malawi Chambo has a unique aroma and its flesh never sticks to the bones in whatever form it is prepared unlike other tilapia imports which have a different taste altogether. He says Lake Malawi Chambo is priced higher than other fish dishes on the menu, attesting to the authentic value of Malawi Chambo over other fish imports.

When tourists visiting Malawi, like Tonny Craige and friends, unknowingly takes anything served on the table as true Malawi Chambo, It will continue denting the country’s reputation on the international tourism stage, as consumers need to be sensitized on what a true Malawi Chambo looks like.

In Malawi, aquaculture has mainly focused on producing fish in ponds, cages and tanks which require substantial capital investments. The recent government policy shift aims at increasing aquaculture production through upscaling of small to large scale aquaculture ventures and promotion of public – private partnerships to raise production from current sluggish 3,600 to 10,000 tons per annum. This increase will not only saturate domestic market but open Malawi Chambo for export, consequently purging off fish imports.

To support growth of the aquaculture industry, investors are allowed a waiver of import duty on some related equipment such as plant, laboratory equipment and materials, aerators, pumps, nets, boat engines and others.

Jenala Ngwale, General Manager for Maldeco Aquaculture – a division of The Foods Company is quoted in their recent annual report that flexible and competitive pricing while maintaining sufficient margins remains one of the challenges in aquaculture production business.

Pursuant to new policy direction, Ngwale discloses that in the medium to long term, Maldeco Aquaculture intends to increase Chambo production between 2000 – 8000 tons per annum to satisfy local demand, counter fish imports and tap on regional export markets.

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