Sustainable fish farming for Zambia’s women groups: opportunities and challenges

The triumphs and trials of a Zambian cooperative's efforts to foster sustainable fish farming and empower women groups in the industry.

Siavonga Breams Multi-Purpose Co-operative Limited (SBCL) is a group of small-scale fish farmers domiciled around Lake Kariba in the Siavonga district of Zambia’s southern province. The vision of the cooperative is to improve the livelihoods of people living in poverty by lifting small-scale fish communities out of poverty through the provision of income-generating opportunities along the aquaculture sub-sector value chain.

Since its inception in 2013, the cooperative has evolved from fish trading and sourcing to aqua garden out-grower schemes. In 2021, SBCL became a recipient of Innovations Against Poverty (IAP)’s financial and non-financial support, to implement a plan based on inclusive innovation on Lake Kariba. The business plan aimed at developing eight floating fish cages on Lake Kariba for practicing sustainable fish farming and engaging women's participation in the fish value chain as distributors.

An inclusive business model

Over time, the implementation of the business plan has been dynamic, adapting to the changing economic and social climate in the country. In the initial business plan, eight women groups, comprising 45 members each, were to be enlisted. Each group was to contribute towards their participation through cost sharing in procuring feed and fingerlings, among other costs. As of 2022, eight women groups were enlisted, five from Siavonga and three from Lusaka. The primary activity was to be small-scale fish farming (360 persons), followed by distribution activities (70 persons). The women groups were eventually registered as legal bodies in the form of cooperatives. Due to increasing fish feed prices as well as predatory competition from other players, none of the women groups could raise sufficient funds to participate in growing tilapia fish at the aqua gardens. Subsequently, SBCL assisted the women cooperatives to apply for grants from the Zambian Government’s schemes for women empowerment. However, upon receipt of the grants, the women groups opted to venture into what they considered to be less risky endeavours that seemed to provide quicker and better returns, such as poultry farming and community-based banking.

Commercial challenges

By the end of 2022, the cooperative had enlisted over 170 distributors in Siavonga, Lusaka and Kasumbalesa but could not meet their high demand because of inadequate production and lack of continuity or sustained monthly harvests from the Aqua Garden. The low fish production volumes and harvest were compromising the commercial viability of the business. Even by this time, no women groups had participated in small-scale fish farming due to perceived high risks like theft, high costs of production, and price fluctuations for fish feed and fish selling prices. Only six cages were operational at the Aqua Garden instead of eight because of the increase in prices of fish cage manufacture against the budget. In turn, cages seven and eight would be hired based on the production circle and the availability of operating capital. The same situation extended to fingerlings and fish feed procurement.

The implementation phase of the project was also hampered by a rise in inflation between 2021 and 2023. The Cooperative had to account for the price volatility of inputs and remaining capital assets from its own resources where possible, otherwise, the deliverables had to be adjusted according to the planned budget.

Reflections as to why the cooperative did not meet all its outcomes point to both internal and external factors. Internally, most of the members, especially from the women groups, did not take ownership and avoided taking business risks to invest resources to run the cooperative. Another learning is that different responsibilities were not optimally shared. For instance, the managing director of SBCL would be actively involved in day-to-day operations, whilst other members would not, mainly showing interest during the fish harvest period. One other challenge that the cooperative faced was not having a fully integrated and dedicated team available on a daily basis to tackle the different operational issues of running the Aqua Garden. Although the company received support from IAP to integrate different systems and policies, adoption was still slow and there was a need for continuous coaching.

To resolve this, IAP provided the cooperative and women groups with training in business skills and Safety, Health, and Environmental Quality, equipping them with the necessary skills to ensure success.

Struggling with theft and competition

During the last quarter of 2022, Siavonga Breams experienced pilferage of fish from the Aqua Garden for the first time, and the cooperative suffered a loss in production and ultimately, sales. The risk was addressed through a holistic approach, implementing various security measures that prevent pilferage. These included hiring a pontoon to be stationed at the Aqua Garden during the harvest period, installing additional solar-powered CCTV, installing mesh wires on top of the cages, and working closely with the police to patrol the lake in the period leading up to harvest.

The introduction of other players such as the Chinese fish farms to the Siavonga district’s aquaculture value chain has brought both positive and negative experiences. The theft of fish from small-scale fish farms has declined due to the excess of fish supply in the Chinese fish farms, where the criminals have presumably drifted to. The fish pilfered from these farms has flooded the black market and the informal sector, thereby reducing the incentive for thieves to continue taking the risk.

The Chinese investors entered the fish market with “predatory” pricing to kill off the competition. Their farms were churning out tons of fish into the market daily at reduced prices, putting several small-scale fish farms out of business, as it proved to be cheaper for the commercial fish farms to buy fish from the Chinese compared to producing their own.

However, with time, the Chinese fish farm model backfired on them because the massive production levels could not be absorbed by the market, resulting in their fish overstaying in cages and growing to sizes not preferred by the local market. With time, they could not sustain the reduced prices and started offering their products at a commercial rate like all other farms. The category of small to medium-sized fish was also not over-produced by Chinese the Chinese fish farms, thereby opening a window for small-scale fish farmers to compete favourably by supplying that category.

Overcoming hurdles

The cooperative’s business plan was focused on stocking fingerlings and fish in a staggered fashion to allow for continuous and sustained harvesting and supplying of fish to the market. However, to meet production levels within the budget and agreed milestones, whilst considering the off-stocking season, stocking in the initial project cycles was lumped with a corresponding pattern to harvests. This created a challenge when it came to selling the fish – especially with the absence of cold chain facilities, and the fish had to ultimately be sold cheaply to clear the stock before it went bad. By the end of December 2022, the cooperative was able to hit a sales margin of € 42,316, against a total project cost of € 136,304. IAP’s contribution amounted to € 57,955, and € 78,349 were co-investment by the cooperative.

More distributors were since enlisted, but not all could be served because some were seasonal marketeers whilst others would already have stock on the days SBCL was offloading its stock. In other instances, the distributors lacked the money or had ventured into other business undertakings that offered quick daily or weekly returns.

In terms of capital investment, before IAP, SBCL had four floating fish cages on site that have increased to six, and investments were also made into CCTV security systems, digital scales, and holding containers. SBCL also made strides in the marketing and operational activities with the opening of a wholesale fish depot in Lusaka, complete with a cold room and deep freezers.

SBCL’s social and commercial impact in the community of Siavonga was non-existent, but through IAP, the project helped church women groups get registered as cooperatives and apply for government-sponsored women empowerment grants with 100% awards. Before IAP, SBCL was supplying its fish to the open market, but by the end of 2022, the cooperative was marketing and selling its own fish brand, ‘LITAPI’, through small chain stores, community markets, and other sales leads.

Learn more about the IAP project