Tilapia and catfish farming is an interesting business opportunity in Africa.

Fish is one of the cheapest sources of animal protein and the most widely accepted animal product in Africa. Unlike pork (and maybe snails), it is heavily consumed across the various religious, ethnic and social lines that crisscross the African continent.

With the growing awareness for healthy meats, fish is gradually gaining the upper hand in many African kitchens and dishes. It has rapidly risen above its traditional reputation as a poor man’s protein to a healthier alternative to beef, chicken and pork.

Let’s look at the opportunities that entrepreneurs can exploit in this fast growing market for tilapia and catfish farming in Africa

The demand for fish in Africa is huge and growing still…

Fish farming harvesting fish

Fish caught by fishermen in the rivers and coastal waters of Africa, supported by imports from Europe and Asia, have been the traditional sources of fish to our markets.

However, the decreasing fish stocks in rivers and oceans across the world (due to global warming and environmental pollution) have severely affected fish supplies. (photo credit: pobronson.com)

As supply is unable to keep pace with the demand of an exploding African population, fish has continued to attract higher prices in our markets.

For many years, fish was the cheapest source of animal protein for Africans; nowadays, it has become almost as expensive as beef, chicken and turkey.

In an attempt to close the gap between demand and supply in the international fish market, many countries in Europe, the Americas and Asia have taken to fish farming (aquaculture) to shore up fish supply.

According to the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), fish farming currently accounts for more than 30 percent of global fish supply; of which Africa as a whole contributes less than 2 percent! We were shocked too!

Fish farming remains significantly untapped and unexplored in Africa, as only secondary and part-time efforts by small-scale fish farmers attempt to support local consumption.

This is obviously not enough!

Of all the possible fish breeds that can be farmed on the continent (tilapia, catfish, carp etc), the African catfish and tilapia have proven to be particularly successful. These breeds are highly adaptive to the African climate and are very suitable candidates for fish farming.

Fish farming big catfishThe African Catfish can survive for long periods outside water due to its amazing ability to breathe air directly from the atmosphere. They are omnivorous (can eat almost anything) and also have a high fertility rate which allows them to reproduce all year round.

These guys also have a huge growth potential; catfish have been known to grow to very large sizes and can gain up to 10g of weight in one day! (photo credit: jovanafarm.com) 

Market Opportunities for Tilapia and Cat Fish Farming in Africa

Aside from its reputation as a tasty food and good source of animal protein, tilapia and catfish feature very prominently in delicacies across Africa in both fresh and smoked (dried) forms.

Fresh catfish pepper soup and barbecued tilapia are very popular in many parts of West and Central Africa while its smoked version enjoys a variety of uses in African cuisine.

The increasing demand for these fish (fresh and smoked) by households, restaurants, hotels and exporters (due to foreign demand), has severely outstripped production and the capacities of fish farmers to satisfy these expanding local and international markets.

Catfish and tilapia can be farmed to achieve market size (0.4kg or more) in about four to six months. However, the needs of the market in terms of fish size are different and there is a continuously expanding market for all sizes of the fish.

There is a huge demand for fries (newly hatched fish) as there is for submarket sizes (less than 0.4kg) and market size fish. In addition, the current trend of rising fish prices in the market make the fish farming venture an increasingly lucrative and viable business.

Fish farming catfish delicacies

Catfish and Tilapia delicacies like these are a common sight in many African kitchens and restaurants. (photo credits: ejaaro.com and southpawgroup.com)

Due to the rising number of Africans living abroad (especially in North America, Europe and Asia), the demand for frozen and smoked catfish has increased in recent years.

More than 500,000 kilograms of smoked fish is exported to the UK alone every year from West Africa and it is estimated that the annual smoked fish exports to the US and Europe is in excess of 3 million kilograms, and continues to increase every year.

Ghana, Ivory Coast, Senegal and Nigeria are the largest exporters.

However, the profit potential of farming catfish is hugely dependent on the

  • cost of fish feed,
  • proper management, and the
  • quality of your market-ready fish.

Fish feed alone is the largest cost component and is likely to make up 60-80 percent of your production costs. This is primarily because most of the quality feed on the market is imported and suitable local alternatives are unavailable or not as effective as the imported ones.

Interestingly, in South Africa, one company is doing the unthinkable. AgriProtein makes fish feed from maggots harvested from its fly farms. Check out this article to learn more: How AgriProtein, A South African Business, is making Amazing Products from Maggots.

Success tips for aspiring fish farmers in Africa

Mike Amechi’s Tropo Tilapia Farm in Ghana (see video below) is a shining example of the huge potentials of fish farming in Africa with an annual tilapia production and sales of over 2000 metric tons.

The farm was established in 1997 and is Africa’s second largest tilapia farm (after Zimbabwe’s Lake Harvest Fish farm). Take some minutes to watch this inspiring video…

Video documentary: Mike Amechi and his success story with Tropo Farms, Ghana

Your overall goal in the fish farming business should be to supply fish to the market at competitive prices that still allow you to make a good profit. However, most small-scale catfish farmers make a poor return on their investments because of the presence of several intermediaries and middlemen who tend to offer very low prices for your fish.

A good way to increase the profit potential of this business is to sell directly to consumers. Using this strategy, you can sell your fish at the general retail market price (which is usually much higher than what the middlemen offer), and keep all the profits that the middlemen would have taken off you.

The downside to this strategy is that you will only sell a smaller volume of fish at a time compared to the high volumes the middlemen buy.

Should you successfully get a consistent customer base for your fish, this strategy will prove to be very profitable and the scale and cost of running your business will be much smaller.

Households, hoteliers, restaurants and catering service businesses are good niche targets and are very likely to become loyal customers as long as your supply is steady and reliable.

In addition, your prices must be competitive and the quality (size) of your fish should dwarf your competition’s. Most entrepreneurs can make a decent living from this business if they focus less on selling volumes and aim for quality (large sizes) which command higher retail prices.

Fish farming smoked fishAnother good strategy is to improve the value of the fish through processing. A common form of fish processing is drying (smoking).

Smoked fish commands much higher prices in the market than its fresh forms and has a longer shelf life (will not spoil easily). Smoked fish has become a popular export commodity due to rising demand from Africans living in the diaspora.

However, there are strict guidelines in the US and European Union for exported foods like smoked fish. Our article on dried and smoked fish export explains how you can get into and succeed in the foreign market.

Before you decide to invest your time and money in fish farming, you must first be sure that you have a target market that allows you to achieve profitability.

Some things you should consider before you start a tilapia and catfish farming business

Fish farming container farmsMost entrepreneurs are usually carried away by the prospects of making big bucks and forget to think the business through.

Fish farming is no exception! You will have to learn the technical basics of the trade and do your homework. Luckily, we have a very rich manual in the Resources section below to get you started.

You must consider the production costs for the volume of fish you intend to stock. There are a wide range of options to consider, no matter the size of your budget. One could start from small plastic wooden ponds before graduating to big concrete or earthen ponds.

Important: Fish feed is very likely to be your largest cost element. Be sure you have enough capital to meet the feeding needs of your fish stock because fish could literally really eat your pocket dry. Start with small amounts of fish and gradually build up as your experience, knowledge and earnings improve.

Warning: Avoid the temptation to overstock or start with large quantities!
Do not make the common mistake of starting this business by stocking huge volumes of fish because you expect to make a ton of money. Only take this route if you have the required capital to keep them well fed and a ready market to sell them off to when they are market-ready.

One of the biggest mistakes many fish farmers make is to start looking for buyers only when the fish is ready for sale. At that time, your pond will have attained the maximum capacity at which all the fish stop growing.

The longer the fish stay in the pond after they have stopped growing, the smaller the profit margin as you will have to continue feeding them so they don’t lose weight (which will affect your sale price).

Interesting resources for tilapia and cat fish farming in Africa

This material was funded as part of the USAID FISH project, a cooperative agreement with Auburn University, Alabama, USA. It explains everything you need to know to start your own fish farming business in very simple language. We have no doubt you’ll love it!

If you have any experience in farming catfish and tilapia or have any questions on the subject, we’re sure a lot of people reading this would love to learn from you. Please leave a comment in the section below or share this opportunity with a friend.

Remember, you can find more interesting success stories and business opportunities like this one in the Business ideas section of Smallstarter.

To your success!

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