Kenya's fish industry
Photo: Sarnissa Kenya

Get rid of Chinese imports threatening Kenya’s fish industry

Kenya’s fish industry has long been underdeveloped and it now appears the rug will be pulled from underneath it, thanks to cheap fish imports from China.

Over the last few years, China has been aggressive in setting base in Kenya. The country has used means such as predatory pricing. It’s no surprise that this has coincided with a declining catch-count between 2012 and 2016.

Fresh water fish makes up 93% of the sector and it’s production is dominated by women. A selection of findings place their participation at between 70 and 80%. Their livelihoods are now under threat due to the utter lack of protection from the Kenyan Government.

Every one country with a well developed agricultural sector, you can think of, has in place extensive “anti free-trade” policies to protect its food security. This makes sense.

In Kenya, Chinese fish imports have already hit sh.1 billion. The number will rise further and faster with the completion of the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR). This is only one of the logistics alternatives China is setting up to get into the regional market.

All this is unbelievable. Many publications theorized that China would remain an impediment for Africa’s aspiration to industrialize but, at least, the continent would provide food for China. Instead, China is also competing for market share in Kenya’s fish industry

China (and India) is already a big threat to Kenya’s manufactured goods exports to its neighbors.

Both fresh water and sea fish traders in the country are protesting against this encroachment. All of the blame can be placed on the Government allowing cheap imports to undermine its food security. Why? Kenya’s fishing industry has always focused on the domestic market.

This is unlike other agriculture sectors, such as tea and horticulture, which almost entirely exist to serve foreign markets. A common viewpoint is that export businesses are much better than those targeting the domestic industry.

In Lake Victoria, 16 fish processing plants have closed down due to a number of reasons that expose neglect of the sector. The fish processors have become brokers for imported fish being sold at a minimum 3-times less than what is produced locally. This is a lose for job creation and the top-down Vision 2030 aspiration (seriously, building a city from the ground up?).

At the coast, traders say they have lost markets such as Likoni, Kongowea and Tudor to importers. One wholesaler said, “Customers who used to buy from us are gone…since these cartels invaded the market with cheap prices, we no longer get customers.

Those with many workers have sent a number of them home. Work is not profitable.”A Chinese company reportedly controls three quarters of this market.

Ending the problem before its too late

A free trade (which isn’t a thing) proponent would say mitumba clothes ended kirakas and such. But at what cost? Only recently, lobbyist on the American side were fighting back against East Africa’s drive to ban it. It had been a mistake after all to kill the local textile industry.

The Kenyan industrialization head, Adan Mohamed sang to their tune by saying, “…through the transition of market forces, we would like mitumba clothes to compete with clothes that are produced within East Africa, within Kenya.” He went on to suggest that local competitiveness, of a nascent industry, would ultimately reduce mitumba. Which single industrialized country did anything like this?

If the Government is interested in seeing women and young Kenyans improve the fishing sector then it should abandon its devotion to this kind of ideology. Free trade in agriculture has already been discredited. USA, Europe and Japan did not buy into its promise. Instead, they have protection against competition and subsidies to distort price.

There is little justification for why Kenya should allow fresh fish importation from China. Shortfalls should be met by our neighbors. That’s the basis of the East African Community after all.

Moreover, if a Chinese plant wants to set shop for value added products then they should get a dose of their own medicine. China typically frustrated attempts by foreigners to get a hold in its market with requirements like a percentage of local ownership or suppliers.

Support for women in Kenya’s fish industry

Besides that, extension services and other business development services need to be accessed easily by participants in the fish business.

Two issues have come to light on why fishing is not growing in Kenya. There is depletion of fish and inability to access markets. What I deduce from this is that information on best fishing practices is not out there and the business aspects of the activity are not well developed.

This will be a better way to improve competitiveness of the fishing industry, rather than pitting it against the biggest fish producing country in the world.


Another way to improve competitiveness is by focusing on the post-harvest stage of the fish supply chain. More processed products are needed to stabilize prize, increase availability, variety and reduce wastage – through instances of fish going bad.

This is not possible without support infrastructure and services. Instead of fancy County Headquarters, the powers that be should put their minds on roads, processing plants and the likes. The rural economy, dominated by women, is not something to get rid of. They feed the country, there’s no reason why fish shouldn’t be part of the menu. On securing domestic competitiveness, Kenya should be able to move to export focus.

Final thought

Which term is used to reference women whose job is fishing? Is it fisherwomen? Fisher? I googled and fishermen and women was deemed offensive. Ha!

Don’t leave without checking out our Opportunities Page for women and young people in Kenya!