Fish farming, or aquaculture, is a big hype in South Africa right now. With fish being considered more sustainable protein, in terms of health, affordability and environmental impact, it’s no wonder we are seeing a surge in aquaculture.
But aquaculture can be a difficult field to enter at the moment, as it is still in its infancy in South Africa.
“Aquaculture is one of the smaller segments of agriculture in South Africa,” says 33-year-old Thomas Keet, director of Zini Fish Farm. “Other than trout and abalone there are not a lot of bigger scale aquaculture farms in SA compared to the rest of the world and Africa.”
Keet studied animal science with a focus on aquaculture, so he’s always been ready to enter the sector.
34-year-old Morena Khashane’s journey, on the other hand, is more a case of “right place at the right time”. He was working at the Agricultural Research Council when he saw a post on social media looking for a fish farm manager, and he took the bait happily.
But after showing interest, Khashane realised that it’s not so easy getting started in aquaculture.
Why is aquaculture so underdeveloped in Mzansi?
“There are significant barriers to entry when you compare aquaculture to terrestrial farming,” explains Keet. “Far more people have access to soil as opposed to a decent sized water body.”
Aside from access to space and water, there are many more requirements in terms of permits.
“Aquaculture in South Africa is overregulated and underfunded,” says Khashane. This makes it difficult for new farmers to enter the aquaculture field.
Being a capital-intensive industry, Khashane was lucky to already have the capital to get started. But then came the next hurdle: navigating the minefield of permits necessary to start farming.
“It wasn’t easy at all,” he says. “My partner said it was a ‘pie in the sky’ dream.”
Luckily, he had the right contacts and the perseverance to succeed in the industry, ultimately getting the permits to farm freshwater tilapia fish from the Nile.
Also, due to the small size of the industry at the moment, there is not a lot of support or developed industry to build on.
“It is still in its infancy in SA, so you have to be a jack of all trades,” says Keet. “In order for aquaculture to grow to its full potential we require a lot more government support, private investment and technical support in terms of research and development.”
Despite these hurdles, these two tilapia farmers wouldn’t change their jobs for the world.
“The lifestyle is my favourite part of the industry,” Keet says about being an aquaculture farmer. “I have to wake up early, but I get to be outside and not stuck in an office all the time.”
Harvesting fish is probably his least favourite part of farming. “But it’s not actually even that bad,” he chuckles.
So, if you want to get started in this diverse, exciting and growing field, here is Keet and Khashane’s advice:
1. Entering the diverse field of aquaculture
“Aquaculture is like vegetable farming,” says Keet. “It’s just as diverse and there are many ways of going about it.”
This is true: despite the relatively young age and small scale of the aquaculture industry in South Africa, we have a very diverse range of species and farming methods.
According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, South Africa has the following freshwater and marine species to farm with:
- Carp and Koi Carp
- Marron crayfish
- Ornamental freshwater fish
Trout is the most cultured freshwater species in South Africa, followed by ornamental species.
- Ornamental marine species
By far the largest marine aquaculture subsector in South Africa is abalone.
2. How to choose a species to farm
The aquaculture industry in South Africa consists of a variety of farmed species which require specific aquaculture practices.
“There are many different ways that you can grow different species in the aquaculture industry,” says Keet. “It is relatively expensive in terms of starting up, depending on your specific setup. That’s why I recommend starting small.”
Your first choice would be to choose between farming with marine and freshwater species, and this would depend on where you are situated and what access you have to water bodies.
Marine aquaculture offers some benefits, according to Keet.
“We have a lot of marine space right on our doorstep,” Keet says, referring to Mzansi’s expansive coastline which is perfect for marine aquaculture. “This has the added complexity of requiring specific access to the marine water, though.”
You have to go through the department of environmental affairs, instead of just rigging up some tanks or dams in your backyard, he says.
But whether or not you choose freshwater or saltwater, if you are building a setup you need a supply of water and electricity. And you’ll need to keep in mind how much you need and where it comes from.
“This can be a significant hindrance in South Africa, with loadshedding and our water scarcity,” Keet warns.
Tilapia farming is very profitable, and depending on the species you farm with they can either be farmed in freshwater or saltwater.
Some of the main reasons that tilapia farming is profitable include its high protein content, rapid growth and large size compared to other fish. That’s why our two aquaculture farmers are sharing their knowledge on tilapia farming this week.
3. Getting started: finance and skills
“You must know that aquaculture is not easy,” Khashane says. “You must have the proper guidance. Get the right skills or partner with someone that has those skills.”
Keet and Khashane have some differing opinions on getting skills in the sector before you start. According to Keet the internet has a wealth of knowledge for those wanting to start up in aquaculture.
“We have access to pretty much all the information in the world!” Keet says. “I would recommend people who want to get into aquaculture to learn as much as possible. Also connect with other aquaculturists in the industry for additional insights on farming fish in SA.”
On the other hand, a “Google degree” might not be enough.
“Young people must stop only doing internet research,” Khashane says. “You read a few articles and then you think you can farm? No, you need the right expertise, the right technology.”
No matter what path you take, knowledge is definitely needed, whether you get it on the internet, at university or through mentorship.
Aquaculture Innovations has self-study courses, videos and newsletters to look into. There are also many degree, diploma and short courses that you can take to learn all you want about aquaculture. It might also be a good idea to become a member of the Aquaculture Association of South Africa.
Whether you are going to start a commercial operation or a backyard aquaculture setup, there are five things that your fish are going to need to thrive:
- Clean water
- Room to swim
In order to supply this you need, at the bare minimum, a tank/body of water, access to water and electricity, a pump and filtration system, feed, and lights. Apart from that you will need nets, and breeding pairs of the species you want to farm with.
“You need breeding fish in order to get baby fish and continue your operation,” says Keet. “You also need a ready supply of cheap feed.”
“You must make sure that your water quality is suitable and that your husbandry situations are ideal for your specific species. You need to do thorough research and engage with people who have done it before,” says Khashane. “I have seen a lot of systems that are not built good enough, in terms of the engineering part of it, as well as biological factors.”
5. Tips from tilapia farmers
“I would always recommend starting very small, doing a proof of concept,” says Keet. By starting small you can make your mistakes early and learn from them before they are too catastrophic to your enterprise.
“You need patience,” Khashane says. “You need to keep pushing, pushing, pushing. It’s a new industry in South Africa, it has the potential to grow, but you must stay with it.”
Khashane avails himself to students and to new farmers who need mentors in tilapia farming, so don’t be shy to reach out to him!