Waking up to feed and supervise a school of Mozambique tilapia that could fill up 26 rugby fields is what 32-year-old Thomas Keet, director of Zini Fish Farm, does every day.
The Cape Town born fish farmer’s mission is to ensure that our local supermarkets are supplied with an affordable source of protein. He believes that aquaculture, and specifically the tilapia, has a crucial part to play in our food security going forward.
Keet not only ensures that there is sufficient feed for the fish. He also manages a team of three while he simultaneously monitors the water quality and liaises with Eskom to ensure that there is going to be power to keep their earthen fishponds running for that day.
“Managing Eskom has become a job in itself these days,” he chuckles.
“We consume quite a bit of power, pumping water and aerating ponds, cooling and heating things. So, when the power goes out – which it does a lot in this country – I have got a big backup generator to keep things going,” he explains.
Although Zini Fish farm specialises in the Mozambique tilapia or blue kurper they also farm with rare fish like dusky kob, spotted grunter, Natal stumpnose, malabar rockcod and mud crab. The 44.75-hectare fish farm is in Mtunzini, up the north coast of KwaZulu-Natal, about an hour and 20 minutes north of Durban and about 30km south of Richards Bay.
Keet says his journey to aquaculture was undesigned. As a lover of science and the outdoors he was not enticed by the BCom finance degree he completed at Stellenbosch University in 2008. Although he completed some holiday work as a commerce intern following his graduation, he wanted to pursue a career in science.
“I have always been science orientated and of course aquaculture was the course they offered in the animal science department at Stellenbosch. So I did a BSc in animal sciences specialising in aquaculture.”
He then completed a Masters in Fisheries Sciences at Rhodes University’s Ichthyology department in Makana, formerly known as Grahamstown. “That’s how I sort of landed up here in Mtunzini,” he says, “I came up here to do my research for my master’s thesis.”
When he arrived on the farm as a researcher in 2012 the farm was called Mtunzini Fish Farm and it was under different management. In 2016 the company was taken over by the Zini Fish Farm management and that’s when he was appointed as one of the directors.
“This farm is quite old. It was a prawn farm initially and it was built in the late 80’s and the early 90’s. That operation came to a halt in the early 2000’s and it laid fallow for a few years. Then a new person took over and they started developing it as a fish farm,” he says.
As a director he specialises as a hatchery technician where he monitors the hatching larvae. “The first couple of days the little fish are quite delicate, and they are quite tricky to rear. It requires quite a lot of equipment and expertise to grow enough fish on the farm and to get it right on a big enough scale.”
Keet says since the tilapia industry is undermarketed and there is not a lot of support in the industry, he has to wear many hats throughout the day to put the tilapia industry on the map.
“I have to be quite adaptable and be able to do many different things because it is not a well-defined, well-serviced facet of the agricultural industry yet. But in the same vein it is also what I enjoy the most about it because you are able to do all kind of different things as opposed to having a very specific job.
“I get a bit scared of having to do a monotonous job where I have to do the same thing every single day,” he says.
Zini Fish Farm is South Africa’s largest pond-based aquaculture farm and its warm climate and access to sea and estuary water is well-suited to grow the Mozambique tilapia.
“The Mozambique tilapia performs better in our farming environment, even though most people grow some tilapia fish like the Nile tilapia in fresh water,” he says.
Keet explains the Mozambique tilapia evolved in saltwater. Rearing these fish in a saltwater environment results in lower stress and cortisol levels.
“Another benefit is that fresh water is quite a scarce commodity not only in South Africa but in the world. We are not limited by needing fresh water. We just use estuary water which is in abundance here in South Africa.”
The farm supplies most of their fish to supermarkets in Durban and in rural local areas in northern KZN, Empangeni, Richards Bay and Esikhawini.
“There are a lot of people living in the rural areas of northern KZN and people don’t realise the size of the informal market, because there is very little information available on it. That is why I am focusing on selling in that informal rural market,” he says.
Aquaculture a key to food production
The Rondebosch High School matriculant believes that aquaculture is a crucial part of our food production system going forward. However, it is underdeveloped specifically in South Africa. He believes that it is imperative that we start focusing on developing an industry that produces more than abalone, trout, oysters, and the small amount of tilapia farming we have.
“I want be involved in some projects that aspire to achieve a meaningful aquaculture industry in South Africa. I don’t need to be the one leading. But I would like to be involved trying to achieve that goal,” he says.