South African tilapia fish farmers say cheap imports from China have been hurting them for far too long, placing them in a precarious situation. They are demanding that the department of the environment, forestry and fisheries takes swift action to protect the aquaculture industry.
Cheap tilapia imports from China have taken a toll on the local tilapia aquaculture farmers who are all operating on a small scale. Unable to compete with the low-priced imports, farmers on the home front want the government to help them grow a sustainable tilapia industry.
The department, on the other hand, has expressed their support and has said that it wants to identify and secure new international and domestic markets for the struggling farmers.
Morena Khashane from Mahikeng in North West is one of the farmers affected by the cheap imports.
“We are struggling to access markets,” he says. “Once, my client wanted to only pay R20 per kilogram, as he normally pays R18 per kg for cheap imports. Production cost to produce a kilo of fish is around R25 to R28, then someone is only prepared to pay R20 due to imports.”
Khashane says he was forced to trade for the “ridiculous” price because he could not afford to leave the fish in the water for much longer, as this would run up further production costs.
In her 2020 to 2021 budget and annual performance plan speech the minister of environment, forestry and fisheries, Barbara Creecy, explained that securing sustainable markets for local aquaculture products was of crucial importance. She said this had become important, especially at a time when Asian markets have been disrupted by the covid-19 pandemic and with SA producers now facing more competition from cheap imports.
“Our team is currently working with the department of trade and industry and the industry to identify and secure new international and domestic markets,” she said in her speech.
In a correspondence (seen by Food For Mzansi) between Creecy and Khashane, he voiced his growing frustration about cheap tilapia imports. Creecy responded to say that she had requested her fisheries management branch to engage with Khashane about his concerns on cheap tilapia imports and the impact it has on his business.
She added, “considering the complexity and mandate around trade, the relevant authorities and departments responsible for imports and trade were included in the engagement which began in July 2020.”
The minister stated that her department and the Tilapia Aquaculture Association of South Africa (TAASA) are discussing tilapia imports. Khashane, who is an executive member of TAASA, further argued that tariffs imposed on cheap imports were not the solution.
“The best possible solution will be the subsidy of feeds like they did in Kenya. I strongly believe we can adopt a similar strategy to assist all the fish farmers in our country. But to address this matter the sector needs political willingness,’ Khashane argued in his response.
In Kenya, government introduced subsidised feed for fish farmers in order to increase production in their fishing sector.
Striving for scale
The tilapia industry in Mzansi is still very small, with only 30 farmers contributing to the local industry. According to David Fincham, director of David Fincham Aquaculture based in Roodepoort in Gauteng, the real focus should be on growing the local market and not trying to stop the Chinese from fish dumping.
“We have a billion people to feed and if you start cutting out the imports of tilapia, whether it’s cheap or not cheap, where are people going to get fish from? The answer to this lies in farming more fish locally,” he says.
Fincham admits that the local tilapia aquaculture industry should be protected but insists that South Africa has far too few players. He states the 30 fish farmers are producing way less than what a single farm does anywhere else in the world.
“A lot of focus is on high-tech, high-scale, and high-capital investment tilapia projects. But we want small-scale tilapia projects that are going to feed people in their communities,” Fincham states.
He adds, “If you’re feeding people in your community then the Chinese are not going to come and take away your market.”