On the expansive Kogwari Beach, some 24 kilometres from Bondo town in Siaya County, sits Bolena Fish Farm.
The Seeds of Gold finds Rodgers Ogola, the manager of the farm, and several workers preparing to install circular, high-density polyethylene (HDPE) cages in the lake.
It is a delicate exercise that requires everyone on board to remain alert for everything to go right.
"We are installing the new cages to increase our capacity because of growing demand," says Ogola, who leads a team of six workers that handles the hatchery, cages, and marketing of the products.
To install a cage, they tie ropes on it and drag it to its location in the lake using a boat. The exercise takes about 10 minutes, after which they are back to pull the anchors, which help the cages float.
New ways of rearing fish
"Each cage needs four nets. The net that holds the fish goes 6m deep, then we have an underwater predator net, feed net and one that covers the cage, keeping off predators like birds," he explains, noting they have 17 cages, five circular.
Bella Akinyi, the chief executive of the farm, started it in 2009 after visiting various aquaculture farms in the US.
"I wanted the project to generate income for the family and teach locals new ways of rearing fish, considering the wild catch is getting depleted," says Bella, who has invested close to Sh300 million in the business since 2009. She says most of the funds are from her savings.
However, they did not start with cages. "We constructed 10 fish ponds, four of which had parent stock for fingerling production. Back then, the government had set tough conditions for cage fish farming."
With a brooding stock of 2,000, the fish farm produces more than 10,000 tilapia fingerlings in a month, each going for Sh7, as the rest are reared in cages.
Re-circulation aquaculture technology
"But with a new system we have installed in the lake, we will soon be able to produce thousands of fingerlings in hours," says Ogola.
The fingerlings are produced using the re-circulation aquaculture technology, which was adopted after new investments were made.
"The system yields about 40,000 fingerlings in 72 hours. The fingerlings then stay for another three months in the ponds before they are released into the cages, which we first installed in 2014," says Ogola, who has done a short course on aquaculture at the University of Virgin Islands, US.
The largest of their 17 cages, which were installed last year, is circular and made of plastic.
It has a 20m diameter with the capacity to hold 100,000 fish while the rest hold 6,000.
Monitor the business
Currently, they have 60,000 fish in all the cages. They give the fish commercial feeds three times a day. In a day, the farm uses seven 25kg bags that go for Sh2,500 each.
"We start harvesting the fish at eight months when they weigh between 300 and 600g."
Small fish ranging between 300g and 350g go for Sh250 per kilo, while larger ones weighing 350g to 500g cost Sh300 per kilo.
"We sell the fish to locals living along the lake, in Kisumu, Nairobi and we also export up to 10 tonnes every quarter to the US and the UK," says Ogola.
Bella visits the country regularly to monitor the business. "Just two weeks ago she was in the country. She might come back in two weeks' time.
Their biggest challenge
She works closely with the local Beach Management Unit in patrolling the lake and to beef up security," says Ogola.
He notes their biggest challenge is expensive feeds. "Our plan is to start our own fish feeds processing plant to cut the production cost and maintain quality since some companies don't make feeds with good protein content," he says, adding they will sell the surplus.
Safina Musa, a researcher at the Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute, Kisii, notes that in aquaculture, feeds can account for 80 percent of production costs.
"One should only make their feeds if they have the right knowledge. This is because farmers can get the formulations wrong for lack of equipment to test crude protein content of the ingredients, which normally vary depending on season and locality."
In the next five years, the farm plans to have 100 circular cages in the lake. They also plan to have a fish processing plant, notes Ogola, adding so far they have not had challenges with diseases.
1. Inspection of fish and their feeding in cage aquaculture is much easier.
2. Treatment of diseases is much simpler than that of pond culture.
3. In emergencies, cages can be moved from one place to another.
4. Since the cage is meshed, the fish inside have fewer chances of being attacked by predators.
5. Caged fish is unable to get natural food.
6. During feeding, a good amount of food is lost.