How to reverse the African propensity to import fish?

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By Carpophore Ntagungira

The African continent has 54 states, 38 of which have sea access and profit from maritime fishing. Several African lakes (with the two largest ones in the world being lakes Tanganyika and Victoria) and its big rivers (Nile, Niger, Congo, Zambezi) are also rich in fish. In 2015, fish production in Africa amounted to 11 million tons, with 85% coming from catch fishing and 15% from fish farming, accounted for 7% of the world production.

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However, Africa’s exclusive economic zones (EEZ)[1] are not as extended as the areas exploited by other continents. By virtue of its size, Africa is the third-largest continent in the world (22% of the land area), but it has the smallest maritime fishing zone (9%) with only 1% for Western Africa. African EEZs are smaller than those of other continents which have, through history, conquered several islands dispersed across the world (Table 1).

Beyond the spatial dimension, bad management of marine ecosystems has affected fish stocks in a substantial way. The catch of very important fish quantities without taking into consideration the related norms (fishing zones, mesh size of fishing’s nets, etc.), is a very common practice in African waters.

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That overexploitation is accompanied by a notable damaging of biomasses and a loss of economic value due to the very high proportion of small size individuals in the catches. That situation is made worse by illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing (IUU) which, besides the thinning of fish stocks, destroys marine habitats and weakens the inshore communities. The UUI fishing particularly costs to West Africa more than US $1 billion per year[3]. In 2006, Michael Fleshman already announced that deep water fish stocks off the West Africa coast (that is the part of the ocean which is at depths exceeding 400 metres), had decreased by half since 1970. Like sea fishing, continental fishing in Africa has seen the number of catches decrease. Lake Tanganyika (the second biggest in the world) has, since 1946, witnessed a thinning of fish reserves estimated to 38% due to combined effects of overfishing and climate change[4].

Source: Fishing and aquaculture directorate, Togo

Besides, Africa is detrimentally falling behind in terms of commercial policy and industrial fishing fleet. Fish imports by African countries on the world market which amounted to US $4.8 billion in 2014 with only 26% coming from the African continent (Table 2) reflect the weakness of the intra-African trade. The strong dependence on fish imported from outside the continent does not mean that African waters do not have enough fish, but rather that a large part of Africa faces a shortage of aquaculture skills and appropriate fleet to go beyond craft fishing. Togo provides an eloquent example of this situation (Table 3).

Having no capacity to undertake industrial fishing, most African countries resort to agreements which allow foreign fleets to have access to African fish stocks without having their flows counted in their exports. That transfer of fishing rights brings to Africa US $400 million per year but that activity could generate an income of more than US $3 billion with the creation of 300,000 new jobs if those enterprises were established on the continent. The West African coasts are the most affected by illegal fishing in the world, which represents 37 to 40% of the total catches in the region.

All those combined inconveniences have made Africa go progressively from the position of fish net exporter to that of a net importer (Table 4). About 13 years ago, African fish catch resources and fish farming made it possible for the continent to meet its needs and bring out surpluses estimated at US $1.1 billion. Since 2001, that performance has decreased to an annual average rate of 13%, reaching a deficit of US $294 million in 2014. The Economic Community of West African States zone has known the highest deficit of US $1,398 million in 2014 despite the fact that countries of that region have a coastline of 6,000 kilometres, an EEZ of 2 million km2 and the most fish-stocked coasts in the world.

To satisfy their fish consumption needs, 35 of the 54 African countries depend on imports. The most vulnerable countries are found in Sub-Saharan Africa and combine the economic zones of Economic Community of West African States, Economic and Monetary Community of Central Africa and a good part of the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa. It is also in those African economic zones that fish consumption per inhabitant is the lowest in the world and where it progressively decreased ever since 2001. On the other hand, four economic zones (Southern African Customs Union, Southern African Development Community, East African Community and the Maghreb) are on aggregate self-sufficient in fish, which means that their production exceeds the regional demand (Table 4). Morocco, Namibia and Mauritania are the countries with the most surplus. Nigeria, Egypt and Côte d’Ivoire have the most deficits.

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If Africa continues to be subjected to a worsening in the fish trade balance at the current average rate of 13% per year, its deficit shall reach US $1.2 billion by 2025, which will quadruple in 10 years. In that context, beyond the further need of regulating fishing, an African strategy is of necessity in order for fish exports of African countries with surplus (Maghreb and Southern Africa) to be oriented towards the West African countries which largely have the most deficits. Above all, almost 9 million km2 (31% of the land area) of the Sub-Saharan Africa are well-suited to small-scale fish farming. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, if only 0.5% of that area was devoted to aquaculture, Africa would meet a third of the continent additional fish demand from now to 2025. The contribution of aquaculture represents already half of the fish production of the developing countries even though it remains below 10% in Sub-Saharan Africa[5].

On balance, fish farming remains the most sustainable alternative to address the Africa challenges of meeting its needs through the sea, lake and river catches. Asian countries, which contribute to about 90% of the world’s fish farming, could serve as a model for the whole of Africa. To that effect, in order to reverse the African propensity to being a net fish importer, AfDB has through its 2016–2025 strategy “Feed Africa” listed fish farming among the chains of values to promote in order to reduce the food import bill, improve youth entrepreneurship and thereby ensuring food security.


[1] An exclusive economic zone (EEZ) is, according to the Law of the Sea, a maritime space on which a coastal state enjoys sovereign rights over the exploration and use of marine resources. It extends from the state baseline to approximately 370 km from its coast at the maximum, and beyond that it is international waters.

[2] Southern African Customs Union (SACU); East African Community (EAC); Southern African Development Community (SADC); Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA); Economic Community of West African States (CEDEAO); Economic and Monetary Community of Central Africa (CEMAC); Economic and Monetary Union for West  Africa (UEMOA).

[3] Overseas Development Institute (ODI) and porCausa, “Western Africa’s missing fish. The impacts of illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing and under-reporting catches by foreign fleets”, London, June 2016, 45p. 

[4] Andrew S. Cohen and al (2016), Climate warming reduces fish production and benthic habitat in Lake Tanganyika, one of the most biodiverse freshwater ecosystems, PNAS (US), June 17, 2016, 6p.

[5] FAO, The State of the World Fisheries and Aquaculture, FAO, Rome, 2016, table p. 173.

Categories: Carpophore Ntagungira


Fritz Eder - Austria 07/01/2017 00:45
I guess because of lack of reliable and easy accessible electrical energy cooling is bad. I guess a high portion of fish caught simply is rotting soon afterwards.
In Austria it is unthinkable that fish does not have a closed cooling chain from catchment to kitchen.
Despite it would be very easy to install those measures.

Further, waste water treatment is not a cost factor, it is a gain factor. Also very easy biological waste water treatment from single houses to villages and cities might be made locally.
Maziwèdon BADABADI - Togo 08/11/2016 14:58
M. Carpophore, c'est dommage votre constat. Qu'on ait plus de poissons exploités dans nos mers et qu'in fine nous soyons toujours importateurs. Pourquoi ne pas mettre des stratégies en place pour que le gain de la pêche marine en terme d'emploi et de revenu puisse profiter effectivement aux africains? Les pays africains qui en font mieux ne peuvent-ils pas être un point de levier pour les autres en terme de transfert de compétences?