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South Africa trip inspires Kenyan accountant to set up multi-million hatchery

A trip to South Africa by a Kenyan accountant was the inspiration that saw him quit a job to start a hatchery and fingerling-rearing venture, which has now transformed into a multi-million venture.

Otieno Okello has gone to South Africa to take up a new job as the head of transaction banking with a multinational lender. But he would later take a break to try his hand at rearing fish, inspired by the returns he saw farmers in South Africa drawing from the venture. He retreated to his rural home in Kisumu armed with the will and the zeal to delve into what he saw in South Africa.

The hatchery business entailed rearing catfish fingerlings and selling them to fishermen who used fish as bait for catching Nile perch. The returns were tremendous as he only had one competitor amid so much demand. The fishermen had been hitherto relying on fingerlings they bought from individuals who sourced them from rivers and streams. Mr Okello saw an opportunity and moved to cash in on it.

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“The venture was very successful since I only knew of one other person who was doing the same business, although on a smaller scale,” says Mr Okello. He adopted a modern method of breeding the fingerlings — the re-circulation aquaculture system — a method that involves rearing fish in vessels under controlled and automated systems for maximum and quick yields. One of the benefits of the method is that a farmer is in control of all factors such as predators, pollution, and temperature.

His joy was, however, cut short two years later with the invasion of the menacing water hyacinth, which led to a drastic dip in fishing in Lake Victoria. The demand for his fingerlings also dropped, forcing him to close shop. Mr Okello went back to South Africa and set up a high-end travel and logistics firm with an eye on corporates, government heads, and embassies. It largely cashed in on the World Cup that the country hosted in 2010.

That was not all; the banker went back to study fish farming and modern aquaculture practices. Out of the knowledge he gathered, he came back to Kenya in 2011 and invested Sh15 million in his Maseno Ridge fish farm. The venture produces fingerlings in greenhouses. He also constructs similar structures for individuals and companies. The company specialises in mono-sex fingerlings, which he says are good for farming due to their uniform maturity rate compared to keeping both sexes, which tend to get overpopulated, thus limiting growth.

Maseno Ridge Fish Farm designs systems for fish farming in greenhouses at high density, complete with an automated system of water purification, temperature control, and oxygen fixing.

The biggest module he offers is a four-tonne fish-catch greenhouse system that guarantees an investor returns of at least Sh400,000 on every harvest, which is between four and six months, he says. The installation cost for such a system is Sh10 million, which he says is cheap considering the returns, a lifespan of over 15 years, and adaptability to diverse regions.

He set up the module mainly for institutions and individuals with an eye for the lucrative large-scale fish industry. The system, he says, can be scaled up to produce eight tonnes of fish in every harvest. In terms of space, the system occupies a quarter-an-acre of land while a farm the size of a basketball court can accommodate a two-tonne harvest fish breeding system.

Aware of the deterrent installation costs, Mr Okello says he is developing internal capacity to handle huge demand before releasing a cheaper module to the market. “There are volumes in the Sh100,000 and Sh500,000 brackets, but for sure, I am still developing the capacity to handle them because you can rush for the money and disappoint customers,” he notes. Such a module, while occupying even much less space, is ideal for small-scale fish farmers in rural or urban areas. It is poised to produce a catch of 800 fish after four months.

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His firm is also designing a “do it yourself”, kit giving customers a manual and one-off mechanical support, making installation fast and easy. He offers extension services to his customers. The technology on Mr Okello’s farm requires immense expertise, which he trains, but he suffers a high turnover of staff, making him start over often.

Another challenge is that he has to source most of the aquaculture equipment from South Africa. He is currently working on a cooling plant to buy and store fish for constant supply to the market. “Fish is very perishable and the market tends to favour fresh rather than smoked or dried supply, so there is immense potential ahead,” he said. He chairs an outfit he formed with his peers to improve the quality of aquaculture in the country.

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