By Fred Mwasa and Sylidio Sebuharara
- Rwanda’s per capita fish consumption is 2.3 kilograms, far below its neighbours Burundi (3.6 kilograms), Tanzania (8 kilograms) and Uganda (10 kilograms). The global average of 20.5 kilograms per capita.
- Reason? Rwanda’s lakes and rivers are producing insufficient fish to satisfy the demand, despite a five-fold increase in annual fish production.
- From a year-long investigation, we report that the physiography of Rwanda’s lakes (how they were ‘born’), the country’s unfavourable climate and other man-made factors have prevented fish development.
- We also uncovered details on the impact of imports, especially from China, on Rwanda’s fish industry.
- From the experts we interviewed and research data reviewed, we propose what needs to be done to avail the much-needed fish.
It is mid-July 2020, early morning on the Rubavu shores of Lake Kivu, a deep-water lake shared with the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). A group of nine men had returned earlier with 5 kilograms of silverfish after spending the entire previous night on the lake
As is standard practice, a team of nine from COPILAC (Coopérative des Pêcheurs de Isambaza du Lac Kivu) fishing cooperative, operates a combined fishery fleet of 3 small boats. They are tied together. They leave late evening and return the next morning. There are very few such groups, as part of official measures to avoid overfishing.
At the arrival site, there is a small makeshift fish market. Three silverfish, known in Rwanda as “Isambaza”, small as they are, cost Rwf 100 ($0.10).
Reluctant buyers and eager sellers all agree this is a very high price and a strange way of measurement. A kilogram of Isambaza contains between 90-100 fish, but we later learn that a kilo goes for a far higher price – between Rwf 2,000 and 3,500 ($3.5) – in Kigali and other regions, depending on how good the season is.
Silver fish is a national delicacy in Rwanda and its neighbours, Burundi and DR Congo. But the meager production at the Lake Kivu site is a small piece of a very complicated puzzle that we have attempted to break down in an investigation we have conducted since April 2020.
The small landlocked Rwanda, petit as it is, has 101 lakes spread in different regions.
In 2020, Lake Kivu accounted for 44.9 percent of total national fish production (16,194 tonnes out of 36,047 tonnes), as per agriculture ministry data.
The government’s own fish development strategy from 2011 showed that a Rwandan consumed an average of 1.5 kilograms of fish annually ten years ago, far below the sub-Saharan average of 6.7 kilograms and the global rate of 16.6 kilograms at the time.
The per capita fish consumption has since increased more than 50 percent, to 2.3 kilograms per capita in 2018, according to an independent study by the Netherlands-based Wageningen Centre for Development Innovation at the Wageningen University & Research. Still, consumption remains far below the global average of 20.5 kilograms per capita in 2018, the sub-Saharan Africa average of 10 kilograms per capita as reported by the FAO in 2018, and even its neighbours Burundi (3.6 kilograms), Tanzania (8 kilograms), and Uganda (10 kilograms).
Traditionally, Rwandans do not eat much fish. But following the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi, at least 2 million people who had fled decades earlier returned from different countries like Burundi, Uganda, Tanzania, and the United States, where many had been born. They brought a fish-eating culture, which has slowly been adopted by other Rwandans. Fish is mainly eaten in urban areas, especially Kigali, and around lakes.
Fish production has been increasing at a relatively high rate in Rwanda, but still, the fish produced is unable to meet the growing demand. In 2020, fish production reached 36,047 metric tonnes – an almost five-fold increase from 7,300 metric tonnes in 2001, according to statistics from the Ministry of Agriculture and Animal Resources and the National Institute of Statistics of Rwanda (NISR).
But the population has boomed even more, and the quantity of fish produced still remains far too low to satisfy this growing population.
In other words, Rwanda’s 13 million people, the most densely populated in the region, consume the smallest amount of fish. This, despite the country’s many lakes.
Why doesn’t Rwanda support fish? The answer is in the science
Based on a review of troves of documents, interviews with scientists who spent years studying Rwanda’s fish industry, breeders, and importers, we found a complex web of factors that prevent Rwanda from having the fish it needs.
The impediments are topographic – the elevation of the country, physiographic – how the 24 major fishing lakes were formed millions of years back, and man-made factors that prevent fish from growing.
For decades, scientists and the government have all been grappling to find a fine balance that could increase fish production, and thereafter consumption. It is puzzling that a country with so many lakes and other water bodies, has a very negligible amount of fish.
According to the government’s 10-year fish development master plan designed in 2011, the national fish production at the time was meager.
The strategy paper read: “With the projected 16 million people by 2020, the country will need 112,000 tons of fish annually if the population is to catch up with the average fish consumption in Sub-Saharan Africa.”
With the country already in 2021, the Rwanda Agriculture and Animal Resources Development Board (RAB) data show that by the end of 2019, the country had 1,087 fish ponds – mostly run by cooperatives.
With the plans in place, the government hopes fish production, combining natural and artificial fishing, will reach at least 45,000 tons in 2021, according to the agriculture ministry projections issued in January 2021. But still, this will be far too low to fill the needs gap.
What is wrong with Rwanda and fish?
In the wee hours of July 1, 2021, employees of commercial fish farmer Themistocles Munyangeyo arrived at their landing site on Lake Muhazi in eastern Rwanda. What they witnessed sent shockwaves across the nation.
For more than two weeks, Munyangeyo locked himself in his home due to trauma. He had invested more than Rwf 270m ($271,000) in the fish cages. Now all of it was gone. Two days following the disaster on Lake Muhazi, the agriculture ministry issued a statement from a fact-finding mission, saying it had been caused by “depletion of dissolved Oxygen caused by water turnover.”
Different studies conducted since 1991 highlight overfishing as a major obstacle to the sustainability of the fisheries industry in Rwanda. The study “Etude Sectorielle de la Pêche et al pisciculture au Rwanda,” 1991, noted excessive overfishing in Rwanda lakes, which is caused by too many fishermen, illegal fishing, and use of destructive gears, according to the government’s 2011 master plan.
A 2008 French government-funded study attributed the collapsed fisheries in the Eastern Province lakes to Clarias gariepinus (African catfish) and the alien Protopterus aethiopicus (Imamba). This latter was ironically introduced by a government and donor-supported project in 1985-87 to boost fisheries production.
As for fish farming, government and colonial archives show it started in Rwanda at the end of the 1940s during the monarch and the Belgian colonial administration. In 1952 and 1954, the government constructed two main fingerling production centres at l’Ecole des Assistants Agricoles, Butare, in southern Rwanda, and the Kigembe Station in western Rwanda. It provided direct support to fish farmers including extension services, seed, and other inputs.
From the 1970s up to 1994, there were various UN and bilateral donor-funded projects for fish development. The Netherlands allocated nearly $6 million. The Canadians were also here. USAID financed another $52 million fish project between 1983-94. The Belgians, who were the colonial rulers of Rwanda, funded other projects as well.
However, according to the Rwanda government’s own admission, a view shared by scientists, the common feature of these state interventions was always a boom during project times, followed by declined production and abandoning of the ponds at the expiry of the projects – clearly demonstrating lack of sustainability.
We traced one person who knows quite a volume on Rwanda’s fish troubles. American Dr. Karen L. Veverica led the USAID-funded National Fish Culture Project in Rwanda through Auburn University. She lived in Rwanda for more than 10 years as the Project’s Chief of Party doing everything fish, and is currently Director of the University’s E.W. Shell Fisheries Center Fisheries and Allied Aquacultures.
Veverica told us that before her team arrived, there had already been various other interventions to increase fish in Rwanda, and she needed to find a new approach. They looked at everything needed for fish to thrive, to try to answer: what is Rwanda missing in that ecosystem?
The team looked at a variety of issues including Rwanda’s climate, how Rwanda’s lakes were formed, and the culture of fish-eating in Rwanda.
“When our faculty got the contract from USAID, Auburn University people were really skeptical because there were too many factors working against the success of the project,” explained Dr. Veverica. “The factors were, as I described in the  research: It’s a cool climate relative to other countries; the water is mostly wetlands or valley-bottoms, typically not a good place for aquaculture; the people don’t eat fish – they’re not fish eaters by their history. Extension was also going to be really difficult because people were dispersed so much, they weren’t really in villages.”
Climate – The entire country is at a high altitude, meaning it is above many other regional neighbors. The country’s topography is hilly and mountainous with an altitude averaging 1,700 meters. The highest point on Mount Karisimbi is 4,507 meters above sea level. Even though Rwanda is entirely situated within the equatorial zone, it enjoys a moderate tropical climate due to its high altitude, with average annual temperatures of 20°C, which is low and not favourable for most fish species to grow naturally.
According to RAB records as of March 2020, the climate around the different lake systems inside the country is also different because they are at different elevations. This determines how cold or warm the water becomes. While Kivu is 24°C, Lake Ruhondo is between 22-23°C, and L. Burera is between 21-22°C. Burera is about 150 meters above Ruhondo. Rwanda’s water temperatures range up to 30°C.
It is however important to note that different fish species have different climatic needs. The FAO has put together global estimates for various species.
According to the Auburn University study, Rwanda’s unusual temperatures make it “not the ideal place to do fish farming” because all the country’s waters are “generally too cold for the warm water species – their optimum temps are 30°C, and too warm for the cold-water species like trout, where water temperatures should be 18°C and lower. A separate project by the FAO once tried to introduce trout fish into the river streams in Nyungwe Forest.
Dr. Veverica explains: “So the growth rate for the Nile Tilapia that you have in Rwanda is much slower than what it is on fish farms in Uganda. Even Uganda’s climate isn’t that ideal… But, Rwanda has a lot of other advantages, as they call it the country of eternal springtime. You guys have great weather. In fact, I’m sitting outside my house right now in Alabama and the weather is just like Rwanda. You know, cool mornings, warm in the afternoon but not too hot.”
There have been suggestions that Rwanda tries out other warm-water fish species like catfish as they can grow well in warm water temperatures. However, catfish are full of bones.
Climate change will also have a direct and indirect impact on fish. Warming water bodies might affect the growth of fish, explains Leonce Ngirinshuti, a Limnology and Aquaculture expert at the University of Rwanda’s Rwasave Fish Farm and Research Station, Huye district.
“Take for example Tilapia Clarias found in Rwanda and some other species [that] need a temperature range of 26-30°C. When water temperatures reach 35°C, the fish get stressed and they don’t eat. The same situation happens when the water temperature goes below the range,” explained Ngirinshuti.
This station, established in 2018, conducts research and farms fingerlings for local farmers, with some exported to Goma and Bukavu in eastern DR Congo.
The station farms African catfish, producing about 100,000 fingerlings monthly. Last year, more than 50,000 fingerlings were bought by Congolese. The week after our interview with Ngirinshuti, the Rwasave station had orders for 40,000 fingerlings from both Goma and Bukavu.
“At the moment, the impact of climate change is not widespread on Rwanda because we have very few fish species in natural environments and fish farms,” Ngirinshuti said.
For example, Lake Kivu, which supplies the largest quantity of fish, is home to about 40 species. As for fish farming, only three types are produced in Rwanda; Tilapia nilotica, African catfish, and common carp (cyprinus carpio), according to the University of Rwanda’s Rwasave fish research station.
But Ngirinshuti agrees with other scientists that lakes are warming, thereby affecting the fish.
“You find our ponds [at the UR fish station] are drying up. To fill them, we have ended up in conflict with the local population because they also get their water from the same wells that are drying up as well,” he said.
With a combination of natural and man-made factors affecting fish production in Rwanda, the various researchers call first for a comprehensive study of Rwanda’s physiography, followed by a genetic improvement of fish species like Tilapia to fit into the conditions of Rwandan waters.
Fewer fish species, overfishing
Away from the climatic conditions impacting fish life in Rwanda, the American scientists discovered that Rwanda also has a very small number of fish species.
Dr. Veverica explained: “Lake Kivu used to be [part of] the Nile [River] drainage, that used to drain up to Lake Edward [in Uganda]. But when the Virunga mountains formed – they are apparently relatively young – these changed the drainage of Lake Kivu to go to the south to Lake Tanganyika [in Burundi and Tanzania].”
This meant that few new species were naturally introduced in the lake due to its isolation, according to Dr. Veverica.
A checklist released in January 2001 by the Journal of East African Natural History, found 82 species belonging to 12 families in Rwanda’s waters, including the numerous lakes, Rusizi basin, and Mukungwa river. It is the only available checklist so far.
To understand what it means by Rwanda having fewer fish species, we compared it to regional neighbours. Burundi, which is nearly the same size as Rwanda, had 112 fish species as of a 2012 checklist. In Rwanda’s northern neighbour Uganda, a government database shows that as of 2013, the country had at least 500 unique and endemic fish species in its waters – most of them in Lake Victoria and Lake Kyoga. In Tanzania, a 2002 study estimated more than 1,000 fish species, with up to 500 species found in the country’s coastal waters. As for Kenya, there were 206 species belonging to 38 families known from freshwaters alone, not counting its huge coastline.
Between 1951-1954, the Belgian colonial administration in Rwanda introduced three kinds of tilapia fish; Tilapia rendalli, Oreochromis macrochir, and Tilapia rendalli from the Zambezi region in Southern Africa and Katanga (DR Congo). It turned out that some of them couldn’t thrive very well in some lakes. The Auburn University team found that another different species, the Nile Tilapia, survived better.
Among the many lakes in the Akagera park region, scientists found that Lake Ihema offered good breeding grounds for fish. The productivity was also increased by the presence of hippos that foraged and defecated in the lake, giving fish an ideal place to grow.
However, there is also a challenge in the Akagera region of over-fishing and using nets that take out much smaller fish – which eventually affects the growth in the lakes. The scientists have called this situation a “Tragedy of the commons”.
For the past nearly 10 years, the Rwanda National Police has deployed the Police Marine Unit to control overfishing and enforcement of rules such as the use of legal nets. However, local and central government officials admit that enforcement is politically difficult since people depend on the fish for their livelihoods.
The seasonal ban on fishing during August and October, for instance, is mainly enforced on Lake Kivu. However, illegal fishing has not been eradicated completely. For example, in Nyamasheke district, one of those bordering Lake Kivu, local officials said in January 2021 that for the previous year they had confiscated and burnt over 980 illegal fishing nets worth Rwf400 million ($400,000).
For years, there was no legal instrument dealing with various aspects of illegal fishing. A Ministerial Order regulating aquaculture and fisheries was finally put in place in November 2020 outlining a list of legal fishing equipment, fishing hours, and sites, among other elements. It also details penalties.
Data released by the RAB in January 2021 as reported by The New Times showed that due to illegal fishing practices such as the use of bad fish nets, fish production in Lake Kivu had decreased by more than 7,000 tonnes.
In addition to illegal fishing, the restrictions on movement during Covid-19 pandemic lockdowns also contributed to low fish production in 2020.
A shortage of oxygen
People were shocked and fishermen demoralized when tonnes of fish washed up dead on the shores of Lake Muhazi in early July. Something similar had also happened on Muhazi back in January 2021, killing more than 10,000 fish.
Lack of oxygen stems partly from the physiography of some of Rwanda’s lakes, or how they were “born.”
As deep waters contain no oxygen, Lakes Burera, and Ruhondo in the north experience a mixing every year or what’s also called a “turnover,” where the oxygen-less waters come up and mix with the surface water, killing almost all the fish in those lakes. This is also what happened in Lake Muhazi but caused by a different phenomenon.
With regard to Lakes Burera and Ruhondo, Dr. Veverica explained; “It is not poison that kills [the fish], it’s the zeroing of oxygen.”
Rwandan researchers reporting in the 2020 Rwanda Journal of Engineering, Science, Technology, and Environment also found that water in Lakes Burera and Ruhondo was “unusable for drinking” by humans.
When it comes to Lake Kivu, which is essentially Rwanda’s ‘fish basket’, it has unique features. A 2006 study by an expert committee comprising American and Danish teams describes how Lake Kivu is a nutrients sink, which basically means that the plankton (foods) which would be feeding the fish, is instead sinking too deep for the fish to reach.
“So those deep lakes like Kivu and Tanganyika are nice and clear because they are nutrient sinks,” said Dr. Veverica, while commenting on the issue.
Lake Kivu is 485 meters deep – but there is no oxygen below 50 meters largely because the sunlight can’t penetrate to reach down there. This means fish cannot swim down to the areas where most of the nutrients are falling.
Due to its strange physiography and the methane gas that it contains, Lake Kivu also occasionally undergoes a phenomenon called “seiche” whereby the lake experiences violent storms that pull deep water up to the surface and push the surface water to the other side of the lake. As a result, multitudes of fish are killed. But according to Dr. Veverica, from Auburn University, the “seiche” phenomenon doesn’t come very often, and last took place in the 1980s.
While the deep waters are blocked below 250 meters, the surface waters within the first 60 meters are subject to a high level of seasonal mixing, considerably influencing the variations in this system, according to the team of Belgian researchers in their 2012 study on Lake Kivu.
These temperature changes during the different seasons contribute to an unstable environment for many fish to survive.
Researchers from the University of Rwanda’s fish research station say that although no in-depth research has yet been conducted, the phenomenon that happened on Lake Muhazi is worsening due to climate change. When temperatures increase, there is an increase in bacteria in lakes like Muhazi which influences the decomposition of nutrients and organic matter. The problem is also aggravated due to agriculture, whereby nutrients deposited from fertilizers and waste stimulate the growth of algae, which consumes oxygen. This process is called eutrophication.
The Rusumo Falls Dam factor
Several years ago, the governments of Rwanda, Tanzania, and Burundi agreed to construct a hydropower dam at Rusumo falls along their common border. Jointly funded by the World Bank and the African Development Bank Group, the Chinese-built dam will generate 80 megawatts of electricity to be shared by the neighbors at a cost of $468 million. However, right from the time, the idea was mooted, environmentalists had unease with the structure.
The Rusumo falls is one reason there are very few fish species in Rwanda – because it blocked the migration upstream.
“Fish tend to migrate upstream and they were blocked by those falls. So the fish that are in the Akagera region are kind of Lake Victoria species, but they didn’t ever move up all the way into the rest of Rwanda,” explained Dr. Veverica, from Auburn University.
When the dam was built, people feared it would further obstruct the migration of fish downstream, into the Akagera lakes and river system.
Now, with the dam in place and due for completion in early 2022, we sought the project’s environmental impact assessment study. It was conducted by German-based Fichtner Group and submitted in March 2013 to the Nile Basin Initiative, the regional grouping which is managing the dam project.
We shared the study with Auburn University’s Dr. Veverica for an independent review of the findings. She said that even if the dam was not there, the lakes in the Akagera region are not suited for major fish production.
“The lakes of the Bugesera [region] are very shallow and prone to silting in. They are therefore quite unproductive. There is also a listing of the total surface area of these lakes. If you add them up, it is about 20,000 hectares,” she said.
“At the low air temperatures in that area (average 20C) I expect the natural productivity of these lakes to be around 50 kilograms per hectare per year. That is only going to provide 1,000 tons [of fish] if the fishery is well-managed.”
Dr. Veverica added that the backwaters of the dam will be another good opportunity to start fish farming thereafter the dam has been filled up.
Fierce competition from Chinese imports
The local fish production industry is also suffering from fierce competition from Chinese imports. We also established that because retailers buy Chinese fish at Rwf 1,500 ($1.53) per kilogram, they make more profit selling them at a market price of Rwf 3,500 ($3.57) than when they deal in local fish.
Businessman and fish breeder Munyangeyo explained in the October 2020 interview: “What retailers in markets do is they for example buy 10 kilograms of Chinese fish, then buy 5 kilograms of local fish and mix them. Remember, however, that the Chinese fish would have been in containers for up to three months. Government has to stop these Chinese fish if they want our sector to develop.”
Imports of fish have seen huge expansion since the year 2000, from just 144 kilograms in that year to over 35,000 tonnes this past year 2020, according to data from the Trade and Industry Ministry, which was provided exclusively to The Chronicles. Imports came mainly from Tanzania and Kenya, and some from Asia, largely China. Some imports came from cage farms in Uganda and small dried Indagara (Lake Tanganyika Sardines) from Burundi. But as relations between Rwanda and its two neighbors have severed, imports have been hit, causing high retail prices of fish in Rwanda today.
By 2016, a kilo of Burundian Indagara (dried Sardines) was selling for Rwf 7,000. Local traders attest that as the border was closed by Burundi after imposing a trade embargo on its northern neighbour, supplies dried away – sending prices to more than Rwf 12,000 for the same kilo. In the markets, traders say they cannot get supplies today for the much-loved Indagara compared to the local Isambaza from Lake Kivu in Rwanda. Traders say the Burundian Indagara were adored because they have good soup and don’t have sand in them.
Private firm Alpha Choice Rwanda Ltd. allowed us a glimpse into its fish import business. Pankaj Kapse, the company’s managing director, said they have been bringing in approximately 100 tons of fish monthly for the Rwanda market. They import different fish types from Kenya, Tanzania, Korea, Japan, Oman, India, and China.
The company imports mainly sea fish and also the common Tilapia.
The company’s business is said to cover at least 40% market share of general fish imports and has invested $3 million in the Kigali Special Economic Zone, Masoro to develop a cold storage facility.
But why does the company import Tilapia, yet it is produced locally? The managing director Kapse said: “Tilapia can be produced locally, but the production is limited in Rwanda due to [high] cost of production.”
Even with the country’s relatively low fish imports, much of it is re-exported from Rwanda to DR Congo and Burundi.
Rwanda’s local exports of fish have grown tremendously in the past 15 years. In 2005, only about 37 tonnes were exported, but this figure grew by more than 500 times to 20,986 metric tonnes last year, accruing USD $20.5 million, according to data from the Trade and Industry Ministry. Still, fish imports remain higher than exports.
On the local production cycle, Kuradusenge Pelagie, known by her business name ‘Madam Samaki,’ has harvested 5 tons of fish per month since 2017 from her cages located on the Karongi side of Lake Kivu. She would like to reach no fewer than 10 tons monthly. Before the Covid-19 pandemic, she was selling much of the produce to hospitality facilities, since Karongi was a major tourist destination. This demand from big hotels has since dried up, affecting everyone in the sector.
At a special state of the nation event held virtually by President Paul Kagame on December 21, 2020, Kuradusenge spoke from Karongi district.
She told the president that her business faces a tough challenge of getting feed for fingerlings, which is all imported from outside Rwanda. Even though the government has removed all taxes on imported fingerlings feed, as well as on other materials needed for fish farming, the industry wants more incentives to survive. For example, they want the government to require local feed producers to start producing their own fingerlings feed.
At the same time, Kuradusenge, like competitor Munyangeyo, also complains of imports, especially from China. “You find a Kilo of Chinese fish costs about Rwf 2,500, while consumers will be asked for about Rwf 3,800 for our locally harvested fish,” she said.
Efforts to build Rwanda’s fisheries continue. During a press briefing on May 26, 2020, the Rwanda Agriculture and Animal Resources Development Board (RAB) announced that in early 2019 it started a research project on the Burera and Ruhondo lakes. Solange Uwituze, Deputy Director-General of Animal Research and Technology Transfer, said they had introduced sardines (Isambaza) fish in those two lakes and had found they grow there very well like they do in Lake Kivu.
Actually, the RAB official told the nation that the new project could theoretically provide up to 500 tonnes of fish per week.
We put RAB’s analysis to our independent experts including Dr. Veverica, from Auburn University.
For her part, Dr. Veverica said: “The low temperatures [in those two lakes] mean the growth rates will be a bit slower. And there is a chance that lake turnover will kill all the fish occasionally. But it’s worth a try. Hopefully, they didn’t spend too much money. Even if the occasional disaster occurs, they can re-stock.”
This story was produced in partnership with InfoNile with support from Code for Africa and funding from JRS Biodiversity Foundation. Editing by Annika McGinnis and Fredrick Mugira. Artwork and static graphics by Jonathan Kabugo.