A few things to consider as Uganda’s government seeks to grow fish exports

Fishing is one of the major economic activities in Uganda, contributing about 12 percent of agricultural GDP and supplying 50 percent of animal proteins consumed in the country. Therefore, being among the seven products earmarked by government in expansion of exportation is a sensible venture, considering the water mass of the country and how far the fishing sector has grown. 

Communities around lakes, including Victoria, Edward, and Kyoga rely on fishing for their livelihood. Others live around more than 160 minor lakes, rivers, floodplains, swamps and manmade fishing ponds across the country.

According to the Ministry of Agriculture, Animal Industry and Fisheries, and the World Bank, about 18% of Uganda’s total surface area is covered in water (44,000 km of 241,000 km), while Lake Victoria alone contributes about half of the total annual catch.

Fishing also contributes to national food security, employment, and earnings from exports. There are an estimated 1.5 million fishermen across the country, such as boat owners, fish mongers, transporters and processors are engaged in the sector. Additionally, fish and fish products are the country’s second largest export. For instance, investment in the fisheries sector is estimated at $200 million annually. 

Across Africa, the market is huge as about 12.2 million people are employed in the sector, of which 6,147,000 are fishers and 5,202,000 are fish processors. Almost 9 million people are employed in the inland fisheries and artisanal marine fisheries across the continent. 

Thirty years ago, the fishing sector in Uganda was still small until the government undertook several measures to promote fish processing and exportation. Following the liberalization of the economy in the 1990s, private investors joined the industry, removing the monopoly where only state-owned enterprises were involved in the sector.

The move increased fish exports. Today, there are many foreign investors in the sector, with majority owned by Indians. There is the Uganda Fish Processors and Exporters Association that actively participates in the sector. Some of the most exported fish species are the Nile Perch and Tilapia. 

Today, Uganda is able to export fish to Europe, Australia, the Middle East, US, Egypt and Southeast Asia. In 2017, Uganda exported 14,248 tonnes of fish, but a year later, after implementing the stringent measures, the volumes rose to 20,364 tonnes.

Although fish is a leading export commodity, experts note that its value chain in Uganda is still largely unstructured and operations are largely artisanal. Many along the value chain work individually and there are no prevalent on-ground organizations to advocate for better market and prices for fish. Additionally, a section of the population started engaging in illegal fishing methods such as using substandard nets and boats, coupled with poor quality of fish seeds, limited access to fish seeds and feeds, as well as continued trade in illegal and unrecorded immature fish hence costing the country about $429 million in lost income. 

As a result, President Museveni introduced the Fisheries Protection Unit overseen by the Uganda People’s Defense Forces in 2017 to enforce regulations on the countries’ water bodies. Several fishermen were arrested and their equipment confiscated in an attempt to stop fish species from being depleted. 

While this is commendable, another challenge awaits government as it nears for drilling oil. With the recent oil agreements to extract oil from the Albertine region, it is important for government to consider the environmental factors to ensure that fish reserves are protected. 

Previously, there have been concerns that oil drilling from the Lake Albert would cause fish species to dwindle as studies have indicated.  Nile perch catches declined by 46 percent from 2011 to 2015 while tilapia catches were lower by 38% during the same period, according to Uganda’s National Fisheries Resources Research Institute’s fisheries catch assessment survey as cited by Jack Losh in his publication; Uganda joins the rights-of-nature movement but won’t stop oil drilling.  Overall, the survey found a one-year, 44.6% decline in the estimated annual fish catch from 269,533 metric tonnes in 2014 to 149,382 metric tonnes in 2015.

However, the government has since undertaken several environmental law to protect the fragile habitat in which the oil project is centered. The law recognizes the rights of nature in the same ways that human rights are recognized and allows nature to be named as an injured party in litigation over “any infringement” of those rights.

But for some residents like Alon Kiiza in Buliisa, government will have to convince them with their actions when the drilling starts. “Drilling for oil will disturb the ecosystem. The spirit of the land does not connect well with these machines,” Kiiza says.

The Ministry of Agriculture, Animals and Fisheries also directed that no one should be allowed to engage in fishing without being licensed. Government says licensing promotes fisheries resources sustainability through regulation of fishing capacity, entry and exit from the fisheries sector. The government introduced the Fisheries and Aquaculture Bill, 2018 to help to address some of these challenges and foster sustainable fisheries and aquaculture sub-sector.

As the sector grows, more fishing communities are also demanding industries to ensure that they benefit from the sector like in Kalangala district. The fishermen say a processing plant will add value to their catch before it goes to the market. 

The government also has to consider the post Covid-19 situation to increase exports because the pandemic caused a decline in fish stock and exportation. Between June 2020 and July 2021, according to data from the Central Bank, at least 15,149 tonnes of fish worth $118.6m (Shs419b) were exported compared to 23,141 tonnes worth $146m (Shs518b) that were exported in the same period during the previous year. That is why it needs to encourage large-scale production by continuously engaging the private sector through helping them access loans and forming partnerships with them to properly develop the fishing industry.

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