East Africa (Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and Rwanda) has huge potential to exploit in its more than 2,800-kilometres of coastline, the waters of the inland sea of Lake Victoria and the numerous lakes and rivers that already provide the livelihoods of millions of people.

That said, it must be recognised that the development of the blue economy will have be driven by global trends and collaborations between governments, the private sector and development partners.

All too often, the role of development partners is unappreciated or downplayed, thus undermining the mobilisation of significant amounts of resources through development agencies.

In East Africa, for example, Msingi, a not-for-profit organisation funded by Gatsby Kenya and DfID, selected aquaculture as its first industry programme and identified the opportunity to turn a 15,000-tonne fishery into a 220,000-tonne industry with the potential to support more than 75,000 profitable enterprises and sustainably employ hundreds of thousands of people.

It will also significantly contribute to solving the protein-deficiency crisis confronting millions of families in East Africa. The current fish market size is estimated to be 1.3 million tonnes.

But for this potential to be realised, the current disjointed, exploitative, risky and unsustainable harvesting of declining wild catch has to be addressed.

Sustainable aquaculture development requires a co-ordinated sector planning approach across the region, grounded in a long term, 7-15 year plan with clear roles for the state, the private sector and development partners.

The imperative for this is very clear: Industry challenges across the region are the same, the opportunities to develop aquaculture into an $84 million a year industry by 2030 are open to all and can only be fully realised if the planning specifies what role each partner should play and leverages that to maximise the development impact.

Some of the more obvious challenges that the sector faces are low yields from farmed fish (only 15,000 tonnes across the four countries) due to lack of farm management know-how, appropriate genetics, low-quality feed, lack of access to finance and an underdeveloped market infrastructure.

Compare that with the size of the opportunity implied in the fact that Kenya alone imports more than 50,000 tonnes of fish a year!

Fish in East Africa is 95 per cent hunted while all other protein sources are farmed, an unhealthy paradox with 53 per cent of the region’s population malnourished. Aquaculture presents a great opportunity to feed the people and convert wild fishermen into profitable fish farmers.

Some important recommendations for the East African region that are worthy of consideration at the upcoming conference are:
Adoption of a regional approach to aquaculture transformation, building on the existing regional platforms and multiple studies.

Involvement of key stakeholders in the planning to develop long term-comprehensive and realistic systemic programmes. The stakeholders could include policy/technical experts, knowledge partners, the private sector, development partners and governments.

Governments must craft innovative and supportive policies to encourage investments in this sector by foreign and domestic actors.

Policies and investments programmes must take a long-term approach to transformation, rather than the popular but unrealistic 3-5 year cycle, while separating politics from business.

Identification of value-chain priorities per country to ensure they complement each other.

A shared vision and an innovative regional approach is the one sure way of resolving this unique paradox: Socio-economic exclusion of communities near water bodies is most extreme in East Africa and malnutrition is arguably at its highest ever.

Yet, East Africa is home to the incredibly popular tilapia and the potential to expand its production and diversify the region’s portfolio of fish is vast.

Aggie Asiimwe-Konde is the CEO of Msingi East Africa. @Aggiekonde; aggie.asiimwe@msingi.com