Although Uganda’s fisheries sector had fallen on hard times due the COVID-19 lockdowns and instability in the global markets, which rendered thousands unemployed following the closure of fish exporting firms, it is set to become the biggest forex earner in a few years.
According to the World Bank, Uganda, today, is already the world’s largest exporter of fresh, chilled and frozen Nile perch fillets, controlling roughly a third of the global market share. In its recently issued “Uganda Country Private Sector Diagnostic (CPSD)” report, the World Bank says in 2019, Uganda was also the world’s second largest exporter of fish heads, tails and maws, trailing only Hong Kong SAR, China, the centre of the global market for such products and a major re-exporter.
Together, these products accounted for nearly 5% of all exports by value from 2015–2019, which does not include informal trade, mostly destined for regional markets, some of which is later re-exported.
Figures from Bank of Uganda (BOU) show that over the last 15 years, the fisheries sector has played an important social and economic role in Uganda as the second largest foreign exchange earner, contributing 2.6% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and 12% to agricultural GDP.
“In 2018, Uganda’s export earnings from fish were the highest the country has received in the last 20 years. During this period, the country exported fish worth $171m, the highest revenue the country has ever earned from this commodity,” says a BOU report.
Records further indicate that the volumes in 2018 were the highest at 24,545 metric tonnes in the last 10 years, when the country exported 27,454 metric tonnes.
However, export volumes had declined because of immature fi sh harvest and illegal fishing methods, which depleted the resources, according to economists.
Currently, all signs are indicative of the fact that the fish industry is on the road to recovery after suffering setbacks a few years ago. These saw several factories close shop for lack of raw materials to process and export and loss of their traditional global markets. Shortly before the COVID-19 pandemic, only 12 fish processing factories across the country were operational.
On a brighter note, the International Trade Centre’s (ITC) Export Potential Map suggests that Uganda has over $150m in untapped export potential in five fish products, which include cured fish, fresh cuts, frozen fillets, fresh whole fish and frozen whole fi sh.
Aquaculture holds key
The World Bank has further revealed that according to demonstration projects, aquaculture yields could increase up to 20-fold with proper inputs and techniques.
“The Government is hoping to facilitate increased investment in commercial cage farming in freshwater areas. With wild catch output shrinking, Uganda’s lowlands are suited for fishpond aquaculture, with opportunities to expand into hatcheries and integrated feed mill systems,” reads the report.
It says opportunities also exist around the production of valueadded products.
“Most fish are sold either dried or smoked for the local market or receive simple primary processing (such as gutted and filleted) for export.” The report, dated February 2022, says having integrated into global value chains, supplying fish to Europe and Asia, Uganda has the potential to increase fish exports to Hong Kong SAR, China, Germany, Italy, Portugal and the US and even within the wider South African Development Community region to the DR Congo and Zambia.
“Aquaculture in Uganda is only just beginning to expand, professionalise and hold significant potential. Aquaculture systems are now playing an increasingly central role in the global market for fi sh because wild catch fisheries continue to be over-exploited and face existential sustainability threats,” the report reads.
It adds that Uganda’s relatively stable weather patterns, moderate temperatures and grassy plateau are a plus to this positive trend.
Exports of fi sh maw have also seen explosive growth in demand in Asian markets — mostly Hong Kong SAR, China, Myanmar and Vietnam. “With its favourable agricultural conditions and lower labour costs, Uganda is in a strong position to grow in this area of agribusiness,” the report reads.
The World Bank has also proposed that the country takes the route of secondary processing, which could produce fish oils, fish soluble, fish silage and fish meal, critical components for animal feed and other manufacturing processes.
“Development of a domestic feed industry, capable of producing quality, affordable inputs would be advantageous to competitiveness. With competitiveness in maize production, this may be viable and further investigation is warranted,” reads the report, adding that successful projects would require significant capital investment, skills, and market knowledge.
The World Bank further notes that with fresh water covering roughly one-fifth of Uganda’s surface area, opportunities to develop sustainable capture fisheries and aquaculture production are evident.
“Unlike its neighbours, some of which share these trans-boundary water resources, Uganda has the comparative advantage of having an organised set of processors and exporters with proven capability to meet the standards of foreign markets and established global trading networks,” it says.
These firms have led to the professionalisation of the value chain, including investment in modern technology and food safety management systems.
“The Government is eager to promote investment in the fishing industry, with the President promising, during his re-election campaign, that they would deliver a new industry master plan, help to secure new markets for fish exports and increase earnings,” the report shows.
The Government is seeking to further develop fish and fish products value chains by offering public-private partnerships and attracting investment into aquaculture parks, which could include new fish processing facilities in Mukono, Jinja, Kamuli and Serere districts in the next five years, in addition to restocking endangered species and strengthening the protection and preservation of breeding grounds.
Fisheries and aquaculture law
In a major boost to the fisheries industry, Parliament recently passed into law the 2021 Fisheries and Aquaculture Bill.
This would strengthen regulation and increase deterrent punishments for people convicted of committing offenses related to illegal fishing and mismanagement of water bodies. Despite fish being a key export, Uganda’s fish value chain is still largely unstructured, unregulated and mostly artisanal.
“Most fisher-folks work individually and earn meagre incomes, living at a subsistence level off their catch,” further reads the report, adding, “With Uganda’s massive lakes, regulating informal fishers and traders is challenging, although authorities have made progress in recent years toward more centralised regulation of the sector, including registration of fishers and fi shing boats on Uganda’s waters.”
Threats to the sector
Changes in weather patterns, which has resulted in rising water levels, may be de-oxygenating the water and contributing to large fish die-offs.
“Pollution of the water bodies is also increasing, posing a serious problem for biodiversity health. With populations growing across the region and imports increasing in foreign markets, demand will continue to rise and will place tremendous strain on fish stocks if not sustainably managed,” says the World Bank.
It says although the Government called in the military in 2017 to fight illegal fishing, this was never intended to be a long-term solution.
“Illegal trade of fish is estimated to account for more than 10% of informal exports out of the country. Additional threats to sustainability include illegal fishing of large fish for their maw, use of explosives, poison, illegal nets and other illegal fishing gear to catch fish. Others are illegal movement of fish and fish products, unlicensed boats and corruption among fisheries officers,” reads the report.
However, with improved enforcement, Government’s renewed focus on sustainability and Nile Perch’s natural ability to spawn quickly, there is revamped optimism among local fish consumers and exporters that the sector is on the road to full revival.