Making a case for tilapia

Fish farmers seek ban on tilapia import

It is no news Nigeria is majorly an import dependent nation with fish imports featuring prominently. However, in a bid to diversify the economy, the current administration has been vocal about encouraging the growth of the agricultural sector and its exports. This means the protection of promising agricultural industries through the enactment of policies and other incentives that can provide an edge over foreign competition. One of such policies is the import prohibition list by which the Nigeria Customs Service guides importers on items that can be imported into the country. At the last count, about 44 items exist on Nigeria’s import prohibition list, of which five are raw agricultural produce. They include live or dead birds including frozen poultry, pork and beef; bird eggs excluding hatching eggs; cocoa butter, powder and cakes; and cane or beet sugar. This makes the importation of the aforementioned items a crime. While Nigeria’s poultry industry has been supported by the inclusion of poultry items in the prohibition list and the launch of an aggressive anti-smuggling campaign, the fish industry has not been so lucky.

Nigeria has an annual fish demand of 3.3 million metric tons with a deficit of 2.2m tons. According to a report by FBN Quest, domestic fish supply – catfish and tilapia farming making up the huge chunk – has risen by 71 per cent to 1.2 million metric tons. This is following an increased investment in the sector by the Nigerian government. But the advancement in this sector is currently being undermined by a number of factors such as limited access to ponds and various fish species, inadequate access to loan facilities, and high cost of freezing equipment among many others. The chief of them however is the escalating cost of fish feeds, which constitute about 70 per cent of the production cost of aquaculture. Nigeria imports approximately 40,000 tons of fish feed valued at $60 million per year. A significant amount of this volume is used specifically for feeding catfish and tilapia. These imports are mostly sourced from Israel, which constitutes about 60% percent and the European Union, which constituting 40% of Nigeria’s fish feed import. According to Foraminifera, a market research institute, all imported feeds come in 15kg and 20kg bags with an average market price of $1,300 per ton.

Despite this difficulty, catfish farming has got off to a very good start in Nigeria but the same cannot be said of tilapia farming, which is hampered by peculiar issues of sourcing reliable fingerlings, market demand, huge capital outlay and low technical capacity among fish farmers. Still, the growth of Nigeria’s aquaculture industry cannot be hinged on the sole cultivation of catfish alone. Without government support, tilapia aquaculturists will continue to contend with frozen tilapia imports, the prices of which are often well below the locally varieties.

Efforts must be made to increase the volume of tilapia cultivation in the country. The only way to do this is by enacting deliberate policies to protect and grow the local aquaculture industry. Reviewing the import prohibition is just one of several solutions as this will ensure the already disadvantaged tilapia fish farmers dealing with the high cost of cultivation, don’t have to compete against cheaper foreign products. Local fish feed production, another growing and sustainable market, should be also be encouraged. This is another way of conserving scarce foreign exchange.

The growth of the local aquaculture industry has long been constrained by the persistent scarcity and high cost of inputs such as corn and soybean. While the tilapia value chain is being strengthened, an aggressive anti-smuggling campaign, spearheaded by the Nigeria Customs Service should be launched to deter recalcitrant and unpatriotic importers.

Indeed, Nigeria stands to gain more than just meeting its domestic fish needs if the government ensures its campaign for economic diversification is worth its weight in gold.