(Ecofin Agency) - Fish consumption continues to grow in West Africa with more than half of the region’s population consuming fish products daily, according to official stats. However, despite the firm farming potential West Africa has, governments there primarily turn to imports to meet demand. To address this situation, countries are now increasingly focusing on aquaculture, a sector that promises major growth. However, they face difficulties finding inputs and financing and getting access to technology.
Although it has increased more than tenfold over the past two decades, aquaculture production in West Africa is still unable to replace fish imports in a region where the production system, essentially based on catches, has reached its limits. A report published on October 13 on Ecofin Pro, the Ecofin agency's platform for professionals, revealed that several countries in the region have some of the highest per capita fish consumption levels on the continent.
In Senegal and Ghana, consumption reaches 29 kg and 25 kg per capita per year respectively, more than double the African average (10 kg) and slightly above the global average (20.5 kg). In other countries, such as Gambia, Mauritania, and Nigeria, it also remains above 10 kg.
With rising incomes, increasing urbanization, and a growing consumer preference for fish, which is touted as being healthier and more nutritious than other meat products, the region's needs are set to rise sharply over the next few years. While current demands already surpass the supply and entail massive fish imports, the issue of sourcing this protein is becoming increasingly acute in West Africa.
The region's various coastal countries have a rich fishing tradition thanks to their fish-filled waters, but overexploitation and degradation of aquatic ecosystems are putting fish stocks at risk. Overfishing and illegal fishing accounted for 40% of catches in West Africa between 2012 and 2015, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
In an attempt to meet the growing needs of their populations, governments are placing increasing emphasis on the aquaculture sector. In recent years, several countries in the region, including Senegal, Niger, and Nigeria, have announced the launch of roadmaps to develop their aquaculture sectors.
Greater political commitment needed
The report entitled “West Africa's Aquaculture Revival: A Gradual Path to Full Momentum” (En Afrique de l’Ouest, l’aquaculture connaît un regain d’intérêt, mais l’essor prendra encore du temps) also points out that fish production from aquaculture is still modest in West Africa.
Aquaculture production reached 345,300 tons in the region in 2020, which is around 12% of total fish production. However, the contribution of aquaculture to total fish supply conceals disparities between countries. It ranges from 17% in Ghana to 5% in Côte d'Ivoire and plunges to less than 1% in Senegal.
More broadly, aquaculture has experienced significant growth in the West African region over the past two decades. Many countries where the sector was nearly non-existent at the beginning of the 21st century have invested in aquaculture operations, while others have strengthened their industry with the multiplication of small and medium-sized enterprises. In 20 years, the West African supply has increased more than tenfold, starting from a level of only 32,000 tons in 2000.
Primarily, the regional dynamics are driven by Nigeria, whose aquaculture production reached around 262,000 tons of fish in 2020. The most populous country in Africa is followed at a distance by Ghana, Mali, Côte d'Ivoire, and Benin.
While the overall trend is positive for West African aquaculture, its rate of progress is still low if there is to be any hope of reducing growing imports in the short to medium term. Imports of fish products fluctuated between 1.6 and 1.9 million tons between 2018 and 2022, representing between 33 and 40% of the region's consumption during the period. The amount invested averaged $1.8 billion.
It is noteworthy that the region has various assets to develop its aquaculture industry, including a dense hydrographic network and proximity to the vast Nigerian market. However, the report spotted several obstacles. These include difficulties in supplying inputs (aquaculture feed and fry), a lack of financing, a shortage of training for fish farmers, and their limited access to new technologies.
To meet these challenges, the countries of the region need to demonstrate greater political commitment by offering private investors an incentive and protectionist environment vis-à-vis imports, and by strengthening regional cooperation, sharing best practices, harmonizing regulations, and, above all, promoting intra-regional trade.