In 2010 the Tahal group presented a bold idea to Botswana Ministry of Agriculture, that part of the 420 mcum of water that would be taken from the Zambezi as part of the country’s riparian rights would be used for an integrated agricultural project which would include amongst other things a maize, soy and canola industry in Pangematenga which would in turn be used to develop an industrial poultry export industry as well as an aquaculture industry that would export some 13,000 tonnes of fish per annum.
The fish that would have been exported would include tilapia and catfish. But the very idea that Botswana, a landlocked semi-desert would become a major exporter of fish products was just a step too far. Successful public officials are described with many adjectives, but certainly bold is not one of them. This idea of a Botswana fish export sector was simply beyond the pale for those in the Ministry of Agriculture and the idea was just too bold, too risky and was canned.
Botswana’s fish export industry – its in the pooh!
But now, without a litre of water being abstracted from the Zambezi and without even much investment Botswana is silently becoming a significant exporter of unknown quantities of Tilapia and catfish to water rich countries like Zambia and DRC. The interesting question is how and why. Next month the 2015 fishing season will begin again on Lake Ngami which has come back to life in 2011 after a period of 20 years. The reason why the lake has become such a prolific producer of fish recently is because in the 20 years that it was dry it was used by local cattle farmers to graze their cattle. When the waters finally returned the cattle dung provided a rich source of nutrients for the fish coming in from the Okavango River and breeding locally.
At the end of the month my friends and relatives will return to Lake Ngami to fish for catfish and tilapia which will then be exported to the DRC and Zambia. This in turn raises an interesting but disturbing question. Both these countries are correctly described as ‘water abundant’ and indeed the Congo and Zambezi rivers were long considered one of the most important sources of fish for the local populations in the two countries. So why do either of these countries need Botswana’s fish? The reason is simple enough- they managed their fish stocks as badly as we almost certainly will and there are not enough fish left any more for the locals so they now import tilapia from a semi-desert country like Botswana.
When Lake Ngami came back to life in 2011 after a very long dry patch, urban consumers of fish in Francistown, Maun and Gaborone were delighted at the sudden influx of what were then relatively cheap fish from the lake. But since last year there have been major changes in the way fishing is going on there as increasingly fishers are finding that they can get much better prices from the hundreds of Zambian and Congolese ’salters’ that live in tents by the side of the lake. When I drove from Maun to Ghanzi in September there were hundreds living in a tent camp by the side of the road. According to local experts there were eleven camps surrounding the Lake with what are said to be around 1,000 people in all. In 2014 the largest, with a population of 400 looked like a refugee camp with scores of crowded tents. So how over 1,000 Congolese Zambians, Zimbabweans and Malawians receive work and residence permits to do the ‘technically difficult’ job of gutting and salting fish in Botswana is a matter the Immigration department probably needs to explain to Batswana
Ms Neo Ntshwabi - Exporter of the Year?
The fact is that there is more money to be made in the international trade in Tilapia and catfish than there is in catching the fishing and selling them locally. About 300 Batswana get permits to fish and Zambians and Congolese now buy the fish caught and salt them by the side of the road. A medium sized fish costs about P2-3 by the side of the lake and when sold in Gaborone it can sell for up to P8-10. But when Batswana eat fish it is either fresh or frozen but certainly not salted. If you can dry and salt the fish and get it to Lubumbashi in the DRC you can treble the price according to Ms Neo Ntshwabi who sells fish to the Department of Education in Katanga . Four times a year Neo drives her fish 1,700 km to DRC where she sells 6,000 fish per trip at what she reports in $3/fish ( P27/fish) . On this basis she brings home a healthy gross income USD72,000 per annum. While costs eat up much of this it leaves enough to pay for a home for her and her two children.
But one needs to stop a moment and ask how many people would be willing to drive from Botswana to DRC let alone carrying large bags of dried fish. In my estimation Neo is a truly heroic Motswana woman and really deserves an award as ‘exporter of the year’ for having the guts and determination to do business no matter how hard it may be. Like so many women in this country she has to raise her children with little help from their father.
But if you believe the statistics from Statistics Botswana, and most analysts in Ngamiland don’t, the country does not export fish in any quantity. The figures suggest a total of 300 tonnes of fish were exported to Zambia and onto Katanga in the DRC in up to November 2014 at a value of less than P1 million. These are the figures reported by BURS at Kazungula. Either BURS is not receiving the proper value and volume figures for the fish leaving the country or the big sixteen wheel trucks full of fish that leave Maun regularly during the fishing season along with 1,000 plus Zambian and Congolese workers must be making a huge loss.
No Zambian and Congolese salters need apply
The government might wish to co-ordinate several departments to properly regulate the northern fisheries. Lake Ngami and other smaller lakes in the vicinity of the Okavango like Lake Xhau need to be carefully controlled. Fisheries officials need to police the number of fishers and carefully monitor the size of nets that they use along with the actual number of fishers per licence. Immigration needs to make sure that these Zambians and Congolese are in the country legally and BURS needs to record the real value and volume of fish leaving the country. The Ngamiland fishery has become a lawless ‘wild west’ of Botswana and government needs to act before the next fishing season begins at the end of this month.
The Lake Ngami fishery is completely unsustainable as the lake will one day disappear as it has in the past. But it is also unsustainable because the rate of extraction of fish is not controlled and Batswana are no better or worse at management than most people- almost no country has succeeded in sustaining this sort of fishery but it should certainly be the right of Batswana and not Zambians and Congolese to benefit from the fisheries and the greatest commercial benefit is in the trading far more than it is in the fishing. The real danger to the ecology of Botswana is of course that once the foreign traders have arrived they will shift away from Lake Ngami once it is overfished and then do the same to the eco-system of the Okavango. That would be of far greater concern to the economic future of the country.
These are the views of Professor Roman Grynberg and not necessarily those of any institution with which he may be affiliated. For the purposes of transparency Ms Neo Ntshwabi is a cousin of his wife Ms Doris Shalie Grynberg.