Lack of available land in Shire highland districts of Thyolo, Mulanje and Phalombe remain a major constraint to fish farming as a challenge. A common solution is therefore needed to unleash the unprecedented growth potential, local communities and fisheries experts agree. Ironically, fish farming began in Malawi in early 1906 with the introduction of trout in Mulanje and Thyolo districts where land problems now persist.
Fish farmers visited recently in the districts expressed their determination for increase fish farming production but current challenges are restricting their full potential. Shire highland districts are characterized by adequate perennial water sources, good soils, favorably cool climate and transverse terrain ideal for fish farming but interviews with fish farmers and district fisheries officers exposes similar challenge. Chrissy Banda, fisheries officer says Thyolo can become the country’s leading aquaculture hub, if it were not for land limitations for pond construction and expansion. The district has 450 fish farmers owning 635 fish ponds either on individual or communal basis. The ponds are small to meet standard size of 400-meter square.
Banda bemoans, “there is a complex and serious land problem here as huge tracts of prime land and streams that could facilitate expansion of fish farming are owned by tea estates and is regarded as private land”.
Margret Beni and John Henry Pindani both fish farmers from Kautuka Village, T/A Mchilamwera in the district corroborated on the problem which they described as frustrating potential growth of fish farming and other agronomic activities.
Pindani is of the view that people in the district are ‘land hungry’ with a land holding capacity of between 0.3 and 0.5 hectors per household. Despite several years of existence, large tea estates have since abandoned stocking fish in their reservoir ponds.
Despite being on the same ecological zone, Mulanje district exhibits high potential for fish farming with a distribution of 665 fish farmers owning over 984 fish ponds - the highest in the country. Although land is also a problem in Mulanje, fish farmers are battling high predation rates and theft of fish in ponds. District Fisheries Officer for Mulanje, Clesensio Likongwe admitted the problem which he describes as deplorable in their efforts to maintain a lead in the number of fish farmers. “It concerns us receiving reports and complaints of fish theft from ponds. We have trained fish farmers on predation control measures but theft occasioned by human elements is on the rise. We are engaging all area development committees to formulate by laws that criminalizes fish pond theft” Likongwe said.
Fish farmers interviewed in Mulanje expressed reservation on the quality of fingerlings manifested by stunted growth. Likongwe mentions that Chisitu fisheries station cannot cope with the huge demand for fingerlings hence through various project intervention they are promoting individual private hatchery operators to produce rendalli or Oreochromis fingerlings under strict biosecurity protocols.
Phalombe has a slightly different terrain and agro - climatic condition faces own fish farming related challenges. Much of the areas ideal for fish farming are susceptible to flash floods resulting in destruction of fish ponds. Fish farming is more lucrative in the district as communities don’t have a sustained supply of fish from Lake Chilwa and Mpoto lagoon which are closed at certain period of the year and more prone to drying up. Chimwemwe Tembo, District fisheries officer for Phalombe explained that lack of quality fingerlings and fish feed are constraining growth of the sector while appealing for more partner’s assistance to this cause. Phalombe has 365 fish farmers but the numbers could be more, had it not been for the devastating effects of cyclone Idai.
In enhancing existing potential in the Shire highlands districts, aquaculture experts suggest adoption of high tech and intensive aquaculture production systems that defy existing land limitations. These include re -circulatory production system, mono sex tilapia, polyculture and use of containments such as happas and green houses for increased production within short periods.
However, fish farmers express skeptism that adoption of such technologies demand huge capital and skills investment which many farmers are lacking. “We cannot talk of intelligent aquaculture production model in this context because it applies much of internet of things, artificial data computing to remotely control facilities and machinery for complete production and management operations” concludes Banda.