Lukas Manomaitis sees huge potential in African aquaculture

Published on
December 10, 2018

Lukas Manomaitis is the managing director of Thailand-based Seafood Consulting Associates, a specialist consulting firm formed in 2001. 

Manomaitis recently completed a research project for the U.S. Soybean Export Council looking into the potential for aquaculture in sub-Saharan Africa. He found that aquaculture output in the region will double by 2023.

Manomaitis told SeafoodSource he believes Africa will become a significant supplier of seafood to international markets at a time when Asian produce is increasingly being redirected to feed domestic demand. Extensive field research coordinated by Manomaitis and South Africa-based Lourens Francois de Wet shows the rise in the continent’s aquaculture sector is being facilitated by major investments in feed production by Chinese, Israeli, and European firms. 

SeafoodSource: How did your research project come about and what did you find out?

Manomaitis: Africa is one of those places that should be doing really well in aquaculture, yet at this stage is still struggling. I worked with one of my clients [the U.S. Soybean Export Council] to let me take a hard look at what is going on over there and maybe now decades of potential may be realized. 

We put together a team including three experts from South Africa and we spread out and collected the data. Our focus was really on sub-Saharan Africa. We looked at six of what we termed the “tier-one” countries, which are Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. This is where we felt the bulk of production would be. And we also looked at six what we termed “tier-two” countries. We put together a report looking at the outlook for the next five years.

SeafoodSource: What did you find in terms of Africa becoming a major aquaculture producer?

Manomaitis: I expected to find a lot of potential and I expected to see a lot of issues with logistics and feed. And that’s essentially what we found. But what I didn’t expect was the extent of Chinese influence. I knew there would be some influence, but I wasn’t expecting the extent to which the Chinese are influencing Africa and the marketplace – it was very interesting.

I see the idea of Africa potentially making a difference…When you look at where countries will get their production from especially with Asia starting to use up more of their own production and China ranging far afield into Latin America.

North America used to think of Latin America as its backyard, but it’s a global economy. I figured Europeans would be very interested in seeing Africa succeed because it is geographically close and it could get product from there.

SeafoodSource: How do you see Chinese influence manifesting itself?

Manomaitis: I knew China was active [in Africa] but didn’t know how active. Europeans are active, too, and this is where we are seeing that potential being realized. International feed mills are now setting up in the region and this will be important for the future of aquaculture in Africa.  

Big operators have been building logistics networks for fry, fingerlings, genetics, and technology for production of aquaculture. And you’ve started to see a couple of large players develop. You think about Yalelo [fish farm operator in Zambia] and you think about the farms on Lake Victoria. And [Israeli-owned] Raanan Feeds in Ghana. This is an area where you see an early prime mover going in and making a difference. And when you start to see them succeed, you will start to see others going in as well. 

SeafoodSource: Is China present as a producer or an importer?

Manomaitis: Number one, they are bringing in a lot of low-cost products into Africa, [especially] tilapia and selling it locally, [and] their production costs are much lower-cost. They are also engaged in some local production. In Ghana, they have built two feed mills – one extrusion and one pelleting. And that may be a template for how they may be thinking of expanding in other areas as well. [But] one of concerns we have seen is that there are some less-than-good practices in the Chinese industry and I’m worried that some of that may bleed over into Africa.

SeafoodSource: In what way would that happen?

Manomaitis: Right now, the intensity of aquaculture is not so high in Africa, particularly on common water bodies. In Asia, [there is a tendency] to overwhelm the ecosystem with too many cages and too many operations. I’m not sure governments [in sub-Saharan Africa] are fully prepared for what could happen and how fast it could happen if a lot of cages get put in and start changing the water quality very dramatically.

SeafoodSource: Do you see the growth in African production going to feed the local market or for export?

Manomaitis: The price of fish is actually quite good in tier-one countries in sub-Saharan Africa. The Chinese are bringing in product that they’re selling essentially at the lowest common denominator. But there is a middle class developing and people like high-quality fish and they’re willing to pay for it. 

Farms we visited in Zambia said they are not interested in the general market. They are looking at selling up to a certain quality, they are willing to let the Chinese [serve] the general population that wants to get cheap fish. That’s the differentiation that’s important for the market. Where it’s not just, “I want to get fish.” They are looking for a certain quality. In Ghana they said, “Yes, you can get the Chinese fish, but it’s not as good as the local variety.” They feel they can differentiate their market.

Right now, it’s the local market that is quite strong and has a good price. The local market for fish is undersupplied, there is pent-up demand. You may see some of the larger operations getting some of the efficiency to make a go of exports. You may also see a development of shrimp aquaculture and for some marine fish, and there may be opportunities to export. 

Now we are really starting to see the investments in feed in particular. This is important. Often feed companies provide technical support. In Zambia, [Danish feed producer] Aller Aqua’s primary role is to supply Yalelo [a local producer of fish], although it does sell feed to other producers too. 

SeafoodSource: Will the development come from the Chinese or is there sufficient local capacity to fund expansion?

Manomaitis: It will be multi-level. The Chinese have a definite interest in expansion. They’re learning their way. Before they imported product and now they’re building feed mills. The Europeans are also investing in feed mills, like Aller Aqua and [Norwegian feed producer] Skretting.

There’s a great deal of subsistence farmers but also some medium- and large-scale farmers who are managing to find ways to get funding either locally or overseas to set up operations and to expand and improve on the operations. 

SeafoodSource: How will your research be used?

Manomaitis: The basic idea was to find out if we are finally at an inflection point [in African aquaculture]. I think it’s clear we are seeing that potential is being realized. I don’t think that Aller Aqua and Skretting and others would be putting in high-quality feed mills if they didn’t see a future. And you are seeing a few key large farms that have developed and are expanding dramatically. 

SeafoodSource: We hear a lot about a shortage of infrastructure limiting the potential of aquaculture developing in Africa. What did you see?

Manomaitis: Overall, the tier-one countries that we looked at are really working on improving the infrastructure. South Africa has good infrastructure. Kenya’s internal roads are like riding a roller coaster. Ghana and Zambia have beautiful roads. China has just put USD 6 billion [EUR 5.3 billion] in. You can argue whether they are building a debt trap for African countries, but they are definitely building infrastructure. It helps them get what they want out of Africa to China. 

In Ghana, I saw them planning to develop a regular ferry service into the interior to Lake Volta. That would then help them get metals from a mine they were developing. I think you’re going to see a lot more investment in infrastructure. And that’s why I’m so excited about Africa. In aquaculture, I think it’s now going to really start to jump because now people can get from place to place [easier]. And the Chinese are knocking down the walls in terms of getting the government to move forward so that people can start operations. And people need seafood. And not just in Africa. They’re going to start producing species that other people are going to want, whether it’s tilapia or marine fish or shrimp. They’re going to produce at a margin that’s acceptable for them to start exporting and that’s going to be good for the world. 

Photo courtesy of Global Aquaculture Alliance

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