Coronavirus severely impacting Kenya’s lobster trade

Published on
March 11, 2020

The lobster industry operating along Kenya’s 640-kilometer coastline has suffered in the last few weeks as the global coronavirus crisis intensifies.

With China freezing imports of many commodities and products in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak, exports from the country have been heavily impacted. Lobster catchers in Lamu County, which accounts for more than 50 percent of Kenya’s total lobster production, have become the latest casualties of the restrictions, with many of them rendered idle for lack of a market their catch.

“There is no market for our lobsters any more, as China was our main international market especially for the live lobsters,” Abubakar Mohammed, chairman of one of the so-called "beach management units" that serve as local management groups for the fishery, told SeafoodSource. “Even the little that we catch including that destined for the domestic market, the price has substantially dropped from KES 3,500 (USD 34.11 EUR 29.95) to KES 700 (USD 5.99 EUR 6.82) for every kilo of lobster caught.”

The lobster business in Kenya’s coast is dominated by Chinese companies, which account for up to 95 percent of the live lobster export market in the East African country. The European Union accounts for 97 percent of the frozen lobsters imports from Kenya, according to data compiled by the FAO.

“Most of the lobster fishers operate in small-scale and hence have to deliver their catch to dealers who in turn supply the foreign markets, especially China,” Mohammed said. “And because of the small-scale nature of our lobster business, we are unable to negotiate higher prices and also access adequate financing to enable us expand our sales within the Kenyan market.”

According to Hemed Saed, one of the dealers who supplies Chinese buyers in Mombasa, “the impact of the coronavirus on the lobster business in Lamu has been swift and devastating in the last few weeks.”

Lamu has an estimated 511 lobster catchers of the known 690 on Kenya’s coast.

“Most of us in lobster dealership rely on credit from the Chinese buyers, who then recover their money after we have supplied them with the lobsters,” he said.

A dealer can get up to KES 300,000 (USD 2,923, EUR 2,568) in credit to buy lobsters from the small-scale lobster catchers, but since the onset of the coronavirus, that system has shut down.

"No one can access the credit because the Chinese buyers have halted buying of lobsters from Kenya," Saed said.

Lobster deliveries to Kenya’s high-end hotels in the coast region and the country’s capital, Nairobi, could equally be impacted because of the travel bans that intensifying across the globe.

Kenya’s famous tourist destinations of Malindi and Watamu – both in the coastal region and known to attract Italian tourists – have been hit hard by the government's ban on flights from Italy to Kenya.

On 6 February, Health Minister Mutahi Kagwe announced the ban was temporarily lifted on Italian flights to Kenya, “but only to pick up Italian citizens who are currently stranded in Malindi.”

Kenya has also banned all meetings, conferences, and events of an international nature as a measure against spread of coronavirus –reducing demand substantially for premium seafood such as lobsters.

Seafood companies such as Sea Harvest, Pwani Sealife Kenya Ltd, Crustacean Processors, and Trans Africa dominate the lobster processing and supply business in Kenya, together exporting an estimated 79 metric tons of lobsters in 2016 valued at USD 759,494 (EUR 668,852).  

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