COVID-19 not denting Flavio Corsin’s hopes for Africa’s aquaculture sector

The 2020 outbreak of the COVID-19 has jolted entire economies across the world, and Africa is no exception. The continent’s seafood industry is reeling from the effects of the pandemic, which has led to shutdowns of key regional and international supply chains. This disruption coincides with public and private efforts to increase the continent’s per-capita fish consumption, which is still considered low compared to the global average.

Furthermore, the region’s share of overall contribution to the total world aquaculture production is also small, despite the continent having a huge potential to scale up fish production, especially now that it has a ready domestic consumption market.

Flavio Corsin, the program director for aquaculture at IDH – The Sustainable Trade Initiative, gave SeafoodSource an overview of the effects of COVID-19 on Africa, and the likely scenarios to unfold after the pandemic has run its course.

SeafoodSource: How is fish consumption likely to be impacted in Africa by the COVID-19, and what trickle-down effect is this impact likely to have on the region’s aquaculture production initiatives in general?

Corsin: I would distinguish between short-term and long-term impacts. In the short-term, border restrictions as a result of COVID-19 are creating a great deal of disruption. African countries are likely to gradually find their own way to manage COVID-19, while ensuring that food (including fish) reaches consumers. In the long-term, the African continent imports about 40 percent of the seafood, largely from China. Indeed, fish consumption is not among the highest globally, but fish is one of the most important sources of animal protein on the continent. I expect such demand to continue as long as we can continue bringing fish to the consumers.

SeafoodSource: There has been a lockdown in some countries, which has affected the supply of fresh seafood, and many customers have switched to buying frozen fish products. Does Africa have the capacity to sustain a supply of frozen fish products for the long-term?

Corsin: Through aquaculture, it is possible to produce quality fish and take them to market on a regular basis. I think that a number of African countries are still looking for the best formula to allow the movement of fresh produce to the market. After reaching urban centers, hypermarkets, and supermarkets are then capable of conducting efficient storage, distribution, and marketing of fish and fish products.

This will be more difficult to achieve in the traditional fish markets, where infrastructure is relatively more limited. Therefore, the urban-dwellers with more disposable income will still be able to get the fish supply, while people with lower incomes may have more challenges.

SeafoodSource: What business options are currently open and available for fresh seafood suppliers?

Corsin: Increasingly, countries are finding their way to ensure a flow, within their borders, of inputs and produce to the market. At the same time imports are largely more constrained. This opens up business opportunities for scaling up fish production domestically.

It takes several months to produce fish – hence this will not be a short-term solution – but COVID-19 is likely to stay with us in one way or the other until we find a vaccine, a cure, or a cheap and fast way to test people. This will also take several months at best.

In the longer-term, an increase in domestic production will also increase the resilience of African food systems.

SeafoodSource: How should commercial small- and medium-sized aquaculture entities in Africa mitigate the risks of COVID-19, and what role should stakeholders such as IDH be playing?

Corsin: The market requires a continuous and stable flow of products, and aquaculture farms have the potential to ensure that. What we need is a structured connection with the market to avoid the present volatility and lack of coordination. In the short-term, IDH can convene market aggregators (e.g. retailers or hotels) and link them to producers so that we can organize that stable flow.

Generally speaking, we believe that the case for aquaculture in Africa is strong. The population in Africa is increasing at a rate higher than the fish supply; overfishing for many fisheries remains either a fact or a strong possibility; prices for fish remain higher than in most “Western” markets.

In addition, COVID-19 will likely encourage countries to favor production within their own borders rather than dependency on imports. Substituting imports with locally produced products was on the agenda of many African countries and businesses before COVID-19. COVID-19 will only strengthen those efforts.

All these factors are favoring the development of the aquaculture sector. IDH has a role to play in increasing production growth and efficiency, harnessing the market potential and structuring investments to fuel the development of the sector.

SeafoodSource: What are some ways African governments can support the aquaculture sector’s survival through the COVID-19 period, and what initiatives were available previously that could have prepared the fish-farming segment better for the current crisis?

Corsin: Policy options from governments should start with understanding the needs of the fish value-chain so that fish can be produced (meaning that inputs and labor can reach the farms), and can be delivered to the market at the time when the consumers can access them. Tax breaks on feed and other inputs among others would also help. African governments have been trying to promote aquaculture for quite some time but, with some exceptions, results have not been great.

I think that aquaculture expansion on the continent is definitely possible, but it has to be driven by the (often commercial) private sector, which should be allowed to operate and not be suffocated by bureaucracy. Some governments are moving in that direction. [It’s a] work in progress, I guess.

SeafoodSource: How do you see Africa’s aquaculture re-starting growth after COVID-19, and what additional investment opportunities, if any, are likely be available for fish farmers going forward?

Corsin: Aquaculture continues to be one of the fastest-growing food production sectors and Africa has generally shown a positive trend. This has been attracting both debt and equity investments and will continue to do so.

As the crisis fades away, I envision more investors will want to engage in African aquaculture to produce fish for a growing market. It is a “fish-or-egg” dilemma: you need a stable sector to attract investment, but without investment it is difficult to create a stable sector. That’s where we come in, we support fish production so that, figuratively speaking, we can make more eggs.

SeafoodSource: What key lessons should Africa’s governments, fish farmers, and fish product suppliers learn from the current COVID-19 crisis going into the future?

Corsin: The key lesson is that we need to have larger and more resilient fish production and trading systems within the region to be able to cope with the uncertainties of a globalized world and ensure the continued availability of quality food. This should include also better infrastructure for transportation and storage of fish products. I see this as an opportunity for African aquaculture.

Photo courtesy of IDH

Shem Oirere

Shem Oirere

Contributing Editor

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