Karoo fish a growing sustainable business

NATURAL RESOURCE: Johannes Fredericks moves catfish breeding stock in the CSAP training facility in Graaff-Reinet. Picture: Supplied
NATURAL RESOURCE: Johannes Fredericks moves catfish breeding stock in the CSAP training facility in Graaff-Reinet. Picture: Supplied

Catfish aquaculture is providing a jobs lifeline, writes Guy Rogers

THE Karoo has long been kingdom of the sheep – but now a Graaf-Reinet trust founded on the back of another ubiquitous resident is developing a sustainable new business that could eventually employ thousands of people.

Supported by the Department of Fisheries (Daff) and Camdeboo Municipality and located on a smallholding outside the town, the Blue Karoo Trust is breeding catfish for sale to the bulk market through their Camdeboo Satellite Aquaculture Project (CSAP).

Catfish are a common species in the dams of the Karoo but the trust uses a tank system to control water temperature and light and thereby increase the breeding regime and growth of the fish.

While not a first-choice eating fish to some because of its bewhiskered appearance – the whiskers are called barbels, giving the fish its other name – catfish are robust and surprisingly tasty and the processing and packaging without the head and tail has been the key to CSAPs growth, trust spokesman Liesl De la Harpe told Weekend Post.

“That’s when we moved from selling the fish out the back of a bakkie and really saw the potential in the business.”

Presently the processing and packaging has been happening in Cape Town but an environmental impact assessment for a factory in Graaff-Reinet is presently underway and this plant should be established by March next year, she said.

“Once that’s happened, we can really start ramping things up.”

The project has provided a lifeline in an area where 50% of the adult population is jobless and surviving on government grants.

The trust comprises project initiators De la Harpe and her husband Stephen and technical partner Grahamstown-based Agricultural Innovations together with employee representative bodies. Presently the project employs 120 people managing a three-tank operation and going through the CSAP programme.

But once this first unit is expanded to full capacity to include 15 grow-out tanks and a factory processing line, an estimated 368 people will be needed, De la Harpe said.

“And if we are going to fill the gap left by the 80% slide in pelagic pilchard catches – which was the news which really got us going several years ago – we will need to duplicate this full CSAP unit 90 times, meaning 33120 jobs. And that’s not including indirect or induced jobs.”

The catfish are bred through a six-month cycle to a weight of 1kg and then harvested. At present from that point they are then trucked down to Cape Town where they are processed and packaged in 2kg pouches.

A preparatory survey commissioned by CSAP showed there was a potential substantial demand for catfish from the bulk catering market, and this survey information is now panning out, De la Harpe said.

“We already have an initial off-take agreement for 10 tons a month with the Pretoria-based company Imex who then sell on to places like prisons and hospitals as well as project teams like oil rigs further afield.

“That’s with just three tanks in a single unit operating unit, so we’re running way below capacity. We have other letters of agreement for purchase already and, as we expand production, we can look to activate these.”

As part of this expansion, CSAP’s catfish pouches will be officially launched mid-year in Cape Town and distribution will start in Johannesburg as well.

Daff’s acting chief director for aquaculture, Belemane Semoli confirmed the potential of the product, saying that besides the South African market there was a possibility for export to West Africa.

“In places like Nigeria, they consume catfish like nobody’s business. We have already made contact with businessmen there and we can expect a sales deal once we can commit to meet the demand.”

Through Daff, the project has applied to become part of government’s national Operation Phakisa aimed at harnessing the potential of the ocean, which could help the CSAP with managing legislation and the establishment of more markets.

As hub of the project, the CSAP’s Graaff-Reinet site is a place for hard work but also fun and comraderie, De la Harpe said.

“Our project members cook and eat catfish as part of their training once they have learned to dissect and chop up the fish.

“We’re divided into two groups and we compete with each other for the best recipe so every day it’s catfish babotie, brownies, fried, on the braai etc.”

A key part of the gradual process of gearing up capacity is skills training but the CSAP programme does much more than that, she said.

“Besides being trained as either fish farmers or factory processors the team members go through various personal development programmes. Most of the women have children and we look at early childhood development to help them be better moms.”

“We have to be commercially viable and that is what we are aiming for. But at the same time CSAP is providing another source of nutrition to the community, improving food security and improving lives.

“Most of our people have not worked for a long time or have never worked and through CSAP they regain this pride. They see opportunity for growth and hope for the future.”

This story appeared in Weekend Post on Saturday,7 May, 2016

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