Whether to eat fish or not during fasting still remains a controversial issue among Orthodox Christians in Ethiopia. However, fish shop owners claim the demand for fish among customers increases in the fasting seasons. Well, with the exception of this year.
Ethiopia, dubbed ‘the water tower of East Africa’ has numerous water sources, having a huge potential to produce fish. The water bodies with a total surface area of 13 thousand km square are capable of producing more than 94 thousand tons of fish annually.
However, the production is below the potential.
Alemayehu Abebe and Tamiru Chalchisa mention in their study of the socio-economic importance of fish production that in 2016 Ethiopia’s annual fish production was less than 46 thousand tons.
Limited production and supply of fish are attributed to poor infrastructure, and long chains of brokers, as is observed by business runners.
However, restaurants known for their fish dishes complain that the recent rise in cooking oil prices is adding fuel to the flame.
Kefyalew lives in Wonji town near the Awash River. He and his friends run a small fish business. Kefyalew says the demand for fish would normally rise in the Orthodox Christians’ fasting season. This year, however, the demand is low as the price for fish filets increased by 50%, from 120 Br. to 180 Br.
“We previously had a daily fish sale. This enabled us to have daily equb savings,” says Kefyalew. Equb is a joint money-saving system popular among Ethiopians. Kefyalew says the current low demand for fish is affecting their routine savings as well.
Not only fish, oil prices also escalated recently. Kefyalew and his friends have a small fish restaurant beside their fish shop. The restaurant has now stopped preparing fish dishes because of the expense of fish and oil.
Retail shops in Adama sell 5 liters of palm oil for 650 Br. and 5 liters of sunflower oil for 1100 Br. This has shown more than 50% increment in just a few months’ time.
Shambel, a resident of Adama, frequents the fish restaurants, especially during the weekends. He says he and his friends go as far as Mojo and Koka towns (19 & 39 km away respectively) looking for good fish places. “We do this, especially in the fasting season. But this year, the price of fish even in these restaurants became high.”
Shambel says restaurants blame the oil price on the current high bill of fish.
Adama is one of the cities near Koka dam and Awash River. The area has a significant fish production potential. This encouraged people to organize in associations and run fish businesses. Currently, there are 250 people working under 10 enterprises.
Ararssa Gutama, a fishery expert working in Adama Woreda Agriculture office, says, "These enterprises collect from 150 up to 200 quintals of fish on average every month.” This amount, according to him, comes from natural fish sources like Awash River and Koka Dam. There are no fish farms in Adama.
Starting fish farming needs huge capital. Running it is also costly. The fact that there are numerous water bodies in the area encourages businesses to focus on them rather than establishing fish farms.
The natural fish sources themselves like Koka Lake (dam) and Awash River have a low capacity to produce fish. Overfishing has affected their productivity. Fishers catch too many fish at a time, affecting their breeding. “Some specific species of fish no longer exist in these waters,” says Ararssa.
Infrastructures like roads are in poor shape in the area. This has led the fish enterprises to opt for motorboats. Ararsa points out that fish gets bad quickly and needs to be delivered to the market as soon as possible.
The people who collect fish from the fishermen and deliver it to the market are called brokers. The brokers are the ones who own these motorboats. They sail over the waters collecting fish from different fishers. They determine the price of fish as they have the means to deliver the fish to the markets when it’s still fresh.
“They are the ones who control the fish market and they are the ones who make the most out of this business,” says Ararsa.
For the current under-production of fish in Ethiopia, the ongoing conflicts are among the factors, according to the people in the fish business. Some of the water bodies where fishers frequent are found in the conflict region, like Tekeze Dam. It's a challenge for fishers and brokers to operate fully in these areas at the moment.
Yonas Daniel is the owner of Varush Fish House in Adama. He says, “Tilapia (koroso) and catfish (ambaza) are the specials on our menu. Our customers come looking for these dishes, especially in the fasting seasons.”
However this year, Yonas says, customers are not coming as expected because of the high price of fish. According to him, the fish supply is limited as the fish-producing areas are affected by the current conflict in the country.
Yonas also mentions the unexpected increase in cooking oil prices as one factor for the current fish business depletion.
Tsegana Asfaw is one of the four fish suppliers from Tendaho Electric Dam. There are three types of fish in the dam Koroso (tilapia), Bilcha (barbus), and Ambaza (catfish). Tsegana says there is product fluctuation depending on weather changes. However, he observes that conflicts around the region are hindering the fish supply.
Tsegana says Tekeze Hydroelectric Dam was the major fish product supplier to the central part of the country before the northern Ethiopia war broke out. Tekeze Dam is under the control of Mekelle University. The university follows strict preservation mechanisms. So the fishers get constant yield. But this was in the past. This supply has stopped completely, according to Tsegana.
The rift valley lakes, Zeway and Arba Minch are also falling behind in fish supply as the lakes are not preserved and conserved. They suffer from overfishing as they are not protected.
Different dishes of fish are favored among customers, especially during the current fasting season. However, this year the demand is low. Fish production is poor and the supply is limited. In spite of all these the businesses were still operating until the recent cooking oil price rise.
“The cooking oil price increment affects the demand for fish,” Tsegana says.
Before the fasting season started, despite all the obstacles, he and the other suppliers distributed up to 35 quintals of fish per week to the central Ethiopian fish market including Adama. They were hoping the demand would increase in the fasting season. However, they now deliver only 15 quintals of fish to the markets. The fish market is deteriorating as fish dishes need a high amount of cooking oil to prepare. The soaring price of cooking oil is the main factor for it, Tsegana reflects.