What started out as a hobby of converting pig sties into fish tanks by a Graaff Reinet couple has led to the development of one of the largest aquaculture projects in South Africa in recent years.
The R250 million Blue Karoo Trust (BKT) project is expected to breathe life into the Karoo economy. Spearheaded by development financier, the Eastern Cape Development Corporation (ECDC), the project has already attracted the attention of the major public sector financiers in South Africa.
At completion, the project will consist of a 6 hectare core farm and 39 outgrower farms, three hatcheries producing 13 728 tons of farmed fish a year. When fully-established, the project is expected to create 3 214 jobs. In the first phase of the project the core farm will be supported by 13 aquaculture production systems and a hatchery. This will translate into nutritional food to at least 1 158 000 people. The price tag is earmarked for the construction of the farms and for working capital. There will also be a factory for processing, targeting the bulk catering market.
The brainchild of married couple, Stephen and Liesl de la Harpe, the project has been a long time in the making when the couple first began exploring economic opportunities with ECDC as far back as 2006.
“We were on a flight back to South Africa in 2006 when we picked up a business publication and came across ECDC. Since that moment we have never looked back after making our first contact with them that year. In 2008 we presented the idea of fish farming in the Karoo to the financier which led to the first market acceptance survey.
“We are delighted that ECDC took the initial step of injecting about R780 000 into the project for the compilation of the business plan, Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), market acceptance survey and a portion of the feasibility study,” says Liesl de la Harpe.
The BKT is a significant development and should help entrench the Eastern Cape’s position as a serious challenger to the Western Cape’s dominance of the infant aquaculture industry. Depleted fish stocks in the oceans have made fish farming an attractive alternative. About 90% of the Chinese fish market is from farmed fish because fish stocks have been depleted in the region. The global economic outlook for aquaculture over the next 20 years is positive. The global aquaculture sector has grown at an annual compounded rate of 9.2% per annum and until 2030, it is projected to grow at 3.5% p.a.
“Projects such as BKT are critical if you take into account that South Africa is expected to become a net importer of fish in just a few years. The country is already a high importer of fish products from Scandanavian countries while Algeria already supplies a lot of frozen fish to South Africa. South Africa imports more fish than it exports and this could negatively affect South Africa’s balance of payment.
“When the De la Harpe’s approached ECDC through the Camdeboo Municipality proposing the idea of fish farming, ECDC went on to further investigate the feasibility of establishing fish farming in Graaff Reinet. The beauty about this project is that there is a ready market. Supermarket groups are already importing a lot from other countries. There is a need for import substitution. If you produce fish stocks here you will create jobs here. Money will circulate within the economy,” says ECDC risk capital specialist Phakamisa George.
Several organisations make up the project steering committee, which guides the development of the initiative, and have made financial contributions. The IDC has already provided R2.7 million for market analysis, systems designs and feasibility studies. The DBSA / Cacadu Rural Economic Development Initiative also committed R 500 000 towards product development. The United Kingdom based Department for Environmental Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) towards the market acceptance survey. Cacadu District Municipality has contributed R200 000 towards the project with the support of the local Camdeboo Municipality. The National Department of Agriculture Forestry and Fisheries has also committed funding towards the proof of concept on a commercial scale, which is currently underway.
“This is a catalytic project which demonstrates how government agencies can syndicate funds and resources to fund large scale projects with a potential for maximum development impact. The idea is also to use the ground water and the ideal water storage infrastructure that is available in Graaff Reinet to farm fish,” explains George.
The BKT aims to establish a preserved fresh water fish industry in the Eastern Cape. The freshwater fish produced by the aquaculture clusters will be processed, packaged and sold at an affordable price to bulk markets such as caterers, public sector kitchens, hospitals and schools under the brand name “Karoo Catch”.
Liesl de la Harpe adds that “the intention is not to compete with established brands in formal markets but rather to provide a sustainable and cost-effective bulk source of protein and essential micronutrients directly to kitchens.”
This is an edited version of statement issued by the ECDC