On the outskirts of the town of Macha Be, in Kenya’s Machakos county, lives aquaponics farmer Robin Njau. Besides chickens and rabbits, this farmer has also ventured where few in his country has gone – crayfish farming.
According to Robin Macha Be was originally pegged to be Kenya’s capital, but the elevation of Nairobi – and resultant cooler temperatures – and its ready access to more rivers made it the more suitable choice.
FoodForAfrika.com visited Robin at his family home, which has been converted to accommodate farm life. Here, he farms with chickens, rabbits and crayfish – something that many farmers in Kenya do not know about – under the trading name Kisumeo Organics. This is not his only farm, but it is the one that holds his most exciting prospect, which are crayfish crillings, or juvenile crayfish.
“Currently, we use these ponds to grow the crayfish,” Robin says, fishing a cage out of the murky water. Inside, several small crayfish can be seen scuttling about.
“Not many farmers know what crayfish are, so that means that we currently have a monopoly on the market. I think that’s not really fair, so we are going to be launching a programme that helps teach farmers about the benefits of crayfish in aquaponic farming and how you can use crayfish for value addition.”
Robin makes use of the ponds on the family compound to rear crillings into mature crayfish, and he also has a larger number of crillings growing not too far away at a local dam.
Learning the tricks of the trade
“No one steals the crayfish because no one really knows what they are. I think that’s going to be the toughest part about convincing farmers to even begin farming crayfish. For many, it is a completely unfamiliar creature to them. If you saw a crayfish for the first time with its claws and all that stuff coming from its face, wouldn’t you be scared? But in reality, crayfish are very inexpensive to rear,” explains the aquaponics farmer.
“If, for example, you have a rice farmer who needs to manage to growth of things such as algae in their paddies, the crayfish is the perfect solution. It eats the algae to grow, they need very little management and they are a viable source of protein that can be harvested – all while you just let them live in the paddies!”
Excitement shines in his eyes as he explains the popularity of Kisumeo Organics’ crayfish powder, which is also the name it is sold under.
“Right now, Nigeria loves this crayfish powder. We grind the crayfish up whole, shell and all, and add other spices such as peri-peri, lemon, etc. You can use it like you would any other seasoning. You can spice soup, meat for a barbecue, add it to a sandwich… It is very versatile.”
When asked why the decision was made to grind the entire crayfish up to make the powder, Robin explained that the shell holds a wealth of magnesium and it also aligns to his personal belief that as much of an animal must be used when it is being harvested for consumption.
The crayfish harvest is not strenuous and it takes approximately three to four months for one to be large enough to consume.
“They also breed very quickly, but it is important to understand that they must be separated at different ages of growth. The mature ones may eat the crillings, so this is why we have separate ponds for them.”
Facing challenges head-on
While Robin has made the process of crayfish farming seem low-effort until now, it is not without its challenges. He takes a deep breath and sighs as he sits down, and rattles off the list of challenges he has faced thus far.
“Because no one here really knows what crayfish is, there is very little regulation in the industry. Me, being a farmer who makes use of aquaponics, already indicates that I care about sustainability and not depleting resources, so my concern is that when more farmers join, we have to be very sure about training them not to overfish.
“Another challenge we also face is a lack of funding for this specific sort of farming. Luckily, I started farming with rabbits, chickens and such before I started with aquaponic farming.”
“If not for that, we would have had to ensure that our own personal funds were in order to secure loans from banks, to register a company name. It all becomes very expensive before you start seeing any return.”
He is inspired by how the youth is expressing an interest in working in agriculture. Robin studied business at university, and during his student days, was known as being a popular DJ. He was known for playing after rugby games between competing universities.
“You know, at my age, farming is something you were expected to do as a child. I used to help my own father with feeding the chickens and such when I was a child. When you grow up with farming, it doesn’t seem so exciting. We also have the perception of a farmer as someone who just wants to put someone to work all day, some crazy old man standing in a field.
“There’s so much you can do in agriculture now. you can be a lawyer, an accountant, a social media manager, an import-export agent… The opportunities are endless. Today’s youth aren’t narrowing themselves to thinking a farmer just tills a field. A farmer needs a team now.”
He advises young aspirant farmers to continue solving problems through an “innovative and dynamic” approach.
“The future of agriculture lies in the lands of young people. They have the solutions to our problems.”