This story first appeared in the Star newspaper.
The waters of Lake Victoria are calm off Dunga beach, Kisumu, as young entrepreneur Vincent and fisherman Nicholas climb into a wooden boat and head out to check on their fish. Storks perch on rocks emerging from the water along the lakeside, while further out white-sailed dhow boats cut across the breeze. “It’s calm now but, in a few hours, it will be very choppy,” Nicholas observes.
The boat soon arrives at the offshore fish cages. Visible on the surface of the lake are 12 square metal frames, supported by blue plastic tanks filled with air. Under the water, a series of nets holds around 5,000 tilapias in each cage. Nicholas takes off his shoes and clambers onto a walkway at the edge of the cage, which rocks gently under his weight. He peels back the top layer of the net and reaches in to grab a few large fish, which he throws into the boat. They lie at the bottom, thrashing their tails and gulping at the air.
“The biggest challenge facing the fisheries of Lake Victoria is reduced fish stock due to overfishing,” Nicholas explains. “That’s why I switched to cage farming, which is a new technology in Kenya. I buy all my fingerlings [small fish] from Aquaculture Barn. This is because of their quality, which is very good compared to my previous supplier. The fish grow better and don’t get sick. Also because of their pricing, which is very fair.”
Aquaculture Barn is a youth-led enterprise run by CEO Vincent Ochieng, 27. It is based at the water treatment works in Kisumu town, on land loaned by the County Council, and uses processed wastewater to supply several ponds and tanks used to breed tilapia and catfish. The tanks produce thousands of tiny fish, which the company sells to fish farmers like Nicholas. “We currently have a stock of 13,000 fingerlings,” Vincent says, pointing to several large grey tank inside in a greenhouse. “We sold 3,000 on Saturday to a fish farmer in Kakamega.”
Vincent got the idea for the business when he was a new graduate struggling to find work. After completing university in Nairobi, he moved home to Kisumu because of the high cost of living. “It was very difficult and demoralizing,” he recalls. “I faced stigma from employers because I was living in an informal settlement. I sent off hundreds of job applications while doing manual labour to get some money for rent and food. I couldn’t even get a position as a volunteer without knowing the right person.”
As an aquaculture graduate, Vincent thought there might be work at Kisumu water treatment works. Here he met other young unemployed graduates like himself, who were also looking for work. He also discovered the fingerling facility, which had been built as part of an EU-funded project but was no longer in use. He asked the County Council if the young people could take it over and run it. “They said they couldn’t pay us but agreed that we could run it as a youth collective and keep any profits that we made,” he says.
The big break for Vincent came when he entered the Generation Unlimited challenge for young innovators, run by UNICEF. Through this, he received business skills training and seed funding of 1.2 million Kenya shillings, allowing him to turn the youth collective into a proper business. Vincent registered the company and used the funds to buy equipment, set up additional ponds and hire four employees plus interns – all young people like himself. He also registered on Yoma, another youth innovation programme run by UNICEF.
“Generation Unlimited really helped us at Aquaculture Barn,” he says. “It’s how we got our first foothold. The range of training helped us learn business skills and digital marketing and complete the missing pieces of the business. Now that Aquaculture Barn is a success, I want to give something back to other young people through internships and training. I’m very happy.”
Generation Unlimited (GenU) is a multi-sector partnership, supported by UNICEF, which aims to see more than 30 million young Kenyans in education, training or employment by 2030. In order to promote young people’s creativity, GenU runs an annual youth challenge – now called imaGen Ventures – targeting youth groups with innovative ideas. This includes boot camps, where participants gain business skills, and seed funding for the winning teams to implement their ideas.
Another GenU initiative targeting young people is the Youth Agency Marketplace (Yoma), also supported by UNICEF. This is a digital marketplace that helps young people boost their employability by completing personalised training courses, taking part in challenges and community activities, and connecting with potential employers.
“We face an urgent challenge. By 2030, an estimated 60 percent of young people globally will lack essential skills,” UNICEF Kenya Youth Specialist Sandra Simbiri says. “Already, today’s young people are three times more likely than adults to be unemployed. To keep up with a rapidly changing labour market, Kenya’s young people need a full set of vocational skills. GenU gives them that, so they can compete.”
Another factor that helped Aquaculture Barn get established was the COVID-19 pandemic. This created additional challenges for many young people in Kenya, but Vincent spotted an opportunity. “During the pandemic, local producers couldn’t get fingerlings,” he explained. “The brokers were all locked in Nairobi due to travel restrictions and could not move to the hatcheries or farms. We built an online platform so that people could order our fingerlings from across the country. It was so successful that we had to take it offline for a while until we had fulfilled all the initial orders.”
Inside the greenhouse, Vincent takes interns through the process of tilapia breeding. He shows them how to check the gender of adult fish, transfer fingerlings from the incubator to a pond, and count the tiny fish for sale. The greenhouse is hot and humid, although it maintains an even climate compared to outside. Under Vincent’s guidance, one of the interns, Bramwell, lowers a tray of fingerlings from the incubator into the tank. “Slowly, slowly,” Vincent warns. “They need to acclimatize to the new water. Let them swim out on their own.”
Back at Dunga beach, Nicholas delivers the fish from his cage to Nutritious Hub, one of many restaurants that line the lake front. Restaurateur Edwina Achieng scales the fish and cooks them in a large pan of oil out the back. She takes orders from the hungry UNICEF team: dry or wet fried; with chips, rice or ugali. “I met the Aquaculture team at a fish industry training in Kisumu,” she explains after lunch. “I wanted to support them, so I started buying my fish from Nick. The customers have noticed the difference, they say the fish are much sweeter now.”