Speaking at Strathmore University on 16 October, President Uhuru Kenyatta said: “I have been told about the imported fish from China. It is not possible that we import Chinese fish when our local traders are here”. Ten days later, the Kenya Fisheries Service served notice to all stakeholder companies that no applications for importing tilapia will be approved from 1 January 2019.
Although China was not specifically mentioned, it is currently Kenya’s main source of tilapia, with low prices enabling it to undercut the previously lucrative export trade from Uganda and other East African nations. As in most African countries, there is increasing demand for tilapia in Kenya, but current national output is only 14,852 tonnes. As a result, tilapia imports from China amounted to over $18 million in 2017.
The government’s decision to freeze import licence applications represtents something of a volte-face. On June 28, Agriculture Cabinet Secretary Mwangi Kiunjiri delivered an emphatic defence of the imports from China. “It is about supply and demand… we are not [self] sufficient. There is a wide gap in supply which the Chinese import is filling. Our fish production cannot meet the high demand. We cannot produce enough fish for the market. The issue is not whether they are flooding the market but their competitiveness... the market is wide open,” he said.
The ban certainly did not please the Chinese. Ambassador Li Xu Huang said: “The move is shocking, and we could respond to it the way we did with the US after it imposed tariffs on goods from our market”.
That statement carried a major implicit threat. During President Kenyatta's visit to China for the Forum for China Africa Cooperation in September, he was scheduled to sign an agreement for financing the final phase of the $3.6 billion, 1,300 kilometre Standard Rail Gauge project. But the Chinese removed that event from the agenda, citing the increasing unfriendliness of the Kenyan business environment to China.
Despite the ambassador's incendiary statement, the Chinese Embassy issued a second statement on 31 October which said that China would not engage in a trade war with Kenya “or even associate the issue of fish imports with other cooperative projects”.
Fish farmers and traders may be heaving a sigh of relief now. But with China funding quite a number of major infrastructure and projects, it remains to be seen whether Kenya will be able to stand its ground and maintain the ban. However, well-informed analysts believe that Kenya will eventually make some major concessions, even if it does not reverse the ban completely.