Fish Farming in Uganda: The Challenging Growth of Sunfish Farms Ltd
A worker feeding fish as Digo Tugumisirize looks on.

Fish Farming in Uganda: The Challenging Growth of Sunfish Farms Ltd

Meet a man who risked his family savings for fish farming.

By Enoch Mutabaazi
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First published: September 11, 2006

Farming in Uganda has been synonymous with raring of animals and cultivating of crops. This has been the unofficial definition until lately, when fish farming was introduced on the menu of farming in the country. Still, fish farming is not a widely practiced trade and the few people engaged in it are facing setbacks because little is know about it.

Sunfish Farms Ltd: Digo Tugumisirize with one of his workers
Sunfish Farms Ltd: Digo Tugumisirize with one of his workers.

A few farmers like Digo Tugumisirize have engaged fish farming on a large scale despite the challenges. Digo owns Sunfish Farms Ltd, a seven-hectare fish farm located at Kajjansi, a place synonymous to the construction industry because it is a home for numerous bricks and tiles companies.

Kajjansi lies about 15 kilometers from Entebbe International Airport on Kampala-Entebbe high way. Digo started fish farming in 1997 and has soldiered on using a method he prefers to call 'trial and error'. Unlike other fish farmers who have engaged in the business after government calls, Digo was inspired to start fish farming after his visit to Singapore in 1997 where he leisurely visited a fish-farming village.

Then a public servant with Civil Aviation Authority as an Air Traffic Controller, Digo decided to channel some of the family's savings to start a fish farm.

"When I returned to Uganda, I engaged the government fisheries department for more information on fish farming. They directed me to National Agricultural Research Organization (NARO) fisheries department in Kajjansi for further consultation. The NARO painted a rosy picture saying that the business was profitable," recalls Digo. But was it?

First hurdle

"My initial challenge was to find suitable land with a flat topography and constant water flow for easy tapping and clayish soils all favorable for fish farming. After a lengthy search, a friend alerted me of the availability of land near the government fish farm in Kajjansi, which i promptly purchased."

Digo's initial plans were to do fish farming as a side business as he continued on with his employment at CAA. After his acquisition of land, Digo says he hired an expert from the government fisheries department to do a viability study before excavating.

Sunfish Farms Ltd
Sunfish Farms Ltd
Sunfish Farms Ltd.

Upon the expert's approval, Digo says he invested heavily to excavate the land and create 50 by 100 meters ponds, which he leveled above the swampy surrounding to prevent flooding sweeping into the ponds during rain season.

"I had initially planned to spend less, but due to sticky clay soils and inaccessibility of the area from the main roads, I was forced to hire heavy bulldozers and ended up spending 50 million shillings draining the family's savings," says Digo.

All along the nearby government fish farm had assured him of an uninterrupted supply of fish eggs as soon as his farm was ready for stocking.

More trouble

After relentlessly making his farm ready for stocking, the upbeat Digo approached the government fish farm with a supply request of six hundred thousand fish eggs. He was shocked to find that the government farm could only manage to raise 1000 fish eggs per month, a number that was not even enough for one pond. Besides informing him that they could not meet his demand they also told him that no one would in Uganda.

"I was faced with a tricky situation. First I was angry at the politics the government fish farm had played but I was also worried that the whole family's savings was really threatened. I had labored to convince my wife about the viability of the project, basing on the information from government experts and now they were telling me stories."

Call it quits

After draining the family's stationery business for fish farming, Digo was not ready to watch while his savings were melting away.

"I had to make an even harder decision. That was quitting by job at CAA against the advise from the already worried family members, friends and my bosses who thought I was losing my head due to the challenges I was undergoing. For me it wasn't a dead deal like what friends were saying then, but just serious challenges that needed my full attention," he said with defiance.

After realizing that no one was going to supply him with the number of fish eggs he needed because nobody was hatching fish on such a large scale, Digo instead saw a new window for business. He was determined to try what the government was not trying, that is hatching fish on large scale.

He discovered that the locally available technology was not sufficient for fish hatching and therefore he saw a need to look elsewhere. His research for alternatives landed him to a Kenyan government farm in Nairobi.

The Kenyans were far ahead and had advanced technology. "After paying them a visit, I decided to hire them as experts to train my workers. I couldn't send workers to Nairobi, I instead brought the experts down here to train myself and the workers on the job," says Digo who now employs 15 people including a professional aquaculture consultant.

The realization that there was no farm hatching fish at a large scale made Digo switch from his original idea of breeding to maturity for consumption to fish hatchery.

Nine years down the road, although not yet mature, Digo's Sunfish Farms Ltd is the leading private producer of all types of fingerlings (young fish used by fishermen as baits to catch big fish), African catfish and Tilapia in Uganda.

Digo says that his company no longer has to rely on any for supply. They instead supply upcoming farmers, government initiated projects and fishermen. They hatch 150,000 to 200,000 fish eggs per month and the number will double after installing another temperature regulating machine.

Fish hatchery

Sunfish Farms Ltd: A hatchery house
Sunfish Farms Ltd: A hatchery house.

According to Digo, the process of hatching fish starts with getting a mature high quality female fish, which are identified early enough by experts and put in separate ponds. Once the female fish matures, they are brought into temperature controlled hatchery tanks where they are induced with a growth hormone from pituitary glands extracted from fish head.

After spending 15-16 hours in temperature averaging 25 degrees, the mother fish is considered to have developed eggs. For lack of appropriate technology, Digo says they manually squeeze the eggs out of the mother fish before bringing in the male fish sperms for fertilization. A 1 kg mother fish lays about 50,000 eggs and the bigger the size and quality, the bigger the number of eggs laid.

After hatching, the fish are kept in tanks under temperatures above 24 degrees and are removed at 2.5 cm size and taken to the relatively bigger green houses with similar temperatures. At 6 cm the fingerlings are taken to nursery ponds. A period of 17-21 days is spent between hatching/incubation and nursery ponds.

Between 10-12 cm the fingerlings are taken to the open ponds where they will be ready for sell to the breeders. According to Digo, a total of ten weeks is required from egg laying to the time of selling.

Sunfish Farms Ltd: Newly hatched fish
Sunfish Farms Ltd: Newly hatched fish.

Sunfish Farms Ltd: Temperature regulated tanks for young fish
Sunfish Farms Ltd: Temperature regulated tanks for young fish.


Quoting the World Bank and USAID research, Digo says that 3 million fingerlings are needed by fishmongers as baits on Lake Victoria. He says that they are working hard to supply such a market.

Digo says that the market is now stabilizing after the government started cracking on illegal fishmongers who were depleting water bodies of fish by catching immature fish as baits.

Sunfish Farms Ltd sells between 100,000 to 200,000 fingerlings per month at a cost of 150/= each. The buyers include fishmongers, fish farmers and government initiated projects.

Fish farming growing

Digo is optimistic that Fish farming is finally taking root in the country with several small farmers spread all over the country. The World Food Programme in 2004 started supporting farmers in Meya Arua district to engage in fish farming under its Food for Assets programme.

According to Pius Kwesiga, WFP's Aquaculture consultant, Meya is one of several groups that WFP started supporting in the West Nile region since 2004 under the Food for Assets programme (FFA).

FFA is a creative initiative whereby food is given as an incentive to residents to work together to create community and household assets, explained WFP country director, Ken Davies. Simply stated, it is food for work done and food for attaining skills - basically community-based initiatives that utilize food incentives to create physical and human assets.

As the trade grows Digo says that government should support its child by improving infrastructure and supporting research to encourage the farmers to go on.

Sunfish Farms Ltd: Digo inspects newly hatched fish
Sunfish Farms Ltd: Digo inspects newly hatched fish.

By Enoch Mutabaazi
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First published: September 11, 2006
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Enoch Mutabaazi is a media practitioner at Ultimate Media Consult with more than six years experience in the print and electronic media. Since he majored in Broadcast Journalism at his graduate studies Mutabaazi first worked as a reporter at Uganda Television (now Uganda Broadcasting Corporation TV) before he discovered his multidimensional skills in writing and public relations at Ultimate Media Consult. He is currently the Production Executive at Ultimate Media Consult (U) Ltd and writes occasionally.