Femi Eniola returned to Nigeria from abroad and in 2018 set up Osky Catfish Hatchery Grow-out & Processing Facility, a business that grows and dries catfish for domestic consumption and international export. Eniola explained to James Torvaney why he chose to pursue catfish processing and what it takes to succeed in the industry.
What made you go into fish farming in the first place?
I had lived around the world, including in Australia – where I trained as a railway conductor – and both the United Kingdom and the United States. But I always found it difficult to find Nigerian catfish. Any catfish I could find seemed to come from East Asian countries like Thailand or the Philippines, even those in the African stores.
I wanted to know what the secret was that allowed East Asian countries to export so much catfish, whereas African countries, despite having such fertile growing conditions, exported so little. So I travelled to the Philippines, where I enrolled in a catfish production training programme.
During the programme, they were actually using catfish bred in Nigeria. This is an insult and a big shame to Nigeria. How could I come all the way to the Philippines to learn how to cultivate catfish that comes from Nigeria? Why can’t this be done in Nigeria?’
So that was what made me come back to Nigeria. I wanted to do catfish farming the right way, in a way that was suitable for international export.
So when you came back to Nigeria, how did you get Osky started?
When I came to Nigeria, I met with the relevant people in the government, told them what I wanted to do, and researched the relevant guidelines and requirements.
I leased 5,000 square metres of water from the Benin Owena River Basin Development Authority near Akure, in my home state of Ondo, in southern Nigeria. It’s the ideal location as there is a constant supply of fresh, flowing water, which allows the catfish to grow organically and speed up their growth.
From the beginning, I wanted to process to international standards, so I had to ensure our facilities would meet all the required standards for exportation, including having standards inspectors from the United States visit the facilities before we started production.
How have you expanded the business since starting?
I quickly realised that in order to make the business work, we had to control the whole value chain, from the hatching, through the growth stage, to the processing (drying) of the catfish.
I later added a feed mill so that we wouldn’t need to buy feed. I use a formula based on what I learnt in the Philippines, which consists solely of ingredients I can source locally, such as corn, soya cake, fishmeal and rice.
Can you explain a bit more about the international market for catfish?
Catfish has a huge market in Asia, and also in Western countries like the United States and Canada where lot of consumers are moving away from red meat and beginning to look to alternative protein sources. It’s also popular in many African countries – it is a very popular and commonly used ingredient in Nigerian cuisine, for example.
Unfortunately, the Nigerian market prefers catfish that is smoked the traditional way: over a direct flame. There are health issues with this – it can be carcinogenic. It is also one of the issues preventing Nigerian catfish producers from accessing the international export market, because very few countries will allow catfish on the market that has been dried directly over fire.
The alternative way of drying the catfish, which is the internationally accepted method, is to use an oven. I was very clear, right from the beginning, that we would use this method of processing our catfish.
What makes the catfish business such a good industry to be in?
If you do the business right, catfish farming can be a very lucrative business. A lot of what you need can be found naturally in Nigeria, which means it has lower capital requirements compared to most other agriculture and manufacturing businesses. And because catfish can be ready to harvest in just a few weeks, it has a much quicker turnover. If you don’t cut corners, you can get your initial investment back in a matter of months.
Catfish can be edible as soon as they 60 days old, although we allow our fish to grow for around 90 days, by which time they are 600-700 grams.
Every week we process around four tonnes of fresh catfish, which gives us around one tonne of dried product. One advantage of catfish farming in Nigeria is that there is relatively little seasonality and, unlike the East Asian markets, you can farm catfish 365 days of the year.
Highlight some of the trends you have noticed in the industry.
One trend is that there are a lot of young people coming into the industry and starting up businesses. Another is that technology is allowing producers to reach buyers they wouldn’t otherwise have found – using platforms such as Instagram, Alibaba, etc. I make the majority of my sales online.
What are the most difficult aspects of running a successful catfish processing business in Nigeria?
Three things come to mind:
Firstly, financing. It is extremely difficult to get bank financing for projects. There is a lot of corruption at the bank officer level.
Secondly, research and sector-specific knowledge. Climate change is killing fish and means they cannot reproduce like they did before. Most farmers do not have up-to-date skills, and those that don’t know new technologies, and new ways of doing things, are going to struggle.
Finally, human capital. A lot of people want to be the boss and millionaires overnight. But they don’t take time to learn the right skills. In Nigeria especially, you need to know your business really well, even as the CEO. You can’t just leave things to other people, you need to know everything about how your fish grow, what they eat, et cetera.