WHAT started out as a hobby converting pigsties into fish tanks for a Graaff-Reinet couple has led to the development of one of the largest aquaculture projects in South Africa.
Located in Graaff-Reinet, about 250km from Port Elizabeth, the R250-million Blue Karoo Trust (BKT) project, in conjunction with the Eastern Cape Development Corporation (ECDC), is expected to breathe life into the Karoo economy.
The brainchild of Stephen and Liesl de la Harpe, the project has been a long time in the making.
"We were on a flight back [from a holiday in the UK] to South Africa in 2006 when we picked up a business publication and came across ECDC. We have never looked back after making our first contact with them that year," Liesl said. "In 2008 we presented the idea of fish farming in the Karoo to ECDC, which led to the first market acceptance survey."
At completion in two years' time, the project will consist of a six-hectare core farm and 39 out- grower farms with three hatcheries producing 13728 tons of farmed fish a year. When fully established, the project is expected to create 3214 jobs.
In the project's first phase, the core farm will be supported by 13 aquaculture production systems and a hatchery. This will translate into nutritional food for at least 1.158 million people. A factory for processing will be built at a later stage, targeting the bulk catering market.
ECDC risk capital specialist Phakamisa George believes the project is destined for success.
"Projects such as BKT are critical if you take into account that South Africa is expected to become a net importer of fish in just a few years. South Africa imports more fish than it exports and this could negatively affect its balance of payments.
"The beauty of this project is that there is a ready market. Supermarket groups are already importing a lot from other countries. There is a need for import substitution. If you produce fish stocks here you will create jobs here. Money will circulate within the economy," George said
The BKT aims to establish a preserved freshwater fish industry in the Eastern Cape. The fish produced by the aquaculture clusters will be processed, packaged and sold to bulk markets under the brand name "Karoo Catch".
"The intention is not to compete with established brands in formal markets but rather to provide a sustainable and cost-effective bulk source of protein and essential micronutrients directly to kitchens," Liesl said.