One of the concerns many in sub-Saharan Africa express is the competition local producers face from cheap tilapia imported from China. However, for a couple of years now, China’s tilapia exports to sub-Saharan Africa have been declining. While China has been a significant source of competition in the past, this is no longer entirely true.
Figure 1: China’s tilapia exports to sub-Saharan Africa (Source: General Administration of Customs People’s Republic of China)
Though tilapia production in China is believed to be stable at around 1.8 million MT, its exports increased from a live weight equivalent (LWE) of 858,000 MT in 2013 to just over 1 million MT in 2020. The increase is entirely increased by fillets, the LWE of which rose from 724,000 MT to 941,000 MT. The rise in exports of fillets is a clear indication of China’s farmers’ focus on producing larger tilapia sizes suited for filleting. While exports of fillets to the US have declined over the years, exports to other markets—such as Mexico— have soared. The LWE of the export volume of whole fish dropped from 134,000 MT to 90,000 MT. This decline comes largely at the account of sub-Saharan Africa which over the past two years significantly reduced imports of Chinese tilapia.
Figure 1: china’s tilapia exports in LWE estimation of actual export volume (source: www.trademap.org)
Note: Export volumes converted to a LWE with a ratio of 0.37 for fillets and an average ratio of 0.9 for whole round, and gutted and scaled tilapia.
According to Chinese customs, after climbing from 81,000 MT in 2015 to 92,000 MT in 2020, sub-Saharan Africa’s imports of Chinese tilapia dropped to 65,000 MT in 2019 and 61,000 MT in 2020. In 2020, sub-Saharan Africa accounts for 60% of China’s total official whole tilapia exports. In terms of direct imports from China, Western Africa is clearly the largest importer within the region, followed by Southern Africa, Eastern Africa and Middle Africa (Figure 1). According to Chinese customs, direct imports into Western Africa are on the rise, while direct imports into other regions are declining. Some trade between regions, especially Middle, Eastern, and Southern Africa, may occur.
Many insiders in the aquaculture industry in sub-Saharan Africa believe that the actual volume of tilapia imported from China might be larger than the volume declared to customs: local governments may report higher import numbers and, on top of that, it is thought that importers and exporters may agree to declare the product as, say, mackerel or as “other fish” to circumvent import duties on tilapia or bans that prohibit the import of Chinese tilapia. This discrepancy is believed to be the biggest in Southern Africa (where local sources estimate Chinese tilapia imports at 12,000 MT) and in Eastern Africa.
Chinese exporters sell whole tilapia in various sizes, ranging from 100/200 g to over 800 g. The most common size tilapia imported into sub-Saharan Africa is 100/200 and 200/300 g, but regional differences exist: Eastern, Middle, and Southern Africa tend to import small and medium-sized tilapia, while Western Africa tends to import medium-sized tilapia as well as some larger sizes. In early 2021, Chinese sellers offered tilapia at prices (CIF) ranging from $0.85/kg for 100/200 g to $1.53/kg for over 800 g. These prices may drop during the year when the peak harvest season in China starts in June, and when the—currently extremely high—container prices tumble.
Figure 3: CIF prices delivered to ports in Sub-Saharan Africa quoted by Chinese exporters in march 2021
-These prices are for fish that are glazed 20%, so actual raw material sizes are smaller
-Prices might differ slightly depending on the exact destination
-Price (CIF) delivered to ports in sub-Saharan Africa
Among other reasons, Chinese exporters can sell at these prices because they receive a subsidy of 10% for exporting tilapia to sub-Saharan Africa. In some cases, the smaller tilapia is believed to primarily be a by-product of farms that mainly target larger sizes. As there is no domestic market for this product, Chinese farmers are willing to sell it to processors at around—or even below—the actual production cost.
While the low prices for the smaller Chinese tilapia are hard to compete with, commercial producers in sub-Saharan Africa have started competing with Chinese prices for medium-sized and large tilapia. Though a considerable volume of small Chinese tilapia is still sold to the lowest-income urban consumers of sub-Saharan Africa, medium-sized tilapia—more expensive than the poorest can afford—is sold mostly to the urban middle class. With Chinese tilapia being less of a threat, competition might come from other animal proteins instead.