Under the Trade Forward Southern Africa Programme’s Value Chain Support Component, Imani Development has been formulating and delivering a range of strategies to support the aquaculture industry in the SACU+M region in maintaining and enhancing export market access for their products. During the early stages of implementation, an industry mapping exercise and complementary capacity needs assessment was conducted to identify areas where targeted interventions could achieve rapid positive impacts; results indicated the need to strengthen technical skills and capacity within the industry’s quality monitoring laboratories and supporting infrastructures, pertaining to the identification and monitoring of potentially harmful organisms that could compromise SPS standards.

Market challenges 

Most aquaculture products sold domestically, and all aquaculture products exported to international markets, must comply with stringent SPS requirements to ensure they are safe for consumption. Where producers do not have their own infrastructure to test for harmful organisms in their waters or products, they rely on the early warning systems and private or publicly-owned laboratories to support them in ensuring their products are safe. This requires that technicians at these laboratories, and within the broader quality infrastructure ecosystem, are adequately skilled to identify and discern between harmless and harmful organisms; failure to do so may result either in unsafe products reaching consumers or, conversely, that entirely safe products are incorrectly rejected by domestic retailers and export markets.

African exports face significant challenges in securing and maintaining access to mature markets, such as the UK and the EU, much of which can be attributed to difficulties in complying with safety and quality standards. Between 2008 and 2013, products exported from Africa accounted for 30% of all products denied entry to the EU due to non-compliance with SPS and food market standards, with fish and aquatic products making up the most significant proportion of these at 40% of African products rejected.

For this reason, Imani Development and the Trade Forward Southern Africa Programme recognised the importance of providing targeted training on the identification of harmful algal blooms. Collaborating with the UNESCO IOC Science and Communication Centre on Harmful Algae, a training programme was developed and offered to private and public stakeholders in Namibia and South Africa to strengthen their technical skills capacities. The programme consisted of a 10-week online training course, introducing participants to Harmful Algal Blooms (HABs) and the various and numerous species and genuses – from dinoflagellates to diatoms – followed by an intensive 8-day in-person lecture series, delivered by Dr. Jacob Larsen and hosted by the Ministry of Fisheries and Natural Resources in Swakopmund, Namibia. Participants were able to interact with live and preserved cultures of species prominent in Southern African waters and beyond. The training programme’s main goal is to contribute significantly to building the necessary skills and capacities needed to enhance industry compliance with market standards, contribute to the reduction of rejection rates, and improving overall product quality in domestic and export markets.

The HAB Phenomenon: What are HABs and why should we be looking out for them?

Marine and freshwater bodies are rich in algae and other natural organisms that form an integral part of the ecosystem, and are a primary source of feed for many finfish, shellfish, and other aquatic animals. Whilst most of these are entirely harmless to both the animal and human health, some can cause harm to human health if consumed. Coastal communities across Southern Africa are quite familiar with  – “red tide” – which occurs regularly in our waters. It is caused by algae reproducing exponentially and starving the water of oxygen, feed, and nutrients. During this phenomenon, large bodies of deceased fish and tainted shellfish like lobsters can be seen washing ashore, with authorities warning the public to not harvest or consume any of the animals.

However, some algal species  may not cause such noticeable effects on the water bodies or marine life; instead being safely consumed by animals, who then absorb their toxic elements and pass these on to humans when eaten. For this reason, both marine and freshwater bodies are monitored through early-warning systems to quickly alert producers, authorities, and consumers of the presence of such harmful organisms. This allows for products to either be removed from the waters (when still in the production stage) or recalled from markets and retailers to reduce the possibility of consumption of affected products, and the potential harm on human health.

HAB training programme

Fourteen individuals completed the HAB training programme, consisting of six delegates from South Africa and eight from Namibia; of these, ten were women and four were men. Four represented private sector firms, and eight were from government ministries, departments, or agencies, and two from the University of Namibia. All participants were either technicians, tasked with the identification of harmful organisms on a daily basis, or otherwise employed within the early warning system infrastructure.

Most notably, participants who were technicians highlighted an increased appreciation for the importance of identifying species correctly, and significantly enhanced confidence in their abilities to identify such. The training further improved their capacity to select and deploy the correct equipment and techniques based on the type of species identified, to better plan their lab processes and procedures, and improve reporting and communication with colleagues, producers, and authorities. Participants agreed that this training would strengthen cooperation within the industry, improving SPS compliance and the overall quality of products being sold in domestic and export markets.

Here are a few quotes from the group on their learning and key takeaways from the training;

Moving forward, we will now incorporate techniques that will enable us to trace our sampling results, enabling us to know why we have the results that we have. It was really helpful for us, as individuals, as fellow scientists, and as an institution, it will make a big impact going forward.” – Participant, Namibia Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources (MFMR).

“When I thought of aquaculture, I was thinking more of the money you can make. I never really thought about the impact [of this topic] on the success of an aquaculture venture. Now that I better understand the economic impact that phytoplanktons cause and how to prevent that. I now know it’s something highly important to consider, something every aquaculture farmer should know when they want to start a venture” – Participant, University of Namibia (UNAM)

“Attending this training will so contribute towards our competency during phytoplankton water sample assessment and also benefit the industry at large. It will make a huge difference in our phyto-industry.” – Participant, Amanzi Bio-Security.

“I wanted to thank you, on behalf of Amanzi where I serve as a Board member. The [participating] staff really enjoyed it and were impressed and in awe of the level of training and knowledge that was provided them. They will be transferring skills internally to the other 2-3 technicians that assist with daily phytoplankton monitoring. Amanzi is undergoing the first SANAS accreditation process now, focussing on the phytoplankton methodology, so the training couldn’t have come at a better time! Industry, and Amanzi, is very grateful.” – Board Member, Amanzi Bio-Security

“South Africa needs [to maintain access] to the EU [market], so this [training] was crucial for us to have, because this is one of the EU requirements. The certificate [from this training] will come in handy so that when we get audited next year we can produce [proof of our participation].” – Participant, South Africa Department of Forestry, Fisheries, and the Environment (DFFE).