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Fishing for a market

Tahera Hussaini
Despite high start-up costs and investment risk, the ornamental fish business carves out a niche in Mazar-e Sharif
28.07.2014  |  Mazar-e Sharif

More than two decades ago, Sakhi Badree enhanced the commercial district of Mazar-e Sharif with a whimsical new product. Expanding on a fish farming project he started in 1982, his company Fish World now raises ornamental fish and sells them to affluent city dwellers.

The business required an initial investment of 6,000 afghani, and keeping it operational has not been easy. Sakhi’s merchandise is constantly threatened by power outages, droughts and seasonal temperature changes. Prices depend on market developments in Thailand, where most of the ornamental fish originate. Transporting the fish from abroad requires a special license, and is in itself a precarious affair. Sometimes, only 18 out of every 100 fish survive and vendors incur heavy losses.

Sakhi waits for customers inside his store Fish World in Mazar-e Sharif. Photo: Tahera Hussaini

These logistical difficulties have not discouraged Sakhi from carving out a niche in the local market, comprised of a small but growing group of enthusiasts who are as passionate about ornamental fish as Sakhi himself. “Keeping fish at home is like having a corner of a river in your house,” he says.

Most ornamental fish businesses are concentrated in Kabul, where the population is higher and demand is greater. But the lack of proximity to a fish farm has not prevented three Mazar-based vendors from offering a limited variety of ornamental fish, as well as aquariums, thermometers, fish food and other supplies. 

Cultivating a market among the urban middle class also brings difficulties. A single fish costs 100 afghanis a piece, or around five times the price of a loaf of bread. A jar of fish food costs 50 afghanis. Disposable incomes are still low, and most have other priorities than buying goldfish. Awareness is also lacking, and many first-time buyers lose interest after discovering that the goldfish they purchased and stored in a water bucket has died.

Still, the shops draw their share of return customers. Muhammad Bashir, 14, attends high school and works part-time at a pharmacy. He and his brother keep oxygenated fish tanks in their rooms. The pair visit the shop regularly to stake out new fish, and to buy supplies. Another customer, 23-year-old Shafi-ullah, brought a fish tank into his tailor shop after his friends encouraged him to buy one as decoration.

Despite its novelty on the current market, fish farming has a long history in Afghanistan, and some local efforts are underway to revive the practice, says Saboor Niazi, an economist with knowledge of the fishery sector. In the long run, the hobby could turn into a sustainable food production industry and attract investment and jobs, he adds.