Why an Enormous Fish Storage Facility is Empty on the Coast of Somaliland

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In 2011, the village elders in Ruqi, a small settlement located in western Somaliland near the Ethiopian border, met with agriculture experts from an international donor-funded project to talk about testing seed varieties and growing vegetables. The NGO promised bountiful yields, successful farmers, and more vegetable sales. All they needed was a demonstration plot in the village to test the seeds and grow the vegetables. To be sure, the villagers had heard the development calls from the light blue dress-shirted men in white Landcruisers before.

The distrust of aid projects runs deep in the veins of Somalilanders, who have more faith in their government than in the poverty eradicators of the West. Nevertheless, the villagers humored the NGO and gave the project a shallow, infertile plot of land laden with stones. If the know-it-alls wanted to improve the lives of Ruqi villagers, they were going to have to prove themselves first.

Where the food grows in Somaliland

Where the food grows in Somaliland

After a three-month growing season, the agriculture extension workers and local farmers managed to coax a decent yield from the rocky soil. The village elders admitted having heard such promises before from other NGOs, so they had purposely tried to sabotage the project.

“They come here for a day or two. They give some workshop or training and tell us what to do, and then they disappear,” one village elder told me. This NGO was different, so today, the seed variety project is situated on a fertile tract of land, and Ruqi farmers work side by side with extension officers and learn efficient bed management, crop spacing, and rotation techniques. The NGO chalked it up as an accomplishment.

That was my introduction to development in Somaliland, a twenty year old country still unrecognized by the world at large, including by the UN and many aid organizations. Donor money ending up in Somaliland is first earmarked for Somalia, but USAID and other country development agencies have increasingly begun focusing more on the Somaliland region. A democratic government with four peaceful elections under its belt, a lack of major infrastructure, and its location make it an attractive investment from a development perspective.

Several large donors such as USAID handle projects in Somalia (and thus Somaliland) from Nairobi, so project managers rarely visit, have little or no relevant experience in the country, and design development projects often without first evaluating reality. Too often they ignore the truest development maxim: what seems to work for one country will not work for another country, culturally, economically, geographically or even linguistically.

I came to Somaliland to work for one of these international development projects and write content to show local and international stakeholders that tax payer money is not being wasted. But, I concluded that I was in Somaliland to also understand why testing vegetable seeds on a plot only to uproot the entire operation three months later and transfer it to another location is not a waste of energy or money.

Danger Pay

The Somaliland government makes any movement or travel outside of the capital of Hargeisa impossible without a military escort or Special Police Unit (SPU), the brainchild of British foreign aid. Somaliland spends the little money it has on security under the assumption that violence will jeopardize the argument for independence and possibly scare off Western donors for another twenty years.

Special in many ways.

Special in many ways.

On a visit to a small fish processing operation in the port town of Berbera, I traveled with a Somali woman from the Diaspora who until recently had never lived in Somaliland. Along the way, I asked her what would happen if we were suddenly captured and kidnapped by Somali bandits.

“I won’t get kidnapped. If they kidnap me, my clan will go and kidnap a woman of my caliber from their clan. If they kidnap you, nobody will help you,” she said laughing. Though she had spent almost her entire life in the UK, she had clan insurance. I had none. I was nothing more than a donation stamped with a sticker claiming I was From the American People. My clan was very far away, they don’t negotiate with terrorists, and I don’t have any caliber anyway. She apparently did.

Minutes later, she had the Somaliland Minister of Interior on the phone. They called each other welalo, an endearing and genderless word for friend or loved one. It was that kind of caliber.

Somaliland is lawless, but not lawless like Mogadishu. Rather it is lawless in the sense that nothing is regulated by anybody. Financial systems, electricity providers, camel milk traders, livestock exporters etc, each move unfettered by government rules. All transactions—from marriage to trading—are done in the traditional way involving clansmen, a group of elders and a big shade tree. This method is not without limitations.

“The older generation can still benefit from this, but young investors such as the Diaspora living abroad can´t thrive in this type of environment,” a local business leader said.

Somaliland is also expensive. With no fossil fuels or electric grids, private power providers import light diesel from the Middle East to power the generators that create the country’s electricity. As a result Somalilanders pay some of the highest electricity rates in the world, nearly seven times more expensive than in Europe. With energy in short supply, there is little in the way of domestic industry. Right now it consists of a detergent plant and recently erected Coca Cola bottling plant. Soap and soft drinks are after all the first step to modernity.

It is safe to assume that cheaper electricity will drive more investors to create light industry around Somaliland, but despite the excessive rates, the West’s well-intentioned development plans continue.

One Fish, Two Fish, No Fish

We arrived at a restaurant on the fisherman’s side of the Berbera port. At low tide, several rusted out ships lay buried in the harbor’s mudflats. Nearby was an enormous cold storage facility center built by donors in 1984. The facility was designed to run continuously and store over 400 tons of fish. There was, however, one major oversight. The facility had one motor to cool the entire building. If Berbera’s fleet of artisanal fishermen produced 15 tons of fish a day, the facility still cooled at full tilt. After a couple of years, the Somali government abandoned the facility never once having reached its capacity of 400 tons of fish.

The Boats

The Boats

The failure represents the folly of development. Approving the funds for the next big idea is easy; making it sustainable is nearly impossible. The Somali government couldn’t pay the electricity bill for the facility, the fishing boats certainly couldn’t produce 400 tons of fish, and anyway, there were not enough traders or consumers or even the means to transport that much fish. The fish value chain was not a chain at all. Rather, donors saw an ocean, skipped at least a dozen useful ways to reinforce the local fishing industry, and built a fancy behemoth they could take photos of and put in their next grant proposal.

Now, in 2012, the project that I was writing for will provide partial in-kind grants to a small fishing firm in the way of an ice machine and small compartmentalized freezers allowing for storage of 1 to 100 tons of fish. Here we insert a Somali proverb that illustrates doing things slowly and with great measure.

The fish that can't fill a storage van.

The fish that can’t fill a storage van.

In the shadow of the cold storage monstrosity, we sat down to feast of grilled and fried fish, goat meat, spaghetti and watermelon. Berbera’s deputy mayor joined us and explained the challenges and objectives of the city’s fishing industry without consciously swallowing any of the food in his mouth. Staring intently across the table with bloodshot eyes and a random spaghetti noodle hanging off his chin, he bellowed:

“Fish! We are changing our attitudes toward fish. Somalilanders live with their backs to the sea. Now we will all learn to eat fish.” This bold declaration was followed with many unintelligible words about Yemeni poachers, ice, and a friend in jail on charges of piracy. I nodded and dodged the chunks of food spraying from his mouth with every emphatic word. What else did Berbera have to offer?

“Gypsum! And you know about gypsum,” he said with a wink.

“But gypsum is not a very valuable commodity I think,” I replied.

“What about titanium?”

“What about titanium?” I shrugged.

“I have a mountain of titanium. You want titanium?”

I didn’t want titanium or any gypsum either for that matter, and soon he hurried out of lunch, jumped in his car and sped off. Judging by his eyes and demeanor, I assume lunch had interrupted, or at least delayed, the much more important city council business of chewing khat.

Happy Bales

We rounded up our security details and headed southeast towards the city of Burao, which sits on a plateau 1000m meters above the coastal plain. The Burao livestock market is said to be the largest of its kind in the Horn of Africa. Over 3.5 million heads of goat, sheep, cattle and camels are bought and traded each year. The majority end up down in the port in Berbera to be loaded on a cruise-ship sized ferry and whisked away to the Middle East.

Livestock are the object of Somali pastoralists’ existence, and camels especially provide the Somali nomad with milk, often his only nourishment throughout the day. Altogether, livestock represent over 65% of Somaliland’s GDP. And most importantly, livestock don’t require electricity.

Burao Livestock Market in Somaliland

Secret Livestock Deals

In the Burao market, traditional business practices persist. Livestock ranchers and traders meet in the middle of the market surrounded by partners, friends and onlookers. Hands locked under a handkerchief, the two men negotiate the price per head for the animals in question by pulling fingers. The pull of an index finger is offering $100 per head, the middle finger represents $80, the ring finger, $70 and the pinky, $60. Furious eyes stare while grunts and sarcastic laughter can be heard from afar. Negotiation can last hours, but when they do finally agree nobody has any idea what the trader has paid for the nomad’s sheep.

Closing my eyes, I envisioned a development project placing a large, brightly lit market board detailing fair livestock prices for that day. Ahhh, it’s so easy to develop.

From the market, I traveled outside of town to the Toghdeer river plain, the country’s fodder growing heartland. I met a grass farmer whose father was gunned down in 1987 during the Somaliland resistance leading up to the civil war. In 2009, the farmer moved from Sheffield, England to take over the family farm and grow grass for the region’s livestock.

Every day, he and his workers stuff mountains of hay into large trucks. The trucks transport the fodder down the plateau to the port where animals are waiting—quarantined in pens—before export. A truckload of hay never reaches full capacity because grass farmers do not bale hay. And grass farmers claim they do not bale hay because truck drivers will not buy bales. As a result, throughout the region’s history, there has never been a bale of hay despite livestock being Somaliland’s main source of income.

Piling on the hay

Piling on the hay

“If the farmers come together, we can convince the truck drivers. If we can convince the truck drivers, we can convince the traders,” the grass farmer told me in his thick English accent.

He went on to say that drivers and traders don’t know what to pay for hay bales. And since hay is sold by the truckload, hay shall continue to be sold by the truckload. Apparently, there are no secret handshakes for hay bales.

Then, three years ago, an international donor gave Burao’s grass farmers over 400 mechanical balers. Not one farmer has adopted the technology, and the balers are sitting in a storage unit in Burao.

For the donor, baling boxes are inexpensive, and the idea that grass farmers should bale their hay is sound. However, the donor could have spent time meeting with truck drivers— who could carry 30% more fodder through bales—and with traders who can move the bales more efficiently throughout the livestock pens. The initiative has the potential to increase the livestock sector’s productivity, but the mere delivery of bale boxes was simply not enough to make a difference.

Donors have spent nearly three decades in greater Somalia providing mostly humanitarian assistance interspersed with funding for development. I was lucky to spend two weeks there and be able to contrast the aid world’s former mistakes—big ones like the fish storage facility and small ones like the bale boxes— with the approach of the project for which I was working.

The project is located in the country and employs Somalilanders who have seen plenty of development failure over the years. My colleagues didn’t actually “develop” anything during the first year but spent time assessing local markets and government policy needs in order to make contributions meaningful. As the project begins implementation of in-kind grants, communication and rapport with local farmers, business leaders and pastoralists may become the mission’s biggest ally.

Some farmers and I

Some farmers and I



A rural Somaliland family

A rural Somaliland family





  • Keme

    Hahaa.. Nico, I liked the secret finger dealings!!!!!!!!! Very nice story for those of who don’t know Somali land and Appreciate your views on the NGO’s support in those forgotten areas!!!

    Keep your good work on the coming new year!!!

    Happy New Year 2013!

  • Troy

    The people need to be taught how to use the hay baler. “Give a man a hay baler he’ll farm for a day, teach a man to bale hay he’ll farm for a lifetime.” Similar to the seed aid you need to teach the people how to farm, otherwise development is unsuccessful. And a Mayor on khat (thinking about Chris Rock’s mayor on crack comedy) with spaghetti stuck on his chin contributes to folly development projects.

  • who would pay to store wooden bale boxes?……. perhaps someone who wants to make a quick buck ie reseller. Donors need give things direct to people/farmers not through local ngo’s or elders/mayors on khat. Its not a lack Business acumen on the farmers part but donors who waste tax payers money by giving things to people through other people who don’t end up giving it to the people they were intended for and if it does reach the right folk they end up paying for it. Confused with all the people that’s just the way folly donors operate.

    You say “an international donor gave Burao’s grass farmers over 400 mechanical balers”. If the farmers got the boxes direct I don’t think they would end up being stored in warehouse. So does each farmer pay a share to store all 400 hundred boxes in the same storage unit?. Erm somehow I don’t think so.