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Is a Chinese-funded Aquaculture Technology Demonstration Center in South Africa a Ghost Ship?

In 2006, the Chinese government began a program of delivering agricultural aid to Africa through establishing Agriculture Technology Demonstrations Centers (ATDC), aimed at stimulating local development and also promote Chinese commercial and diplomatic interests in Africa.  Some of these ATDCs have been beneficial, but many others are unsustainable in terms of funding and project design.

The China-South Africa Agricultural Technology Demonstration Center (ATDC) at Gariep Dam, Free State province, South Africa, is the first project of the Chinese government to assist South Africa within the agricultural sector.  The facility was intended to be a key research facility for freshwater inland aquaculture, acting in collaboration with existing South Africa specialists and that its value would be shared throughout southern Africa.

This was a high profile endeavor, and the sod-turning ceremony in 2009 was attended by then Chinese Ambassador Zhong Jianhua; the General Manager of China National Agricultural Development Corporation, Liu Lianjun, the South African Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fishery Tina Joemat-Pettersson, Free State Premier ES Magashule and other high-level delegates from both South Africa and China. Chinese funding was an upfront investment of around $3 million (ZAR 45 million), plus another $1 million (ZAR 15 million) each year for three years, totaling just under $6 million (ZAR 90 million).

By 2010, the old Nature Conservation Gariep Dam Hatchery had been upgraded with the Chinese funding, to become the new  Aquaculture Technology Demonstration Center. The physical setting for the ATDC is bleak, remote and very cold in winter. The nearest town is 40 km away.

The funding deal would have concluded in 2013, by which time the ATDC was expected to be fully functional as a self-supporting business entity.  By 2020, if all had gone well, the facility ought to have been up and running for almost ten years, with a string of successes and outputs.

What Happened to All the Money?

In June 2013, journalists at the South African news website News24 started to ask questions about exactly how much money had been pumped into the Aquaculture Technology Development Center by both the Chinese and the Free State provincial governments, and how much of this money had been lost, as the facility “appears to be just an empty shell and not producing any fish.” It does not seem that this question has been visibly answered.

A lot of fuss was made about 2,500 catfish fingerlings which were supplied by the ATDC facility to a university research project in 2016.  One feels that at least 250,000 fingerlings would have been needed to indicate value for all that Chinese investment. 

In 2016, a press report stated that catfish fingerlings were being distributed to six new government-community aquaculture projects in the small towns of Bethulie (pop. 400), Zastron (pop. 15,600), Springfontein (pop.700), Koffiefontein (pop. 10 000), Fauresmith  (pop. 36,500) and Petrusberg (pop. 8,400) in the Free State.

The small town of Fauresmith in South Africa’s Free State. Photo via SJ Taylor.

The idea of the Chinese-funded ATDC was to bring a new economic enterprise to these towns through aquaculture. The six projects were thus supported by the Free State provincial Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, with technical inputs from China-South Africa Agricultural Technology Development Centre.

“All the satellite hatcheries and small scale catfish farms started by the Free State government also failed a few years ago,” says Peter Britz, a South African specialist in fisheries research and  Fisheries Science professor at Rhodes University.

The South African national government undertook a biodiversity risk assessment for the introduction of certain exotic freshwater fish into the Free State Province. This was done in 2013 and reported on in the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF) Aquaculture Yearbook for 2014.  Yet, the assessment was done almost four years after the 2009 groundbreaking ceremony at the Gariep Center, indicating poor planning that would have created operational delays. 

Ominously, local press reporting on the installation dried up around 2016. Similarly, the Facebook page shows some early activity, but postings in somewhat fractured English stopped in September 2016. The Gariep Center must have been very lonely for the two Chinese scientists stationed there. Perhaps they had already gone home. The Chinese-funded ATCD seems to be an abandoned ‘ghost ship’.

Chinese Technology Center no Longer Mentioned in Official Reports

Perhaps because of awkward questions about the funding, it is currently very difficult to obtain any official information about the Demonstration Center and whether it is still operational. In recent Free State provincial planning documents, the National Government’s Annual Aquaculture Yearbook and an annual ‘Free State Business’ publication, there is no mention of the facility. It is as if the facility never existed or was not ‘completed’ in some secret way.  That is very worrying considering the $5.8 million (ZAR 90 million) Chinese investment in the facility.

Photo of the Chinese Aquaculture Technology Demonstration Centre Facebook post, 2016.

Peering forensically into the background of photographs posted on the Facebook page for the Chinese Gariep ATDC, there are indeed a healthy number of new aquaculture tanks, a lot of new PVC pipes, all housed within a decent warehouse structure, and yes, the tanks do contain hundreds of small catfish. There are two Chinese technicians directing activities and a group of local visitors.  None of this would have cost ZAR 90 million.

Peter Britz is of the opinion that the Aquaculture Technology Demonstration Centre was a misconceived project from the outset, more politically driven than grounded in economic reality.

“Also, there is no demand for freshwater fish such as barbel and carp and the climate in the Free State is too cold to grow them economically. Hence nothing is happening at the new Centre now,” says Britz.

A research publication dated 2018 states that the center had achieved “remarkable results” and that many of these achievements were derived from experimental research into the breeding of catfish, goldfish, koi, and carp.  None of this is rocket-science: catfish, goldfish, koi and carp fingerlings are reared in their millions around the world.  Thus the Gariep ATDC’s ‘research’ is merely optimizing existing protocols for local conditions, for fish which nobody needs.  

In terms of further fishery development and the role of the Gariep facility, there are few hopeful options, mostly because of its remote location and the severe climate. The facility would always face competition from more cost-effective private sector hatcheries which are located closer to their clients.

The only clue that there may still be some activity at the Gariep facility is three recent (January and February 2020) tenders offered by the South African Department of Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF) for spawning hormone, fish food and back-up electricity generators for the Gariep Hatchery.   Perhaps something is once again stirring at that old Hatchery on the Gariep Dam.

Gariep Dam: The Wrong Location for an Inland Aquaculture Research Center

Lake Gariep (Gariep Dam) is South Africa’s largest freshwater reservoir and many have felt that this huge water body must be highly suitable for freshwater fish farming. Yet successful commercial fish farming has not happened, despite many attempts.

In the past, the Free State provincial Nature Conservation authorities issued concessions for commercial fish harvesting (not aquaculture) on its major inland dams, including Gariep.  However, these fishing operations proved to be economically unsustainable due to the low market value of freshwater fish, and all eventually closed operations.

Although various documents state that the Gariep Dam Chinese-funded ATDC ‘s activities and site selection were endorsed by both Chinese and South African representatives, they got it wrong, according to fisheries expert Peter Britz. They did not learn from past mistakes, which included issues like the water temperature that is too cold and markets that are too far away.

Almost no-one lives at the Gariep Dam, other than urban retirees, holidaymakers and local farmers with a love of angling, and various indigent communities, farmworkers, unemployed persons, and poor households.

What has happened at Gariep Dam instead of commercial fishing, a vibrant subsistence, and recreational fishery developed organically, generating substantial local socio-economic benefits.  Small-scale angling accounts for 61% of fishing effort, with around 450 regular subsistence anglers from nearby settlements and communities. Fish is caught for home consumption and for cash sales.

Perhaps this is the opportunity that both the Chinese and South African governments missed seeing. 

Otherwise, the Gariep Chinese-funded ATDC could easily have been located anywhere, for example in one of the nearby small towns where the potential beneficiaries are living, or in a place with a much higher population density and where private sector investment, as well as community participation, could take place.

Sue Jean Taylor is a seasoned research writer with experience in undertaking research and research management. Her interest is now in science communication and investigative writing. For the last five years, Dr. Taylor was the program coordinator of AfroMont, a university-based networking organization supporting collaborative research in the African Mountains.   

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