By Ed Stoddard
KATSE DAM, Lesotho, March 20 (Reuters) - The idea of Japanese consumers eating sushi exported from a tiny African country with no coastline may sound improbable, but the kingdom of Lesotho is pulling it off.
Hatched in the boardroom of South African bullion producer Gold Fields, a project called Highlands Trout is now exporting 2,000 tonnes of rainbow trout a year, mainly to Japanese supermarket chain CGC.
It is even by-passing Tsukiji, Tokyo's massive wholesale fish market - usually the first destination for fish imported to Japan - to sell the trout directly to the retail market in a country where consumer standards for sushi are the highest.
"We managed to bypass Tsukiji because of the quality of the trout and the relationship we built and the approach we took and so we went straight into retail," said project manager Stuart Slabbert.
"Made in Africa sushi" is a new twist in the African/Asian trade story, offering hope that a poor, land-locked country can tap its natural resources to produce and export a high-value product to discerning consumers.
It also highlights the limits of global trade as the jobs created in rural Lesotho, while welcome, cannot compensate for the loss of jobs for migrant labour in South Africa's mines, long the mainstay of Lesotho's economy.
A mountainous country, completely encircled by South Africa, Lesotho supplies water to its much bigger neighbour.
Peering down at the blue waters of the Katse Dam from Lesotho's green mountains, one thinks of the fjords of Chile or Norway, top fish farming nations famed for their pink salmon.
The Japanese market is always on the lookout for sushi alternatives as global wild tuna populations decline.
In this regard, the Japanese appetite for Lesotho trout is not unlike China's hunger for African resources, including farmland to help feed a population growing in size and wealth.
Slabbert says Highlands Trout, which has been exporting to Japan since late 2012, now hopes to expand its annual output of 2,000 tonnes as Lesotho's trout-handling capacity - between Katse, another dam and one in the works - is expected to reach 10,000 tonnes a year.
By way of contrast, South Africa, with its massive coastline along two oceans, has an aquaculture industry that produces around 4,000 to 4,500 tonnes per year.
TROUT OR TUNA?
A Gold Fields' task team hit upon the idea of farming trout in Lesotho in around 2007 as part of a South African government scheme to support development in countries that supply migrant labour to South Africa.
In the 1970s, around 70 percent of Lesotho households had men working as migrants in South Africa, the vast majority of them underground.
But South Africa's gold industry, which has produced a third of the bullion ever mined, is in a state of steep decline as costs soar and shafts plunge deeper to extract the ore, while other sectors such as platinum are in deep trouble because of low prices and labour unrest.
Over the past two decades the industry has shed tens of thousands of jobs, many from Lesotho.
So the 100 jobs created by Highlands Trout, now owned by two South Africa-based companies - Advance Africa Management Services and Pure Ocean Aquaculture - since Gold Fields sold its interest some time ago, are certainly a boon for the area.
But the kingdom's economy, mostly based on subsistence farming and the export of water to South Africa, needs to generate many more - perhaps by tapping its natural advantages such as its raw beauty to encourage more tourism.
Off a winding paved road built two decades ago to haul cement to build the wall of the Katse Dam, the outlying villages that lie along dirt tracks are poor but not gut-wrenchingly destitute, with subsistence farming of maize and the raising of cattle and sheep the visible lifebloods of the local economy.
At Highlands Trout, the fish are raised in floating cages and fed on special pellets imported from France.
Grown to an optimal size of 2.5 to 2.8 kgs, the fish are essentially "fresh frozen" as within an hour of being scooped from the water and cleaned, they are put in a blast freezer - the start of a roughly month-long journey to Japan.
There is no futures market for trout but the global price of the product fluctuates with that of fishmeal, Slabbert said.
"The average is about $5 a kilogramme. We get the upside of that, we are getting the highest price globally from our Japanese client," he said.
In another improbable twist to the tale, this "pink gold" - rainbow trout - is native to the Pacific Rim of North America and Russia, far closer to Japan than the highlands of Lesotho.
The species' adaptability makes it the ideal farmed trout, and it has been introduced to at least 45 countries and every continent except Antarctica.
But Lesotho is one of few places with the clean and cold water conditions needed to produce a quality that makes the cut in Japan. (Editing by Susan Fenton)