How to set up, decorate and run the perfect Mbuna aquarium.
Examples of the very colourful Mbuna!
Pseudotropheus sp. "membe deep" (Photo: Frank Nørby)
Iodotropheus sperengae (Photo: Kim Wander)
Labeotropheus trewavasae OB (Thumbi west) (photo: Frank Nørby)
  Mbuna-aquaria are among the most popular aquarium-types, and probably THE most popular among cichlid enthusiasts, and for a good reason; Is`s one of the easiest kept, and at the same time most colourful aquarium types, which allows, and actually traditionally encourages a lot of different fish in the tank, a method that often lead to trouble with other types of cichlid. This is why the Mbuna tank often is the first choice, when novices in the hobby try their hand with a cichlid aquarium. This, combined with the fact that very little practical information is available about setting up and running these tanks, leads to a lot of unfortunate mistakes. In this article, I will try to give some guidelines, for setting up and run such a tank and hopefully avoid the relatively few possibilities for serious accidents with these very gratifying cichlids.
  Let us start with the definition of a Mbuna tank. It is simply a tank, which is set up specifically for, and contains only (or at least primarily) Mbuna!  Mbuna is the local name for a group of mouth brooding cichlids, living in Lake Malawi. This group consists of relatively small species which, with a very few exceptions, inhabits rocky shores, and primarily feeds on algae, with an addition of protein from either plankton, or various invertebrates, ingested along with the algae the Mbuna grazes off the rocks They live among (this blend of animal and vegetable matter, is what is referred to as "aufwuchs"). There are several hundred species, some with numerous local variants, but all demands, with a few minor adjustments based on size/aggression, the same conditions, which makes it easy to set up a tank that will suit all members of the group.
The water. The water in Lake Malawi is slightly alkaloid and medium hard, with a relatively high content of dissolved salts, which in common terms means that the tap water in most of Europe and North America will do fine! Mbuna is even fairly tolerant against various (not to be confused with variable) types of water, so this is rarely a problem.
The tank. Off course a suitable aquarium is needed, and "suitable" in this context, means "large"! There has always been, and probably always will be, an ongoing debate about the minimum size for Mbuna tanks. My opinion is, that it is a waste of time, to keep Mbuna in a tank shorter than 1 meter (40 inches), which for standard dimensioned aquariums, means 200 or 250 liters.  The last mentioned, is probably the smallest reasonably suitable tank size. This postulate contradicts a lot of the minimum sizes found in various books and articles, where many species have been allocated considerably smaller aquaria, but to this, I will just say, that the purpose of this article, not is to describe how poorly the fish can be kept without actually killing them, but how to get a satisfactory tank setup for both the Keeper and the cichlids! Tanks smaller than the mentioned size may not be totally unsuited, but they will be a constant source of annoyance, because of the very limited space, which will make the tank an obstacle to most of the many possibilities there could have been. If You are buying a tank specifically for this purpose, a tank of 130 - 150 cm would be far better than the 100 cm, more because of the greater length than the added volume, since length is by far the most important parameter.
On the other hand, almost any Mbuna will be unable to fit in at tank like a standard 530L (160x60x55 cm), and Tanks larger than 720L (200x60x60) may even be a little difficult to stock satisfactorily.

Mbuna tanks are often heavily stocked, so effective filtering is important.

This can be achieved in various ways, with various price tags attached, and a thorough description of the possibilities would constitute a whole article of its own, so I would just suggest a suitably large external canister-filter, which is easily installed in the setup, following the instructions provided by the manufacturer, or the use a HMF (Hamburger matten filter (German)) Which basically is a large mat of foam, where water is forced through. An explanatory diagram can be found HERE but the accompanying article is unfortunately in German. A picture of such a well ingrown mat, is shown further down on this page.

The reason for singling out the canister filter, in spite of the fact, that it probably is the most expensive filtering method, is that it is also one of the most effective, does not demand much knowledge about filter techniques, and in contrast to the mentioned HMF filter, is pretty independent of the decoration setup. Besides, it is very easy to control and, if need be, clean up, without disturbing the whole tank, and it is possible to get reliable guidance from the supplier, who does not need detailed information about the aquarium in question, to be able to guide with the right size filter and the best filter medium. The best filter medium, is usually the one made specifically for a particular filter. It is invariably depressingly expensive, but according to My experience markedly better, and is able to stand for longer periods between cleanings, than e.g. filter vat or common gravel. The popular Bio balls, are not effective enough for the relatively small volume of the canister, and is thus best avoided.

Any filter needs maturing, as described in the "Startup" section later in this article.

Eheim 2080 Professional III. The shown filter is very large, and will be able to run a tank of  up to 1000L, but there are filters for any size of tank. Typically a correct dimensioned filter will need cleaning 2-4 times a year. This is best done in used aquarium water, and under no circumstances in very hot or cold water, which is highly detrimental to the bacteria culture inside!
Water circulation

Mbuna are used to heavy water movement, so this should be mimicked in the tank, both for the sake of the necessary oxygen absorption, and the general well being of the cichlids.

A rule of thumbs says, that if the collective capacity of the pumps, are 5 times the tank volume per hour, the water movement is sufficient (i.e. a 250L tank needs a collective pump capacity of app. 1250 LPH) This is usually more than the filter pump manages, and the additional flow is best provided with an internal pump without any filter, often called a Powerhead, or just PH. The PH is ideally installed hidden in the decoration, preferably directed, to send the exhaust beam up to move the surface, which is very beneficial to the oxygen adsorption, and also helps breaking any surface film.


Turbelle® powerhead 3000/2  and Aquabee UP3000. These powerheads are essentially identical, each with an output of 3000 LPH, but the Tunze manages this with a power consumption of 25W, whereas the Aquabee uses 48W!
Also note the protected intake on one of the powerheads. Without one of these grids mounted (it is always included in the box), the PH is very dangerous to the fish!
Heating. The Water temperature, which should be 23-26 ºC can, if necessary be regulated with at Thermostat controlled heater. Actually it is rarely needed in a living room, because the lamp and PH emits enough heat to raise the temperature to the correct level (and sometimes above!), but if necessary, the heater must be used. It should be dimensioned so that it has a Watt consumption about half the tank volume, (i.e. a 250L tank needs a 125W heater). Remember that the scale on the heater does not always show the correct temperature, so a reliable thermometer is necessary for control!
Lighting. Now We need to shed some light on the whole thing! The simplest way to achieve this, is a regular aquarium lamp mounted with  one or more fluorescents. If the tank is bought as a kit including the lamp, there`s no need to worry anymore about this, other than picking the right tubes, but if the lighting is to be specifically acquired for this particular tank, there is a couple of alluring/confusing options;
HQI lamps, which are very popular with marine aquarists, gives a very realistic and beautiful effect, especially since the light is emitted from a single point, and thereby has a distinct "sunshine effect" over the decor, if there is a little rippling in the surface from the PH. Unfortunately there are also some significant drawbacks, which explains why very few cichlid aquarists have them; If the lamp is required to look reasonably good, it will also be rather expensive, and the lamp must be mounted no closer than 20 cm. from the surface. That usually requires the lamp to be hung from the ceiling, or mounted in a very voluminous cabinet. The first option lets quite a lot of light out in the room, possibly ruining the ambience, and the second solution may make the tank look unreasonably large.
Far more common, are fluorescent tube lamps, either prefabricated or homemade, and with good reason. They allow for a wide variation of light intensity and colour variations, and takes up very little space. There are two basic systems: T8 and T5. The primary difference between them, is that the T5, which is a relatively new system, yields more light per Watt than the older T8, and is able to use more Watts at any given length of the tube. This allows the lamp to "burn more fuel" but also to give out a lot more light.
All this, is fairly inconsequential to a Haplochromine tank, where plant growth rarely is a high priority. Selection of light colour is also purely aesthetic, and the choice is mainly between natural or enhanced colours.
The first is best achieved by 
from Osram, the latter could be a combination of Gro-lux and Aquastar, both from Sylvania.

900L Mbuna tank, decorated with a combination of artificial background, modules, natural rocks and a large natural root.

A fair resemblance to the natural biotope should be attempted, if You wish to experience the natural behavior of the cichlids. That means that the tank must be decorated with a lot of hideouts consisting of rocks (or mimics of these) in various sizes. A beautiful, and at the same time space saving solution, is the use of modules, or slightly less creatively, whole backgrounds made form artificial material by various companies, which is glued to the back- or side glass, and supplemented with natural rocks, preferably in approximately same colour and structure. This is, however, fairly expensive, and it is entirely possible to make some very beautiful decorations exclusively with natural rock.

Most important, aesthetically, is it to avoid using very different materials, so as not to give the impression of a heap of leftovers from a construction site. In nature, it will typically be the same type of rock that dominates any given locality, especially in a lake that has been unchanged in millions of years.

For practical purposes, there are several considerations to take into account regarding the decoration, some of them unfortunately contradicting aesthetic value, so it is necessary to give some careful thought to the various unavoidable compromises.

The first compromise, is between hiding places and free space, which off course affect small tanks most.

The second, which is a lot like the first, is the practical problem, that a lot of hiding places makes it very difficult to remove any fish from the tank, if this should prove desirable or even necessary.

This makes it worthwhile to assess the need for hideouts very carefully, and only make the necessary amount. Also it is a good idea to make sure that those hideouts can be opened without too much disturbance.  This can be achieved by not stacking too many rocks on top of each other, making it possible to uncover the hideout without having to dismantle the whole decoration.

If You`re not interested in removing brooding females, and is careful to only acquire fish that You are sure You want to keep, You can forget about all this, and concentrate on a Beautiful and optimal setup for the cichlids.

When placing the rocks at the bottom, try to arrange these, so that they cover as much area as possible, since Mbuna has very little use of open areas. This practice enlarge the possible number of territories, and afford the shortest possible distance to the nearest cover, for any harassed fish, no matter where it chased from. It also prevents the setup from looking like the all too familiar garden fences commonly seen in "traditional" Malawi tanks!

It is always a good idea to place at thin polystyrene sheet on a glass bottom, before the rocks are placed in the tank, to avoid any risk of excessive point-pressure from pebbles, with a resulting crack in the glass!

The substrate is not very important, since many Mbuna species resides in biotopes that consists of only rocks, so any kind of sand or gravel will do. The natural choice is something light grey or yellowish though.  A layer of 2 inches will do fine.

Modules and backgrounds. It is worth having a closer look at the earlier mentioned modules and backgrounds, which enjoys widespread popularity, especially among cichlid enthusiasts, who attempts to mimic rocky biotopes from the Rift valley lakes.
The main choice is between the several types of full backgrounds, which can be acquired for different sizes of tanks, or a number of modules, which, if necessary, can be cut to fit, and combined to individual taste/need.
What to choose, depends off course, of how much work You are willing to do, what You are prepared to pay, and how important it is, to be able to express some individuality in the final result. In any case, the decoration must be glued to the glass with Silicone, preferably in black. It is best to regard this as a permanent solution! Even though the Background/Modules CAN be taken out and recycled, it is very hard to remove all traces of the glue form the glass.
A good and economical way to use modules, is to put them on the back and side glass, with ample spacing, so that it is possible to see all the way to the back glass. This makes for a lot of crevices for the cichlids , where they can feel safe, but not be totally impossible to reach if needed.
Placing modules on the bottom can not really be recommended, simply because it is a waste of money, since it is very easy just to put a natural rock here, and the bottom is probably the place that is most likely to be rearranged at some point!
The back glass can be painted black on the outside, so that it gives the impression of looking into deep crevices and caves, giving the illusion of a better depth than there actually is. The modules are available in several different finishes, but it is best to stay with one in each setup, to keep a natural look.
An example of newly placed BTN modules

Plants are not a natural part of the rocky coast and rarely widespread in the Intermediate habitat, and the Cichlids will not miss them if They are opted out, which is the correct choice if a natural look is desired. On the contrary, if They are present, they are often uprooted and torn to pieces! A lot of people like plants though, and it is in fact possible to find some, that will be able to thrive in the Tank. Best suited are Microsorium pteropus (Java fern) and the Anubias species, which both have the advantage of being able to grow, without having the roots in any substrate, but also many Cryptocoryne species do well, especially if They are guarded from digging, by placing pieces of Rock around Them. None of these Plants are indigenous to Lake Malawi though, where the dominant Plants are local species of Ceratophyllum and Vallisnereia, which unfortunately are very rarely available, and poses high demands to the Lighting.

Algae are both natural and desirable, as decoration as well as a dietal supplement.  They help motivate the cichlids to use Their natural feeding habits, and provides a healthy supplement of vegetable foods. Both Algae and Plants benefit from good lighting, so if they are not growing fast enough, more light is one of the ways to help them along, but usually this is not a problem with the mentioned plants.

 Microsorium pteropus (Java fern). In this case, the plant is kept in position by tying it to a suction cup, and pressing this onto the side glass of the tank, between the modules. The tank was started a short while before the picture was made, so they appear brand new.
Cryptocoryne willisii, here placed between two modules, and further secured with small pieces of Rock. Notice the emerging "patina" to the modules after ½ a year, in contrast to the brand new ones above.
Cryptocoryne willisii planted in a glass bowl, to prevent it from being uprooted. The algae covered "wall" to the left, is actually the filter mat of the HMF filter running the tank. These modules have been used for more than a year, and looks very natural, compared to the new ones above.
Materials, and how to prepare them.

Almost any kind of Rocks are usable, provided They do not contain anything toxic (some rocks contain e.g. metals, that dissolves into the water), or has very sharp or ragged edges, which can harm the cichlids in case of collisions (Mbuna are used to a rocky environment, so They are pretty good at avoiding damages, but still...).

The Rock surfaces should not be too rough either, as it could lead to abrasions on the cichlids lips, when They try to scrape algae from it. Some of the (in Scandinavia) most commonly used Rocks are: Granite, Faxekalk (limestone Rocks that essentially are coral fossils, compressed to massive chalky pieces), Kenya rocks and Lava. Lava Rocks are in My opinion a bit problematic, since they often are both very ragged and sharp,  always with very rough surfaces, whereas the other types are very fine, but in case of the Faxekalk and Kenya rocks, not very natural looking. Granite comes in various colours and structures, all suitable for the Aquarium, but for a natural look, it is best to select a certain colour/structure, and use only that in the Tank.

 Most Rocks are ready for use after a thorough rinsing in cold water, but if They are found e.g. on a construction site or in a muddy field, it could be a good idea to douse Them with boiling water. Rocks found at the beach, are usually ready for use without any preparation.

Roots are, contrary to common belief, very usable in Mbuna Tanks, as long as They are thoroughly water drenched, so They do not decompose in the Tank ( Read: If You are not completely sure about what to look for, You buy Them in a reputable Store!) The superstition about how Roots does not belong in Mbuna Tanks because They are not natural to the Biotope and lowers the Ph value is quite widespread, but let`s just make it totally clear here, that it is utter rubbish on both accounts! Off course Trees fall, or are blown into Lake Malawi, just like any other lake, and regarding the Ph-drop, it is next to impossible to affect this value noticeably in water with the hardness required for this type of Tank. That said, Roots will often cause some yellow/brownish colouration to the water, which is not exactly flattering to the cichlids, but this will be kept to a minimum by the recommended water shifts. Roots are ready for use, after a quick rinse in cold water, when bought from a store.

The Sand/Gravel is best cleaned in portions in a bucket, and should be rinsed until there is no more dirt floating in the water.


We will start with the basics; When the Tank has safely arrived, it has to be cleaned with water, and all glass surfaces should be polished. This is done to make sure, that there are no chemicals or other residue from manufacturing/previous use left in the Tank, and  it provides a good opportunity to inspect for scratches to the glass or frame. If the Tank in question is a used one, there is not much to do, but to use the least damaged glass as front, but if It is a new one, it should be returned at once, for a replacement!

When this is done, it is time to glue the Background/Modules, if those are planned, to the glass and the back glass may be painted on the outside. If there are plans for an external background, it is probably also easiest to execute those now! Next step is to place the Tank where it is supposed to stand making sure that It is absolutely level!!!, and put in the polystyrene plate on the bottom.

Now it is time to install all the technical gear, according to the guidelines given in their corresponding Manuals.  Generally speaking, they should be placed as hidden as possible, without impairing their function. Powerheads and In/outlets from external filters, are best left loosely placed, until the decoration is completely in place, and then be adjusted so that everything fits.

Some Aquarists prefer to decorate the Tank completely, without any water in it, but personally, I  like to fill the Tank about 3/4 after placing a few heavy Rocks on the polystyrene, to keep it down.

Anyway, now is the time, for the most exciting and important step! The reason for My preference for having water in the Tank during decoration, is that water changes the visual perspective, making the Tank seem narrower than It actually is, and I like to take that into account right away, when placing the decorations.

Either way, the decorating is finished off, by spreading the chosen substrate evenly over the bottom, and the technical equipment is plugged in. There You have it, a working Mbuna Tank, ready for maturing!

Now the filter must be activated, which can be done in a couple of ways. The aim is to add a culture of beneficial bacteria to maintain the biological reduction, that is the main purpose of the filter. The simplest way, is to do nothing, other than a couple of small feedings in the Tank, but it takes some patience, as it typically takes 3-4 weeks to get the filter going this way. A quicker way, which requires access to a matured filter, is to take a good portion of said filter, and put in the the New, so the bacteria can quickly spread from there. The last, and fastest way, is to simply buy the bacteria in pill/powder form, and add them to the filter by letting them in via the filter inlet. The manufacturers claim that the filter can be up and running in 24 hours, but it is probably best to wait about a week or so... If You`re so inclined, it is possible to get various test sets, which can measure the content of the various waste substances in the water, and this way see when the filter is starting to work.

It will be too laborious to go deeper into the degrading processes here, but in short, what happens is, that waste from the fish/uneaten food is reduced to Ammonia, which is extremely toxic but quickly reduced to Nitrite. Nitrite, which is also very toxic, is then reduced to the relatively harmless Nitrate. It is mainly the Nitrite level that is measured during the Maturing period. Under no circumstances, may fish be added to a Tank with any measurable level of Nitrite! When Nitrite has been found, and has disappeared again, the filter is working properly.

If You don`t want the inconvenience/cost of measuring, You have to wait until You are reasonably certain that the filter is matured, which can be anything from 1 to 4 weeks. In this period, it is best to add a little food (Dry flake food is fine) to the Tank from time to time (You are feeding the bacteria).

Now it`s finally time to add some fish (but do read the rest of this article first!), and "some fish" is NOT an entire Tank stock! It is best to start with 3-5 smaller fish, ideally the most peaceful of the planned stock, and leave them alone in the tank for about a month or so, to make sure that the filter is absolutely matured, and ready to deal with the waste load of a full stock.

As mentioned above, a lot is happening in the tank, during the startup phase, and this continues even after the Tank is stocked. One of the things that may be cause for some worrying is the Algae growth. Typically there will in the first 1-2 months grow a layer of brown algae all over the decoration/substrate, but not to worry (unless these Algae is kind of greasy/slimy to the touch), as this will almost certainly recede, and give way to the green algae that most of Us like to have.

Labidochromis caeruleus, en af de mest populære og letteste Mbuna at holde. Ideel som opstartsfisk 
Purchasing and mixing Mbuna.

This is where most mistakes are made, and even small mistakes can mean the difference between a successful Tank and a fiasco, so listen up!

At first glance, a well assorted cichlid store, seems to be the source of endless possibilities for the new HMbuna keeper with an empty Tank waiting at home, but unfortunately the task of choosing, is not simple at all, as considerations, other than just colour coordination are necessary. Before We have a closer look at this, there are some universal advice, worth mentioning;

1: Purchase only healthy fish! A pretty obvious point off course, but both stores and private vendors have fish that are either sick, too skinny or too fat, and especially the latter, can be quite difficult to correct, especially if other tank mates have the opposite problem. Wild caught fish pose their own problems, often suffering from slight malnutrition, as they have been through a tough time, with a lot of changes and very little feeding, but if they are otherwise healthy, they should be able to recover, if they are treated with care.

2: Purchase only fish with a positive identification! Unfortunately there is a lot of cichlids without This in circulation, especially from private vendors. The deficiencies range from lacking information regarding exactly where They are caught, over dubious species information to passing Hybrids as "genuine" species.  It is totally unacceptable, but unfortunately not uncommon, that more or less clueless Aquarists (by accident or not) sell off the hybrids which, by simple bad luck, or because They haven`t got the proper information, has been raised in Their Tank. Positive ID is mostly a question about faith in the Vendor, and the chain of delivery the fish has been through. Generally speaking, a reputable dealer is the best place to get a reasonable assurance of "genuine" fish.

3: It is a good Idea, to buy a little too many of each species You want, in order to have some slip, if anything should go wrong! Often it turns out, that not all specimens are up to the required standard, or if they are unsexed specimens (e.g. juveniles), the male/female ratio can turn out unsatisfactorily. Fatalities can also occur, even in well-running Tanks, and You can not always count on replacing eventual losses with new specimens of suitable quality or size.

The trick is (in My opinion) to achieve a balance between too few cichlids, which will lead to insecure/easily scared fish, with a tendency from dominant specimens, to bully smaller Tank mates till death, and too many, which will cause the cichlids to give up Their natural behavior, and just tumble randomly around the Tank (The so-called "Chaos-complex", commonly used by Aquarists with only an interest in a colourful display, rather than natural behavior from the fish).

More examples of Mbuna:
 Pseudotropheus sp. "msobo"  male and female (photo: Kim Wander) 
Labeotropheus trewavasae (Mpanga) hun og han, Metriaclima estherae OB hun

Back to the selection of the cichlids, that should be put together, preferably to a relatively harmonic and trouble free stock. There is, as indicated above, a couple of things to avoid;

Do NOT EVER put together, Fish that has a tendency to Hybridize!!! This cannot be stressed enough!

Random Hybridizing is one of the main scourges of the cichlid hobby, and the Malawi cichlids are, by far, the worst in this regard. The fact that they all have more or less the same breeding technique and breed so willingly, unfortunately makes them top candidates for accidental (or planned!) hybridization. Actually there are no 100% guarantee (barring a Species-tank) against hybridization in a Mbuna Tank, but it is possible to minimize the risk to an acceptable level if these guidelines are followed;

A) Do not mix cichlids, that look alike, no matter their genetic relations, and NEVER variants of the same species. This rule is the worst to break since, apart from the danger of hybridization, there is a high risk, that it may be impossible to recognize the offspring as hybrids! Remember that the problem here is the females, since a lot of Mbuna with easily recognizable males, have females that are much more alike.

B) As a general rule, avoid mixing cichlids from the same Genus. There are however, some exceptions from this rule; Some of the large Genii, e.g. Maylandia or Pseudotropheus, contains species, which are not likely to interbreed, providing the guidelines in C and D are followed, but They should be as different looking as possible. It is always a good idea to consult a seasoned Aquarist, if possible, and always err on the side of caution.

C) Always have as many as possible from each species. It is better to have populations of 8-10 from a few species, than a lot of pairs and Trios from many species, as it lessens The likelihood of inter-specific breeding, if a reasonable number of con-specific choices are present.

D) Make sure, that no single male has total domination of the Tank. This problem is most common in smaller Tanks. If a single Male is so dominant, that it prevents any other Males from keeping a territory, or even show breeding colours, the females will have no choice, but to breed with the dominant male, regardless of species.

Apart from the problem mentioned  under point D, it is also, out of consideration for the cichlid`s general well being and natural behavior, important to get a  stock that is mixed to make the cichlids match, regarding size and aggression. Inevitably one male will always end up as the "Boss" in the tank, but the rest should also have opportunities to unfold their behavior.

Some species find it relatively easy, to accept a secondary place in the hierarchy, while Other only show the full magnificense of Their colours, if they are allowed to dominate. This is worth noting, as it off course is most rewarding to avoid keeping species of the latter group together with Tank mates that will bully Them, and thus prevent the Keeper from ever see Their best colours. To that end, it would be prudent to be able to put each species into an appropriate "group", even if the "group" can not be too clearly defined, and some species might fit in more than one, given the differences on specimen level within each species. Here is a suggestion for a division into 6 groups, with a couple of examples from each:

1) Species which can be put together with dominating species, without risk of them loosing their colours, and are not particularly aggressive themselves: Labidochromis caeruleus and several of the smaller Cynotilapia and Labidochromis. The cichlids from this category are obvious candidates for the foundation of the stock, and could very well, also be a numerically large portion. They are also good as starter fish, as they are likely to receive newcomers relatively gently.

2) Relatively aggressive species, which accept a secondary place in the hierachy, without loosing their colours, as long as they are not decidedly bullied: Maylandia estherae, Pseudotropheus saulosi, and Melanochromis cyaneorhabdos are good examples.

3) Aggressive species, which will most likely dominate, but will not lose colour if this is not achieved: Metriaclima lombardoi, Pseudotropheus sp. "aggressive bars", Melanochromis auratus and Tropheops species. It is difficult to keep more than one male in the tank, unless it`s large (at least 2 meters in length), and at least have 3 or more females to each male.

4) Aggressive species, whose colouration is dependant of dominance: Most of the large Maylandia, especially the "red top" and "yellow zebra" and Labeotropheus species, as well as the Petrotilapia species. It goes without saying, that it is only possible to have 1 species from this group, of which only 1 Male will likely have full breeding colour if more is present in the tank, unless it is large enough for more territories. For most species, that means at least 1 meter Tank length for each territory and in many cases a lot more! If put together with species from group 3, it is important to make sure that the species from group 4 has Dominance in the hierachy.

5) Peaceful or small species, which will not show full colouration, if pressed by other species: This especially applies to Cynotilapia species. They are best kept with others from this group, or in a single-species tank.

6) The outsiders. The fish in this group are all relatively small, with theability to avoid attention from larger dominant species and thus able to establish their own parallel hierarchy, where they can be quite aggressive: Small Pseudotropheus species, like e.g. demasoni , sp. "polit" and "gigas". They can be matched to almost anything, except group 5, barring tan mates large enough to simply swallow them.

As seen above, it is far from simple to make a well thought-out and successful Stock. Every time one species is selected, a whole string of other species are automatically excluded, either because of potential hybridization risks, or because of aggression problems. Added to this, the likelihood of the Dealer having all the planned fish in stock may be small, all making this a very large portion of the challenge facing the Mbuna aquarist.

 Fortunately these cichlids are very easy to satisfy, allowing for a fairly broad margin between "perfect" and "failure", so even if the ultimate goal is not achieved, lots and lots of highly entertaining hours in front of the Tank, is guaranteed!

Other Fish? It is often debated, whether or not, it is OK to mix other fish with Mbuna. It is, off course possible (Some of their pendants from Lake Tanganyika, like Tropheus  would do fine), but this not really within the scope of this Article, as it would not, however successful, be a Mbuna Tank, as defined earlier. It is worth mentioning though, that many Aquarists use the South American Ancistrus-catfish as a kind of biological algae reduction, or the Asian Botia loaches as snail-ditto, without really regarding them as a part of the stock. These are often bullied by the cichlids, so it is important to keep an eye on them, and evacuate if necessary.
Feeding Mbuna will eat anything You throw their way, and they will look like it is just what they have been waiting for, even though it may be the exact opposite of what is good for them. They are also hardy enough to make the impression that they thrive on it, but malnutrition can result in serious disease or death, and it will almost certainly result in poor colouring and misshapen bodies, if given over a prolonged period.
That is why it is important to be aware of the special demands the feeding of these fish poses, and find out what good Mbuna food really is, and how much (or little!) of it the fish needs.
Mbuna are, with a few exceptions, primarily herbivore, so it is important that most of their diet consists of vegetable matter, which is not that hard, but does exclude much of the common food, normally used for aquarium fish.
Since Mbuna are used to take their food in small portions, spread over most of the day, the best way to feed them would be to mimic that, but in practice, 2-3 times a day is probably most realistic (1 time a day does not seem to bother the fish, so We are really nitpicking here). Several feedings a day has the added benefit of allowing easy combination of various food items every day.
Various types of food: Below are shown examples of more or less suitable food, I use Myself. I have included name and Manufacturer, but there are lots of other Manufacturers, Who makes equally good variants of the same types of food. Storage is, for the Frozen food types, self explanatory, but for dry food, a cool place is also beneficial, especially if it is to last a long time. This makes the traditional place on top of the Lamp, a very bad habit!
1: Three different types of discs and pills. The discs are Hikari and Tropical green algae wafers, and the pills are JBL Novofect. Splendid basal foods, both because they are high in vegetable content and because it allows the fish to feed in the way they are built to do. Especially the discs are very hard, whereas the pills can be crushed between Your fingers, which may be a good idea, if You have fry in the tank.
2: Flake food. Shown here is TetraRubin and TetraMin, with a little pile of crushed flakes in the middle. Good additional food that, although too high in animal protein, has important vitamins added. Given a couple of times a week, more often in tanks used to raise fry, where the higher protein content is needed for growth, it is suitable, but be careful! It is easy to overdo, resulting in obesity. A good example is the L. caeruleus, pictured above, although it is far from the almost grotesquely misshapen examples that are unfortunately not uncommon in the average Mbuna tank.
3: Cichlid sticks. They are only included here, as an example of a food type that, despite the name, is not suitable for all cichlids, and especially not Mbuna, since they are very high in animal protein.
4: Cyclop-eeze and Spirulina-powder. Cyclop-eeze, which boasts the ability to give added colour, as well as increased growth and fertility, can be used as an additive in small amounts. It can be used as it is, but is more suitable to be mixed in e.g. shrimp mix.
Spirulina must be blended in with other food, and it requires great care! In small amounts it is a good and healthy additive, but it is easily overdosed (nobody seems to know how much it takes to overdose, and it probably varies from one species to another) which often leads to melanin spots, which presents it self as black spots on the fish. It does not appear to bother the fish, but it is pretty ugly to look at! If You do get this problem, any kind of food containing Spirulina should be banned. With a little luck, the spots will disappear, but it will usually take months.
5: Frozen shrimp mix. Homemade, or bought from one of the few Retailers that carry it, in the form of a plate, that can be broken in suitable pieces. A fabulous supplemental food, loved by the cichlids, and mixable to most needs (see the suggestion). Should be given every day, as a supplement to the Dry food, but not alone, as it (at least in the suggested recipe) does not contain enough energy itself, to make the Cichlids grow. It has however, even without Cyclop-eeze, a strong colour enhancing effect, and is excellent at keeping the cichlids` intestine system in good order. If it is meant to be a Stand-alone food, it should be mixed with something more energy-rich.
6: Frozen cyclops. Carried by most dealers, as either plates that can be broken in suitable pieces, or in blister packs, where the food is already portioned out (what are the odds, that these portions are right for Your particular needs?). Excellent food, but a little too small for some of the large Haps. Especially good for juveniles, as it yields a very fine growth rate, and excellent colour.
7: Frozen adult artemia. Carried by most dealers, as either plates that can be broken in suitable pieces, or in blister packs, where the food is already portioned out. This is high protein food, which should not be a staple diet in the Mbuna Tank, but may be just what females need after brooding.
Recipe for shrimp mix: 2 parts frozen shrimp incl. shell, 2 part frozen peas and 1 part frozen spinach. If extra colour-enhancing effect is desired, Cyclop-eeze can be added, but should be limited to max. 5% of the total weight. Spirulina powder can be added, but should be limited to max 1% (see above). Everything is run at least 2 times through a meat-grinder, put into zipper bags of suitable size before freezing, so it will be easy to break suitable pieces off for feeding.
  Running the tank
Water changes. A Mbuna tank is usually fairly heavily stocked, and the lively cichlids expels a lot of pollutants. As mentioned in the Startup section, the Filter reduces these pollutants to Nitrate (NO3). This Nitrate is actually also poisonous, albeit about a 100 times less than Nitrite (NO2).
Something has to be done to keep the concentration to an acceptable level. Nitrate filters do exist, but they are expensive and demands a certain technical skill,  so the good old-fashioned water change, is the best and safest solution.
The necessary level of this water change, varies with the load on the system, but 1/4-1/3 of the total volume per week, will usually be fine. It is best, if the old water can be replaced with tempered water from the Tab, but in some locations, the hot water contains traces of metals and/or bacteria from from the Water heater, which is highly undesirable to get in contact with the cichlids.
Generally speaking, locations with a more or less constant throughput (e.g. apartment complexes) are safe, whereas locations with little and erratic throughput (leaving the hot water in heater for prolonged periods) are not. In these instances, it is safest to use cold water only, compensating by not changing as much water at one time, but then do it more often.

Water changes are rarely among even the most enthusiastic aquarists favorite pastimes, but it does not have to be so bad at all!

It is possible to lighten the workload considerably, by using well thought out and functional tools. The remedies illustrated below, has a price of just about 100 US$. That may sound a little expensive, but apart from the relatively cheap Hose, They lasts a lifetime, and saves a lot of toil and aggravation. With this set of tools, a complete 1/3 water change on 7 Tanks with a combined volume of 3300 liter, can be completed in 3 hours. This time can be used to do the various check ups and maintenance on the tanks, since the water is running by itself.

Never ever leave a Tank while filling It, unless You are on Your way to turn off the faucet!!!

These Fittings are carried by most DIY stores. They`re made from PVC, Which is glued together with PLASTMO rain-gutter glue. The straight pieces, can be screwed onto the Bend, as well as together. The Bend makes sure that the whole thing stays in place, and the Grate prevent small fish from being sucked out of the Tank.
The other end of the Hose is mounted with the Male half of a large Eheim coupling. Emptying of the Tank is started by powerful suction here, and then keeping the outlet lower than the Tank. Gravity takes care of the rest.
When the desired amount of water is out of the Tank, the Hose is connected to the Tap, via the Female half and the Eheim coupling, combined with a common Gardena coupling, and the flow is reversed by turning the Tap on.
As long as You`re already in the process of emptying the Tank, You may just as well try to get rid of the Dirt collected in the gravel/sand and between the Rocks. This is easily done with the illustrated contraption, here mounted on the PVC fittings. You simply insert the Tube into the sand and between the Rocks, and let the contained dirt out with the water to be changed.
Cleaning the Filter.  If appropriately dimensioned, the filter can go a long time between cleanings. Often the need for a cleaning can be visibly checked, by looking at the outlet, if this is above the waterline during a water change. If the flow is recognizably slower than usually, it is time for a cleaning. How this is done, varies according to the make of the filter, and it is always a good idea to consult the manual (I presume, that those Who have been building their own filter, also have some ideas as to how it is cleaned, and thus do not need any instructions).   
General maintenance. Apart from the above mentioned, only cleaning of the inside of the glass, is really Aquarium related. it is best done with an Algae scraper, which works just like the Ice scraper for a car, albeit with a razorblade. It is a good idea to watch it a little when the scraper is in close proximity to the silicone sealing, but other than that, it is by far the safest way to clean the glass, without risking the scratches, the widely used Algae-magnets can be accounted to.
On the outside, the glass is cleaned with a soft cloth, combined with some sort of Window-cleaner. Other family members (and the Guests that has to endure the proud presentations of the aquatic wonder) will probably appreciate it, if the Tank, and Its immediate surroundings, are kept reasonably free of spilled food and the likes!
Breeding.  All Mbuna are Maternal mouth brooders, which means that the Females carries eggs/larvae in the mouth, until These are free swimming and ready to fend for themselves. Research suggests, that this is the latest developed form of parental care, and one of the most efficient. It is certainly one of the most practical for the Aquarist, as it allows Him/Her to let the cichlids breed in the normal Tank, and just remove the female, when termination of the brooding is close.
That is, if removal is necessary alt all, because the juveniles are indeed very clever at avoiding predators, so there will inevitably be a fair amount of survivors, even if the female is left to let the fry out in the normal tank, provided this has a reasonable amount of holes and crevices, small enough to form sanctuaries from the adults, which are in fact not really predators, and only grabs the juveniles if they present themselves as obvious prey.

Anyway, a survival rate of 20-30% is not uncommon. If this is not good enough, moving the female to a breeding Tank, becomes a necessity. Now You discover whether or not the decoration is as practical as it is decorative! Removal of some Rocks might be a good idea...
Before resorting to that, it may be worth trying a little trick though; Start by darkening the Tank completely out for a couple of hours, and then switch the light on; The cichlids are now pretty dazed, appearing to be rather confused, tumbling a little aimlessly around, and with a little luck, it is possible to catch the targeted female before she even knows what is going on. The female is then placed in a breeding tank of Her own, where She is kept until She releases the Fry. It is safest to catch the Female late in the brooding (18 days should be a safe bet), since there is always a risk of Her spitting the fry in panic, and if this happens too early, the fry is not ready to swim free, which leaves the Keeper to act as parent. This usually leads to some casualties, and may affect the Fry`s parenting skills (an unconfirmed theory). The fry can be raised on the same diet as the adults, but should have the Dry food crushed, and it would be beneficial to the growth rate if their diet has a higher than normal content of animal protein. 
Pseudotropheus saulosi fry
  Although Mbuna tanks are easy to maintain, occasionally various causes for irritation/aggravation will inevitably arise, just as with any other type of Aquarium. Here is a list of the most common ones. 
Algae.   Algae can, even if some of Them are highly desirable, get very annoying. Generally, algae is a natural part of the bio culture in the tank, and if They get out of hand, it is most likely that something is askew. Typically the problem revolves around levels of nutrients in the water and/or amount of light.
Too much of either, can cause the algae growth to surge, especially in new tanks, so logically, the obvious remedy is to reduce one or both. This means a reduction of food, and shorter periods of lighting. If the tank is placed in direct sunlight, some sort of screening may be necessary.
Alternatively the Algae can be reduced by
Ancistrus in the tank, if Biotopic integrity is not a priority.

While most types of algae, at worst, can be a nuisance, there is one type that is really aggravating; Slime algae, or as they are also called, Blue-green algae, which forms large mats of slimy, foul smelling layers covering and suffocating just about anything in the tank, can be a real pest, and is very hard to get rid of (
Ancistrus will not help), and in some cases, a total restart of the Tank may be necessary. Before resorting to that, mechanically removing (suck Them out with a Hose) the algae, stopping any feeding for as long as the fish can take it, which is several weeks for healthy adult cichlids (or the fish may be removed from the Tank), and dampen the light to almost total darkness, over a prolonged period, may be worth trying.
Snails.   Snails are not really a problem, but may be a nuisance if their propagation is not kept in check. Actually snails, especially Malay snails, are quite nice to have, as they keep the substrate from clogging. In tanks with no natural predators, they can, however, be so prolific, that it degrades the look of the tank, which makes it desirable to reduce their numbers.
The easiest way is actually to collect them manually, but this entails at least 10 minutes of work on each tank every day, over a period of a couple of weeks, to be really effective. Snail traps are also a possibility. The trap could be a Soda-can, which is placed in the Tank, with some sort of bait (e.g. a Disc) inside. After a while (several hours), the Can is removed and discarded. This has to be repeated every now and then. It is also possible to have fish eat them, but none of these fish have any natural place in a Mbuna Tank, and they would all just as happily, eat Mbuna juveniles, which is something to consider carefully. 

Fortunately Mbuna are very hardy, and provided the tank is running satisfactorily, they are not very prone to infections or parasites. It would be too tedious, in an article already very long, to list all the possible diseases, so I will concentrate on one, which apparently affects African cichlids very much, compared to other known aquarium fish; It is not very well defined, and could in fact be more than a single disease, but it is commonly known as Bloat. The symptoms are refusal to feed, and as the disease gets stronger, the fish takes a position close to the substrate, slowly waggling It`s body, with all fins stretched. Often It has a visibly swollen abdomen. At this stage, there is really nothing left to do, but putting the victim down, but it is important to start treatment immediately, to save the rest of the Stock. On the Internet, a lot of homespun methods can be found, some fairly good, other utterly ridiculous and in a few instances downright dangerous to the Fish, Their Keeper and the environment. I would strongly recommend sticking to the "officially approved" treatments from reputable vendors, such as Aquamor 1, which is fairly effective, if given in time. This medicament should be given in double dose though.

This disease is obviously not the easiest to deal with, since any fish showing clear symptoms are often beyond recovery, so it is better to focus on prevention. It is fairly certain, that the disease is caused by a flagellate, which is always present in the intestines of any cichlid, but seemingly propagates violently, destroying the intestines in case of e.g. stress. Stress is induced by quick changes in the environment (water quality, food), but can also be the result of prolonged pressure from Tank mates, or simply wrong- or over feeding, which should be avoided or at least minimized.

  This concludes the article, which ended up being considerably longer than expected. I hope it can be an easily accessible source of guidance and inspiration, towards a well functioning  Aquarium.  
  Thanks to Frank Nørby and Kim Wander, for gracious assistance with photos. 

Kim Jakobsen. March 2007.  Edited September 2012.