African Cichlids Tank Setup – Beginner’s Guide

African cichlids are a fascinating group of freshwater fish that are popular among aquarium enthusiasts. These colorful fish are native to Africa’s various lakes, including Lake Malawi, Lake Victoria, and Lake Tanganyika. Aquariums designed for African cichlids must be set up differently from those of other fish, as these species require specific water conditions to thrive.

In this article, we will discuss how to set up an African cichlid tank, including proper filtration, lighting, decor, and water chemistry. Whether you’re a beginner or seasoned aquarist, this guide will help you create a stunning aquarium that is unique, colorful and thriving.

Choosing The Right Tank For African Cichlids

When it comes to setting up a tank for African cichlids, choosing the right tank is the first step towards success. Here are some key factors to consider:

Size Matters

African cichlids are active swimmers and need plenty of space. It is recommended to have a tank size of at least 55 gallons for a small group of cichlids. More cichlids mean a larger tank is required.


The shape of the tank will depend on the type of African cichlids you plan to keep. Long tanks work well for species that swim in open water, while tall and narrow tanks are ideal for those that prefer rock formations.


Glass tanks offer clear visibility but are prone to cracks and scratches if not handled carefully. Acrylic tanks are durable and lightweight, but prone to scratches that can affect the visibility.


Strong filtration is crucial for maintaining water quality in an African cichlid tank. Canister filters are an excellent choice for cichlid tanks as they are efficient and easy to clean.


African cichlids require water temperatures of between 75°F to 82°F. There are various heaters available on the market, but a submersible heater is recommended.


Lighting plays an essential role in the health of your cichlids. African cichlids do not require high-intensity lighting but prefer consistent lighting over a 12-hour period.

Substrate Options

Choosing the right substrate for your African cichlids tank is crucial, as it can affect the water chemistry in the tank and the overall health of your fish. Here are three substrate options to consider:

  • Crushed coral: This substrate is made up of small pieces of crushed coral and is ideal for maintaining a high pH level in the tank. African cichlids prefer a pH of around 7.8 to 8.5, and crushed coral can help achieve this. It also provides a natural look to the tank.
  • Sand: Sand is another popular choice for an African cichlid tank. It is soft and fine, making it perfect for bottom-dwelling fish to sift through. Sand is easy to clean and maintain and provides a natural-looking environment for your fish.
  • Gravel: Gravel is a classic option for aquariums and is available in a variety of colors and sizes. It can add aesthetic value to the tank while still providing a suitable environment for your fish. However, it can make it difficult to clean the bottom of the tank, so regular maintenance is necessary.

Choosing the right substrate for your African cichlid tank can be a daunting task, but considering these three options will help to create a healthy and natural environment for your fish.

Water Quality & Temperature

  • African cichlids require specific water conditions to thrive.
  • Maintain a pH level between 7.5 and 8.5 to simulate their natural habitat.
  • Keep the water temperature between 76 and 82 degrees Fahrenheit, using a heater if necessary.
  • Regularly test the water for ammonia, nitrite, nitrate, and other harmful substances.
  • Do water changes frequently and remove any uneaten food, decaying plants, and waste to prevent water pollution.
  • Use a high-quality filter that can handle the waste produced by the fish.
  • Avoid using chemicals or medications that can harm the cichlids or alter the water chemistry.
  • Monitor the behavior and health of the fish closely, as water issues can lead to stress, disease, and even death.

Creating Hiding Spaces

African cichlids, like many fish species, need a place to hide and feel secure in their tank environment. Not only does this provide them with a sense of comfort, but it also enables them to establish territory and avoid potential aggression from other fish.

Here are some ways to create hiding spaces in your African cichlid tank:

  • Use natural decorations: Incorporating live plants, rocks, and driftwood into your tank not only adds aesthetic appeal but also provides hiding spots for your fish. Make sure to choose items that are safe for your fish and won’t impact the pH levels or water chemistry of your tank.
  • Add artificial decorations: If you prefer not to use natural decor, there are many synthetic hiding spots available, including PVC pipes, caves, and castles. These provide an easy and safe way to add hiding spaces, especially for juvenile fish.
  • Arrange your decor strategically: Avoid creating a completely open environment in your tank. Instead, arrange your decorations to create different levels and areas of privacy for your fish. This can be done with stacked rocks or plants arranged in a specific way.
  • Use substrate: Having a substrate that closely resembles the natural habitat of your African cichlids not only benefits their overall health but also provides spaces for them to dig and hide. Fine sand or crushed coral are excellent choices.
  • Pay attention to lighting: While cichlids need light to survive, too much light can cause stress and anxiety, leading to a lack of interest in hiding spaces. Use dimmer or adjustable lighting to create a more natural environment and encourage your fish to explore hiding spots.

By creating a comfortable environment with ample hiding spaces, your African cichlids will thrive and show their best behavior.

Fish Compatibility

Before adding any new fish to your African cichlids tank, it’s crucial to consider their compatibility. Some species may be territorial or aggressive and can harm or even kill less dominant or smaller fish. Here are some factors to consider:

  • Size: It’s important to make sure that the new fish you’re adding are similar in size to the other fish in the tank. As a general rule, it’s best to avoid adding larger fish, as they may bully smaller ones.
  • Temperament: Look for species with similar temperaments. Peaceful species like Cyprichromis or feather fins may not fare well with aggressive Mbuna cichlids.
  • Diet: Make sure the new fish’s dietary requirements match those of the existing fish. Some species may require special diets or have specific feeding habits.
  • Water conditions: African cichlids are sensitive to water conditions. Ensure that the new fish can tolerate the same pH, hardness, and temperature levels as the other fish in the tank.
  • Habitat: Some species prefer different tank setups. For example, shell-dwelling cichlids like Neolamprologus multifasciatus live in sandy substrates with shells while Mbunas prefer rocky setups with plenty of hiding spots.
  • Gender: In some cases, adding fish of the same gender as the existing fish can lead to aggression and territorial issues. Be sure to research the sexing of each species.

By considering these factors, you can avoid conflicts between fish and create a harmonious environment in your African cichlid tank.

Lighting & Filtration

Proper lighting and filtration play a critical role in maintaining a healthy African cichlid tank. Here’s what you need to know:

  • Lighting: African cichlids require bright and full-spectrum lighting to replicate their natural habitat. LED lights that provide a 6500K spectrum are ideal for these fish. However, be careful not to overlight the tank, as this can lead to algae growth and stress the fish.
  • Filtration: African cichlids need a strong and efficient filtration system to keep the water clean and oxygenated. A canister or power filter, rated for at least twice the tank’s volume, is necessary. Additionally, a protein skimmer can be added to the filtration system to remove organic waste and prevent ammonia buildup.
  • Water changes: Regular water changes are also critical for maintaining the water quality in a cichlid tank. You should aim to change around 25% of the water every week. This will help remove accumulated waste and toxins while replenishing essential nutrients and minerals.
  • Maintenance: Remember to clean the filter media and replace it as necessary. Also, check the water parameters frequently and adjust the filtration system accordingly. Regular maintenance will ensure a healthy and thriving African cichlid tank.

Adding Plants & Decorations

African cichlids are known for their vibrant colors, and adding plants and decorations to their tank can enhance their beauty. Here are some tips to help you choose the right type of plants and decorations for your African cichlids tank:


  • Choose hardy plants – African cichlids are known to be aggressive and may uproot delicate plants.
  • Choose plants that tolerate hard water – African cichlids typically prefer hard water with a high pH and high mineral content.
  • Examples of hardy plants are Java fern, Anubias, and Vallisneria.


  • Add rocks and caves – African cichlids love to hide and explore. Adding rocks and caves can provide hiding spots and territories for each fish.
  • Avoid sharp decorations – African cichlids have delicate fins, and sharp decorations can cause harm.
  • Decorations should also be easy to clean, as African cichlids are known to stir up the substrate.

Adding plants and decorations to your African cichlids tank can enhance their natural beauty and provide hiding spots and territories for each fish. Remember to choose hardy plants, avoid sharp decorations, and make sure everything is easy to clean.

Feeding & Nutrition

The African cichlids are known to be omnivorous, which means they will happily eat both plant and animal-based foods. With their diverse diet, feeding these unique fish the right nutrition is crucial for their overall health and longevity. Here are some suggestions on how to feed your African cichlids:

  • Provide high-quality pellets or flakes specifically made for cichlids. This will ensure that they get a well-balanced diet that includes all the necessary nutrients they need.
  • Offer frozen or live foods such as brine shrimp, bloodworms, and krill to provide variety in their diet. It will also mimic their natural habitat and help them thrive.
  • Avoid feeding them scraps or food that is meant for humans. These foods may contain additives or preservatives that can harm your fish.
  • Feed your cichlids multiple and small meals throughout the day instead of one large meal. They have a fast metabolism, and multiple small meals will keep them nourished throughout the day.
  • Since overfeeding can lead to obesity and health problems, make sure to feed your African cichlids only what they can consume in three to five minutes. Any more than this, and you risk polluting the water and making them sick.

Feeding African cichlids the right diet is essential to their health and well-being. Providing them with a variety of high-quality pellets, frozen, or live foods will ensure that they get all the necessary nutrients they need.

It is also important to feed them frequently throughout the day and avoid overfeeding them. By following these feeding tips, you are setting up your African cichlids for a long and healthy life.

Disease Prevention & Treatment

Ensuring the perfect environment for African cichlids is not always easy. Your prized fish can easily fall prey to a variety of diseases if you don’t take measures to prevent them. Here are some tips to keep your fish healthy:

  • Quarantine new fish: Before adding new fish to your tank, it is essential to quarantine them first for a few weeks to ensure they are free from diseases.
  • Maintain the water quality: African cichlids are particularly sensitive to high levels of ammonia and nitrate. Keep the water clean by performing regular water changes and checking the parameters regularly.
  • Don’t overfeed: Overfeeding can lead to several health problems, including bloat and swim bladder issues.
  • Sterilize equipment: Always clean and sterilize any equipment before adding it back to the tank after maintenance procedures.
  • Identify symptoms: Keep an eye out for any changes in behavior, appetite, or appearance of your fish. Early detection is essential for treating diseases effectively.

If you observe any signs of illness in your African cichlids, act quickly to prevent the spread of disease. Some common ailments that affect cichlids include:

  • Ich: Also known as white spot disease, ich is a parasitic infection that appears as white spots on the fish’s body. It can be treated with medication.
  • Bloat: This condition causes the fish to become bloated and can lead to swim bladder issues. Adjusting their diet can help to prevent bloat.
  • Fungal infections: Fungal infections manifest as cotton-like growths on the fish’s body. This type of infection can be treated with antifungal medication.

By taking measures to prevent diseases and identifying any issues early on, you can keep your African cichlids happy and healthy for years to come.


Creating a vibrant African cichlids tank setup requires a lot of research and preparation. However, the end result can be a stunning display of colors and behaviors. By carefully selecting the right species, providing the appropriate water parameters, and setting up a suitable habitat, you can create a thriving ecosystem for your cichlids to live in.

Remember to maintain proper water quality and perform regular tank maintenance to ensure the health and well-being of your fish. And, most importantly, enjoy the beauty and wonder of these fascinating creatures in your home.

African Cichlids   Updated: March 11, 2023
avatar Hey, I'm Fabian, chief editor at Aquarium Nexus. I really enjoy the aquarium hobby and love sharing my experience with others. If you have any questions feel free to contact me or leave a comment below.

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