5 Best Substrate for African Cichlids

One of the most important things, when you’re setting up your tank, is the substrate you decide to put into your brand new tank. So you’ve chosen African cichlids as your preferred tank species.

It’s a great option, as these fish are incredibly interesting and colorful. With their colorful bodies, they will liven up any tank. But there are a few things to consider when you’re choosing the right substrate for African cichlids.

Namely, these fish tend to be active swimmers, and they will also actively try to dig out stuff from the substrate. Whether it is plants, rocks, or other accessories, it is not unusual to see these fish actively try and dig out things from it.

That’s why you’ll have to choose the right substrate for these fish. As they are aggressive towards the substrate, you’ll want to ensure that they don’t get injured when they try to dig out from the substrate.

The best way to do that is to provide them with a smooth, fine substrate that is not too hard on the fish, even if they try to dig it out. Most people prefer a sandy substrate for these fish, but there are also some other great options that are relatively safe for these fish.

Let’s take a look at the best types of substrate for African cichlids.

1. African Cichlid Substrates Rift Lake Gravel

If you want to ensure that your African cichlids are safe when they swim around the tank and dig into the substrate, then a fine type of substrate will do best. To ensure that the fish are safe, you’ll want to add a fine substrate like sand or fine gravel.

This substrate is designed especially with the African cichlids in mind. Firstly, it’s a great type of substrate because it’s not too harsh for the cichlids, even if they try to dig into it.

Another thing is that this substrate also looks great. It’s designed in such a way that it resembles bottoms of lakes and rivers where these fish are naturally found. Additionally, the substrate will help you reduce nitrate levels, regulate the PH levels, and provide the essential inorganic elements, such as strontium, cobalt, zinc, and others.


  • It looks great.
  • Fine gravel helps the fish when they dig to not get injured.
  • Helps you maintain the proper PH levels without disturbing it.
  • Prevents nitrate and provides beneficial inorganic compounds.


  • Might provide a lot of debris.
  • Not the best if you intend to have plants.


2. Pure Water Pebbles African Cichlid Bio-Activ Natural

The Pure water pebbles substrate is a great product if you’re looking for a substrate that’s fine enough for the African cichlids. The fine grains (1.2 – 1.7mm in size) make sure that your cichlids are safe when they try to dig into the substrate. It also recreates the bottom of a lake, resembling a natural habitat of these fish.

This substrate will also help you provide the beneficial bacteria and microbes to the water, as the substrate will easily accommodate these bacteria and microbes. This will significantly improve the quality of life for your fish. Also, it will help you stabilize the Ammonia and Nitrite levels in the water, which the substrate actively tries to lower.

Additionally, this substrate is also organic, allowing you to keep your fish healthy for longer. And it looks great.


  • Fine grains allow your fish to dig into the substrate.
  • Provide beneficial bacteria and microbes.
  • Stabilize the PH levels and ammonia levels.
  • Looks great.


  • Can cloud up the water.


3. Carib Sea African Cichlid Mix

The Carib Sea African cichlid substrate mix is possibly one of the best choices you can make for the substrate. It’s an appropriate type of substrate thanks to the fine grains of the substrate, which allows your fish to dig into it easily.

Also, the substrate is a superior natural buffer, so you won’t need to add any other types of buffer to the tank. It helps you maintain the proper PH levels, which is an important thing for the substrate – it should not disturb the PH levels at all. And this product is made especially for African cichlids, so you can be sure they keep the alkalinity levels optimal.

And if you are especially picky about the color choices, you have two different options here – one is a slightly darker color of substrate, and the other is lighter. Just make your pick!


  • A fine type of substrate that’s great for African cichlids.
  • Helps you maintain the proper alkalinity levels.
  • Two different color choices.
  • Excellent natural buffer.


  • Contains black gravel inside.


4. Carib Sea Aquatics Naturals Aquarium Sand

Sand is possibly the best type of substrate for African cichlids, and this type of substrate can be found with this product. It allows you to keep your fish safe if they try to dig into the substrate. The best thing about this product is that it’s completely natural – no paints, dyes used.

This substrate is specifically made for tropical fish, including the African cichlids. And as you want to provide a substrate that’s safe enough for these fish, you should certainly consider this type. It’s a light type of substrate, that’s completely natural and allows you to keep your fish healthy and safe.

Additionally, it looks great. If you’re looking for the perfect mixture of looks, quality, and safety, then this substrate is the right choice. The only problem might be that it might get discolored soon after a few vacuuming sessions.


  • Safe, fine substrate for tropical fish.
  • Allows you to keep your fish safe.
  • Looks great.


  • The substrate might get discolored soon.


5. Carib Sea Florida Crushed Coral Substrate

Last but not least, we have the Carib Sea Florida crushed coral substrate. Mind you, this is a slightly harder type of substrate to own. But the good news is that the corals have been crushed up to 25 times to provide a very fine type of substrate.

This makes is appropriate for cichlids and above all, African cichlids. It’s a great performing substrate, as it’s very economical and fantastic to use – it’s also relatively natural, keeping your fish safe and healthy for longer.

The grains are slightly larger than some other substrate, though – between 20 and 50 mms. But keep in mind that this substrate looks great and is completely natural, too.


  • Looks fantastic.
  • Let you regulate the PH levels.


  • The grains are slightly larger.


The Importance of Aquarium Substrate for African Cichlids

You might be wondering what’s so special about choosing the right substrate for the African cichlids, but I encourage you to think again.

If you consider the temperament and the behavior patterns of these fish, then you’ll find that it makes perfect sense to be picky about the substrate.

These fish are digger fish. They like to swim around the tank and dig out stuff from the substrate, which needs to be fine and the grains should be smaller. This will help your fish stay safe and not get hurt when they’re digging into the substrate.

Another thing is that poor substrate will ruin your water’s PH levels, and it will also create a very cloudy type of water. With a good substrate, you can easily avoid that.

How Much Substrate Do You Need for African Cichlids?

As with other fish of the same caliber, it’s better to have a slightly deeper substrate in your tank, although not too deep. Finding the right balance is the key here.

Ideally, you should look at about 2-4” when it comes to substrate volume. This is possibly the best number which will help the fish to stay safe when they dig. It all depends on the size of your tank, though – the larger the tank, the more substrate you can add.

Can You Keep African Cichlids without Substrate?

It’s not recommended to keep African cichlids without substrate. Here are the reasons why.

  • Substrate allows your fish to dig into the substrate, keeping them healthier and happier.
  • It also allows you to have plants and other accessories in the substrate.
  • It makes your aquarium look better.
  • It will help you improve the PH levels and regulate ammonia levels easier.

Can You Mix Crushed Coral with Sand Substrate?

Many tank owners decide to do this, but you’ll have to be mindful of what type of crushed corals you use. These should, ideally, be fine enough for these fish. However, adding the sand to the substrate can be beneficial, as it softens the substrate and makes it more appropriate for your fish.

Do African Cichlids Disturb the Substrate?

Yes, African cichlids will actively dig into the substrate and try to dig out plants or other parts of the tank. That’s why you will need a fine type of substrate to prevent injuries and help the fish stay safe when they dig.


African cichlids are interesting fish. As active diggers, the importance of adding the right type of substrate is huge. That’s why I’ve gathered the best types of substrate for African cichlids in one, easy to follow list.

avatar Noah
I’m Noah, chief editor at VIVO Pets and the proud owner of a playful, energetic husky (Max). I’ve been a volunteer at Rex Animal Rescue for over 2 years. I love learning and writing about different animals that can be kept as pets. read more...

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