Shrinking fish population in Lake Victoria: Kenyans turn to Uganda and China for supplies


By Pius Sewa, for SIPANews.

Kisumu- Kenya.

It is mid day as I begin my 40-kilometer fish journey from Kambi Somali fish market in Kakamega town, through several small towns along the Kakamega-Kisumu highway. There is no fresh fish yet at the market and most of the roadside fish kiosks are closed, wooden stands where fish is displayed are now turned upside down- a reality that proves fish supplies from Lake Victoria has reduced, shifting business to late evening hours.

The one-hour journey to Kisumu city leads me to Dunga beach, where fishermen assemble their boats after fishing. This is where buyers get supplies of Tilapia, Nile perch and other varieties of fish. There is not much activity, despite being on a Friday when most people usually flood the lake side market for fun. Women with plastic basins are sitting in a hall, which is actually a fish collection and weighing area. The aluminum iron tables are empty. One boat arrives after another in a range of about 20 minutes interval. One group of women heads towards the boat to get the fish, while the rest wait for their specific boats to arrive.

“Years back, you could come here in the morning pick as much fish as you want and go home. But that is not the case these days. You have to fight for the fish. There is no fish in the lake,” says Annah Anyango, in her 70s who has been selling fish for the last 30 years.

Women at Dunga beach in Kisumu wait for an arriving boat to buy fish for sale

She is lucky to get half a basin of cut fish and not the common tilapia or Nile perch. With more than 11 orphans to look after, Annah is worried of how the future will be. “I used to make up to 3,000 Kenya shillings (about $30), but today I can only make around Ksh700 ($7) or less in a day. I educated my children through fish selling, but now I have orphans to feed and educate as well. Life is hard.”

Pamela Achieng, a mother of eight from Manyata estate has been selling fish since 2008, but life has totally changed. “In 2008, fish business was good. You could get good profit to enable you meet other needs, like paying school fees and feeding the family. The fish is always in plenty from April to August but look, there is nothing. I don’t know if the water is now too much that has caused the fish to disappear?”

With the worsening situation, many fishermen like Maurice Otieno opted to divert to other income generating activities. Maurice now is in the bodaboda business, carrying passengers on his motorbike within Kisumu city. It is now three years since he abandoned fishing and he does not regret it.

“I used to be a fisherman but due to the lack of fish, I started doing bodaboda. I know fishing very well but that was not paying. I don’t know if the fish migrate or what is the problem.”

Not only Maurice but many fishermen have opted to leave the lake for other employment like farming. Joyce Atieno Otieno has been selling fish at Dunga beach for fifteen years and has seen men running away from the fishing business.

“I can’t compare the years back and today. Today the fish is scarce and the fishermen are few, because many have gone back to their villages and have vacated the houses they used to rent near the lake, for fear that the situation will get worse in future. So, you get that everything has gone down. If you get the little amount of fish, the price is up and when you increase the price for your clients, they complain.”

Kambi Somali fish market in Kakamega, two women employed are preparing fish for deep frying, many of them have lost jobs due to scarcity of fish

Dr. Richard Munang, Regional Climate Change Coordinator, United Nations Environment Programme UNEP attributes the reduction of fish in the lake to raising temperatures in the atmosphere as a result of climate change.

“With climate change comes the warming of the atmosphere. Warming then means warmer lakes which then depletes oxygen levels in water. Warm water means fish need more oxygen to perform daily activities, like feeding, breeding etc. This then reduces both their numbers as well as distribution as fish may move to less warmer areas of this transboundary water resource”.

He also points out that human activities – including encroachment, pollution and degradation of the lake and its immediate surroundings, have interfered with the ecosystem.   “Degrading the riparian ecosystem means erosion in the surrounding ends up as siltation, (a process by which water becomes dirty as a result of fine mineral particles in the water), in the river. Pollution encourages growth of invasive weeds like the hyacinth which reduce oxygen levels and kill off fish. With weakened ecosystems, the lake becomes even more susceptible to the damage of climate change and this becomes a viscous cycle.”

The earliest the fishermen return from the deep end to the shore is in the afternoon, a journey they begin at 4 O’clock in the morning. The women start picking the fish as late as 3 o’clock in the evening, expecting to start selling to their customers at around six.

“We depend on workers who leave their jobs at around six, then they start coming to eat fish from around seven to nine.”

She says almost 95 percent of women depend on fish to educate their children, feed their families and pay house rent. “Very few women here have husbands who can support them. I have educated all my children from selling fish.”

Sourcing fish from China and Uganda

“The Tilapia type from China is the most sold here in Kisumu because Nile Perch which is the best fish here is scarce. It is not in plenty because the Lake no longer produces enough,” Explains Maurice adding that fish from China is on high demand in Kisumu city and other parts of the country because China imports most of its fish to Kenya for the locals to maintain the supply and demand chain.

Data compiled by the State Department of Fisheries indicate that the value of fish imported from China in 2018 increased by 11.8 percent to Ksh 1.7 billion in 2018. Kenya shipped in 22,362 tonnes of fish, up from 19,127 tonnes imported in 2017.The fish is consumed in hotels, restaurants, pubs homes and roadside eating joints. Traders like the fish from China, as it is cheap and readily available.

In Kakamega town however, the fish business depends much on stocks from China, and the neighboring Uganda.

At Kambi Somali fish market, Florence Makokha Onyango, who is the chair person of the fish sellers at the market, says that “The Kenyan fish has a very high demand and is very expensive. But the fish from China has been boosting our business, because they make us maintain the supply to our clients. It is easier to get the Chinese fish, as you just send the money to the factory and the fish is delivered by a track.” However, since Coronavirus epidemic started, there is no more fish coming from China.

With only 6 percent of Lake Victoria in Kenya, Uganda’s 42 percent has become a major seller to Kenya, but at a cost. Yvonne Khayechia from Amalemba in Kakamega has never sold fish from China and has been getting her supplies from Busia Uganda.

“I used to get fish from Kisumu but it is no more, I think it is due to climate change and over fishing that has led to fish in the lake to disappear. I get from Busia Uganda and it is a challenge. You have to fight for the fish. You must catch the earliest vehicle to Busia and reach the market before the Uganda sellers bring the fish at the border market. At times you miss and come back without.”

With Coronavirus pandemic, the situation has become worse for Yvonne and other traders who travel to Busia. “Uganda closed the border so no more fish comes to Kenya, or if it comes it has to be through hardship and getting it is a challenge,” says Florence.

Empty stalls of fish in Kakamega due to lack of supplies.

The high cost of transport, increased fish prices and other underlying needs for a fish seller like Yvonne, the only way is to increase the price of fish, which causes another conflict with her clients. “Everything from transport, cooking oil and the fish price is high. So, you are forced to make a profit but many of the clients will not understand. So, the business has slowed down.”

Abandoning fish selling could be a quick decision for the women around Lake Victoria and Kakamega. However, it is hard for them to start new business. “If you feel like closing the fish business, and you have responsibilities and dependants, it becomes a problem. But if you had a way out, you could abandon it given that the profit is little as compared to years back when we used to get plenty of supplies from the lake,” says Yvonne.

However, closing such business will have a negative impact to the consumers who prefer fish to beef or other animal protein sources. Despite government of Kenya through the ministry of agriculture encourages fish farming through ponds in farms and along small rivers, the supply may not satisfy the growing demand.

Florence has a suggestion to government in relation to returning back the fish population on Lake Victoria. “According to the fishermen, the fish population has been caused by too much fishing and the water hyacinth. If government can find a way of eradicating that weed, it can help. You know we are used to this business. Starting a new business is like giving birth to a new baby and taking care of it until it matures. If government can help restock the lake, so that we continue with our business, because fish is food and as you know, there are people who have been advised by doctors to stop eating red meat and eat fish.”

Reducing post-harvest losses

Dr. Munang, expert in environment and climate change explains some of the lasting solutions. First, there is need to sustainably manage what is produced specifically by reducing post-harvest fish losses. “It is worth noting that wild fish such as that caught from the lake is still preferred over farmed and imported fish among consumers as it is believed to taste better. It is preferred by 70% of the Kenyan market. This is then to say that this is still a very valuable resource that needs to be maximized to drive growth.”

He says curtailing postharvest losses is the most critical way to maximize this resource. It is recorded that fisher-folk lose between Kshs 490 – 1600 per capita as postharvest loss. These losses needed to be urgently recouped to preserve the resource and enhance the livelihoods it represents.

“For this, decentralizing accessible climate solutions of solar dryers can ensure fish is dehydrated effectively and under hygienic conditions to increase shelf life while maintaining quality. This solution applied to other value chains has proved to earn traders up to 30times more when they sell during the off season when demand peaks, all this without piling on the emissions which cause climate change. These solutions should be decentralized to fish farmers.“

Another solution is to provide communities leaving near riparian areas alternative livelihoods that dissuade them from encroachment and instead incentivize them to protect the riparian sites.

At the policy level, he says – what is needed more is increased policy coherence across different sectors as solutions that are needed are more integrated and they require input from different sectors. For example, the solar dryer solution will require financial incentives to enable farmers afford these solutions.

“These can be delivered through local cooperatives to ensure accountability. Where cooperatives, which are the structure of financing at the grassroots – are given dedicated incentives to enable them offer affordable financing to members to acquire the solar dryers. This then means the department of cooperatives under the ministry of trade & industry working with the ministry of agriculture, fisheries department and the planning ministry to offer coherent set of incentives that can attract operational level investments to scale up such a solution.”

This story is written with the support of REJOPRA, Network of Journalists for Responsible Fisheries in Africa



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