Mention fish in Kenya – the eating of it, the fishing of it, and the trading in it – and one automatically thinks of western Kenya. And if you want to get into the small details, you will learn that Kisumu City is the “fish capital” of Kenya.
Nearly all Kenya’s fish processing factories, used to be (or remain) in and around Kisumu.
Once it seemed that Lake Victoria, the largest fresh water lake in Africa, had more fish than all the fishermen of Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda, the three nations that share the lake, could catch. Alas, the party is about to end.
Lake Victoria is dying slowly. Between 1998 and 2008 alone, its water level fell by more than 1.5 metres.
The stubborn water hyacinth weed chokes many parts of it. The abuse of wetlands for farmland and human settlement, and climate change, are adding to the Victoria’s haemorrhage, slowly killing off the feeder rivers and streams flowing into the lake all over East Africa.
That said, the fishing industry is not about to die. In fact it is booming. In Uganda, the man making the most money, millions of dollars a year according to reports, from fish lives as far away from Lake Victoria as one can. He farms his fish, and has an impressive chain of fishponds using the most advanced tools and techniques in the trade.
One of East Africa’s biggest chicken farms, Ugachick, in central Uganda, is also one of the largest producers of chicken feed in the region. Now, however, it has a lucrative new line of business – making fish feed. When I visited Ugachick a few weeks to explore whether they could spin off organic fertilisers from their products, I found hundreds of bags off fish feed waiting to ship.
The bags were marked with the names of at least Kenyan fish feed sellers. Turns out that its technology, and the availability of quality raw materials for fish feed in Uganda, has turned Ugachick into the lead producer for the stuff for Kenyan firms and the local market.
There is endless irony in this. For years, Nairobi’s chicken barons, fearing competition, made it very difficult for Ugachick to export to Kenya. Appeals by the government and East African Community officials for Kenyans to ease up the chicken restrictions, produced modest results.
Now fish feed has blown East African borders open for Ugachick in ways the East African free trade apparatchik couldn’t.
But it is in Kenya that the most game-changing trend in fish has started. A new giant fish-processing factory is being built in Nyeri, Central Kenya. The Kikuyu of central Kenya, like the folks of western Uganda, never used to be fish eaters. They were that type of Bantu people who didn’t “eat things with small eyes” like fish. Times have changed, off course.
In recent years, they have gone big time into commercial fish farming. They have been so successful, a fish-processing factory became inevitable.
Go to Entebbe in Uganda, Mwanza in Tanzania, and Kisumu, the fish processing factories are struggling or silent. They are being punished for decades of relying on the “free” fish of Lake Victoria.
The Lake Victoria fishermen only invested in nets, boats, and paid out bribes to fisheries and law enforcement officials on the islands. They then went out and caught “free” fish.
They were mostly small time peasants depending on the vagaries of the Earth.
Now serious farmers, men with suits and fat bank accounts, who hire other men in white coats to look after their fish farms, have entered the business. The deck have been reshuffled.
The commercial fish farms are able to guarantee supply all year round; they can deliver a consistent size of fish; and they can ramp up supply if the demand is high, or turn down production.
The folks who fish in the lake got greedy and overfished. They used illegal small gauge nets that scooped up immature fish, thus strangling reproduction of new stock. Worst still, whenever they could, they dynamited the water—blowing to the top thousands, if not millions, of baby fish that just went to waste.
Chinua Achebe likes to write about the gods, by which he means the forces of history and nature. In the case of Lake Victoria overfishing, Achebe might say the gods got angry at their excesses, closed the fish gates, and passed on the bounty to inland farmers who are willing to invest in raising fish.
Now something that not even the Bible, the Quran, or Nostradamus foretold is about to happen. If the lake people of Kenya want to eat fish, in the future they will have to travel up the mountain of central Kenya to get it. And the ones of Uganda will have to do a trip to the hills of Kabale!
© Charles Onyango-Obbo / twitter@cobbo3