Some of Malawi's fishing communities are turning to low-tech solar "tents" to dry out their fish in an attempt to boost their incomes.
On the shores of lakes Malawi and Chilwa, some fishing communities are turning to low-tech solar "tents" to dry out their fish in an attempt to boost their incomes already hurt by dwindling fish numbers.
Fish are traditionally dried by laying them out in the open, but this means they are prey to animals, flies and dust. And in the rainy season - when the fishermen get their biggest catches - the fish are prone to rotting.
For every 10 fish caught in Lake Malawi, four are spoiled, according to University of Malawi scientists.
The 17 solar "tents" dry the fish quickly and protect them from pests, improving their quality and opening up new markets for them, locals say.
The walls are made of bricks and polythene sheets, which trap the sun's heat inside where fish are spread on mesh shelving beneath corrugated iron roofs.
"Air vents on solar tent dryers allow circulation of air for the fish to dry faster," said Hamisi Nyampesi, leader of Youth Against Darkness, a local organisation which hopes to sell dried fish to up-market shops.
"The (tents) also keep (the fish) safe during both rainy and dry seasons," said Nyampesi.
The dryers are part of an attempt by the government both to improve food supplies and local fishing businesses.
Malawi has some 56,000 small-scale fishers, 87 percent of them working in the two lakes, according to the Department of Fisheries. In all, nearly 300,000 people rely on fishing for food or income.
The region's fish trade is dominated by small and medium-sized businesses, most of which are headed by women, said Sloans Chimatiro, acting country manager for World Fish, an international research organisation.
One such business - Kachulu Women Fish Processors - is using four solar dryers.
"We now own proper structures to help in fish processing, so that we remain competitive on the market," said Ethel Kabwerebwere, chair of the group.
"The only challenge is that the fish are scarce due to dwindling lake levels, as a result of wanton degradation taking place within the lake catchment area," she added.
Fish numbers in the lakes are falling because of overfishing, and damage to breeding grounds partly caused by a build-up of silt from soil erosion nearby, experts say.
Lake Chilwa - located on Malawi's eastern border with Mozambique - is now less than five metres deep.
The lake's fish have also been hit by the loss of Typha water plants which act as breeding grounds. The plants were cut by migrant fishermen from the northern part of the lake to make it easier for them to catch fish, according to World Fish.
"A reduction in the (plants), means a reduction in the fish population," said Joseph Nagoli, lead researcher at World Fish in Zomba district.
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