Kenya: How This Kenya Fishing Co-Op Went From Treading Water to Riding Waves

Members of Naremiet Beach Management Unit at work supplying people of Kalokol with fresh fish to buy. .
16 September 2020

Nairobi — When Etabo Lopeyo Lotonia was attacked by a crocodile while fishing in Lake Turkana, members of his social enterprise group put aside all the day's tasks to ensure he received treatment.

Unfortunately, it was too late. Lotonia had suffered serious wounds, and died while being taken, on a motorbike, to one of the health facilities in northern Kenya.

To show their collective respect, the group contributed from their bank account to help Lotonia's family pay for the funeral.

"There have been more than five similar attacks this year. The last incident happened last week (early September 2020) at Longech village," says Philip Etabo Eyanae, the enterprise manager at the Naremiet Beach Management Co-operative.

Human vs wildlife conflict is a challenge that has been troubling indigenous fishing communities in Kenya for decades. At Kalokol village where Eyanae lives, climate crisis, lack of proper storage facilities, as well as poor market linkages added to the pressure on fishing communities.

Then the Covid-19 pandemic hit Kenya, and national and international markets for their goods, including dried fish, were closed due to lockdowns.

"There was fear that the government could shut down fishing operations if the pandemic curve continued to rise. Members without masks and sanitizers were not allowed to operate their businesses," says Eyanae.

Faced with all these challenges, it is expected of the government to help out struggling social enterprises, as it promised through the Big Four Agenda, a growth roadmap that seeks to improve livelihoods by stimulating food security, affordable universal health care and affordable housing.

But Eyanae says the government is not doing enough to support indigenous fishing communities in Kenya - and for a good reason.

During a forum on how public-private partnerships can transform the agriculture sector, Micheni Ntiba, the principal secretary state department for fisheries, aquaculture and the blue economy, said the government was keen on growing the fisheries sector.

But much of this work is being done to promote aquaculture, or domestic fish farming, to raise fish consumption in the country from about 4,7kg per person annually to over 10kg per person annually.

The government is also investing in deep sea fishing, where there is a potential to net over 150,000 to 300,000 metric tonnes of fish annually, added Ntiba.

"We are supporting farmers by ensuring they access fish feeds, quality seeds and fingerlings, processing technologies and market linkages," said Ntiba.

Much of this government support is not reaching indigenous fishing communities however, forcing them to sell their catches cheaply, if it does not go rotten due to poor storage facilities.

But there are some who are discovering the path to resilience, like Naremiet.

With funding from the United States African Development Foundation (USADF), the fishing co-op is shoring up its operations to remain afloat, even as they wait for the government.

Eyanae says Naremiet received much-needed funds from the USADF in 2015 - and it was packaged with one fibreglass boat, a DT Yamaha motorcycle, and office equipment.

In 2017, the US agency again helped the co-operative build an office, establish a dry fish store, a display unit, as well as training the over 3,000 members in marketing and value addition.

"Since I joined Naremiet Beach Management Unit I have seen members transition from foot fishing to owning their own boats. The number of boat owners has increased and even women are now boat owners," says Eyanae.

Now, through the USADF's C.A.R.E.S programme, the co-operative remains in business during the pandemic, he says, adding that members received working capital from C.A.R.E.S to strengthen their businesses during the outbreak.

Ntiba acknowledges partnerships with development agencies can help fishing communities transition to agribusinesses, for groups that are not supported by national budgets.

Encouraging groups to register as co-operatives would unlock more opportunities for smallholder farmers, says Ali Noor, the principal secretary at the state department for co-operatives.

At the moment, there are only 24,000 registered farmers' co-operatives, translating to about 14 million members.

"When farmers market their goods through co-operatives, they are able to get fair prices. Co-operatives also enable them to access credit facilities and weather information," says Noor.

Naremiet Beach Management Unit is registered as a co-operative, but exploitation by brokers is still rife. For instance, the brokers buy a 1kg of fish at three shillings from locals (about 3 US cents) and sell it at Ksh. 200 (about $2) at the fish market in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Naremiet was also forced to shift to the market in Uganda where the fish price is higher compared to when they sell to brokers. Here, Eyanae says the price of fish is about nine Kenya shillings (about 9 US cents).

"Our fish markets have been divided according to the fish species. For fresh Tilapia and Nile Perch, there is a local market in Lodwar that include, hotels, resource centres, Chinese camps, Lodwar fish market and individual buyers. For fresh Tilapia, our markets include buyers from Kitale, Busia and Kisumu," says Eyanae, meaning some of the towns along the western Kenya corridor.

A study by the University of Nairobi indicated that 95% of catches in Kenya are from fresh water lakes, while 6% are netted from Lake Turkana.

During the April to June quarter, the Naremiet Beach Management Unit sold 31,440 pieces of dried Tilapia, 16,155kg of Nile perch and 400kg of Nile perch maws.

"This is one of the worst quarters because the landing sites got swallowed by the lake. This means that our best fishing methods are not effective because of the flooding," he says.

The Covid-19 pandemic meant that fishers were only allowed to work during the day, says Eyanae, adding that the January to March quarter was the best one. That's when the group netted 4,057,767 pieces of dried Tilapia, 41,556kg of Nile Perch and 165.76kg of Nile Perch guts or maws.

The climate crisis also brought with it erratic weather which is sometimes accompanied by strong winds. When there are strong winds, locals avoid fishing because of the risk of accidents due to rough waters.

During the rainy seasons however, the Nile Perch catch is higher, says Eyanae.

The challenges facing fishing communities, and many other farmers in Kenya can be solved by the government allocating more of its national budget to the agriculture sector, according to Mulat Demeke, an economist at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO).

Enterprises like Eyanae's can also build resilience if they received more lending from the private sector, he says, adding that less than 4% of lending goes to the agricultural sector. "Yet for every dollar invested in agriculture, it can yield about 63% of returns to the GDP," Demeke says.

But the government needs to relax its policies to enable the private sector to operate and post good investment returns to cover the lending deficits, says Vimal Shah, the chairman of the Kenya Agriculture Sector Network.

"The government needs to reduce the cost of doing business by reducing the cost of power and removing taxes that stifle the growth of investments," says Shah.

Meanwhile, Eyanae hopes the sporadic crocodile attacks will not bite into the progress the Naremiet Beach Management Unit is making.

"Naremiet is situated near the breeding site for crocodiles. We have been prohibiting our members from foot fishing in order to avoid crocodile attacks. Instead we encourage them to use boats for fishing," he says.

The group built 10 wooden boats which the fishers use instead of wading through the dangerous waters.

As USADF marks Feed the Future week, grantees like the Naremiet Beach coop show how much can be won for the members and their communities with local solidarity, backed by partners who support their hard work.

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