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Richard O. Abila
Researcher, Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute
Kisumu, Kenya


The Lake Victoria fishery has come under increasing pressure in the last two decades. Fish production peaked in the early 1990s and currently catches of most species are showing downward trends. Despite this, there is greater demand for fish of Lake Victoria, chiefly Nile perch (Lates niloticus) and ‘dagaa’ (Rastrineobola argentea), in the export market and for fishmeal respectively, as well as for domestic consumption. The present situation is the consequence of the tremendous commercial transformation that the fishery of Lake Victoria has undergone in those 20 years. From a local-based subsistence fishery before 1980, it is presently dominated by fish processing factories funded from international sources, which aim at enhancing fish exports from East Africa to the developed world, so as to earn more foreign exchange. This takes place against a backdrop of a protein-starved local community whose livelihood depends on the lake. In the past, international trade on fisheries was taken for granted as the means to tackle poverty and food insecurity for fisheries-dependent communities. That idea has, however, been challenged in the last few years as researches look critically at the benefits of global fish trade vis-à-vis the costs, particularly in relation to food insecurity and environmental implications. This report is a further contribution to this debate. It tries to establish a link between the increased liberalization of trade in the fisheries of Lake Victoria and the food insecurity indicators. The paper is based on primary and secondary data collected at various times, published and unpublished documents as well as the author’s own observations over several years working as a researcher on socio-economic aspects of the Lake Victoria fishery. Because of the large investment already made in industrial fish processing, it would be in order to allow some amount of exports to continue. However, the quantities of exportable fish must be limited to ensure sustainable fisheries and reconciliation with the food security needs. Recommendations are made in four broad directions to make Lake Victoria fisheries more relevant to the food security needs of the local population. They include specific policy interventions, interventions in fisheries management, steps to enhance fish supply and refocusing the fish marketing strategies. There is also need for more incisive studies on the fish industry and at household level to understand in greater depth how the various factors raised in this study relate to each other and the magnitude of their contribution to food insecurity.


Despite the advances in science and technology achieved over the last century, close to one billion people in different parts of the world are still not assured of their most basic need - food. Famine, malnutrition or in the short-term, hunger, remain some of the most intriguing challenges facing mankind in the 21st century. Food insecurity is a global problem, but particularly affecting much of the third world. The three East African countries - Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda - are especially in a region prone to debilitating and widespread effects of hunger and famine. The Lake Victoria basin is particularly characterised by entrenched poverty, recurrent droughts, crop failures and environmental degradation. These conditions are partly caused by declining land productivity, soil degradation, desertification, loss of biodiversity, livestock and crop diseases, declining fisheries, poor development and trade policies, among other problems. As a result, it has become difficult to produce sufficient food, trapping people in a vicious downward cycle of food insecurity. Paradoxically, many of the local communities living around the Lake Victoria fishery - the unique and vast natural food resource - are among the poorest and most food insecure.

In the past, the global strategies to solve food problems have mainly aimed at increasing agricultural production at both the household and national levels and ensuring that a portion of the produced food was stored to last through to the next harvest (Brown and Kane, 1994). However, these strategies have not been successful in alleviating food problems especially in the third world, mostly because of declining land sizes, stagnated farming technology, poor infrastructure, the demand for cash money and ever-expanding population. More recently, there have been attempts to change focus, and place less emphasis on self-sufficiency. Instead, trade has come to be regarded as a more important tool of tackling food insecurity. According to this school of thought, food problems are simply as a consequence of low incomes, which therefore could be solved through increased trading. The argument, as quoted in Madeley (2001) goes, thus; ‘...if poor countries sell more by trading, they will earn more money and be able to buy food from elsewhere’. Madeley has himself disputed this notion, arguing that poor people typically do not have the financial means to produce enough food to sell, and usually the price of grain is too low to buy alternative foods. In any case, the main beneficiary from trade is not usually poor farmers but middlemen, who have the advantage of better information about market demand and prices.

As a condition for receiving aid from the western countries and the international aid agencies, third world countries have been coerced into adopting trade liberalization (and expansion) policies, being part of broader ‘structural adjustment programs’ (SAPS). In Kenya, the strategies for trade liberalization policy were presented in Session Paper No. 1 of 1986, on economic management for renewed growth (Kenya Government, 1986). The strategies in this document encouraged moving towards a more outward looking trade regime, strengthening and increasing overseas market access for Kenyan products, and supporting further integration into the world economy.

SAPs also dwelt on a number of other areas, including; liberalization of prices and marketing systems, financial sector policy reform, international trade regulation reforms, government budget rationalization, divestiture of government from commercial activity, parastatal reform and reform of the civil service. In Kenya, among the specific items instituted as part of SAPs in early and mid 1990s, were price decontrols, foreign exchange liberalization, decontrol of domestic marketing of agricultural commodities, removal or reduction of international trade barriers, decontrol of interest rates and decontrol of foreign exchange rates (Kenya government, 1993). These indicate that, even though SAPs were aimed at much wider economic reforms, they were most successful in supporting trade liberalization goals.

There are mixed opinion about the initial achievements of SAPs, and particularly, increased trade liberalization in Kenya. Some groups, especially the donor agencies and western countries, were quite positive about the long-term outcomes. In the short-term, however, Kenyans were more aware about the negative consequences of SAPs on their living conditions. Even the Kenya Government officially admitted the negative impacts, reporting thus; ‘...It is undeniable that the vulnerable groups have suffered as austerity measures introduced under SAPs have reduced the availability and affordability of social services, eroded real wages, and reduced public sector employment’ (Kenya Government, 1997 b, p10).

Also discussing the effects of trade liberalization in Kenya, Madeley (2000 p77) wrote; ‘... trade liberalization has led to an increase of food imports into the country and caused food dumping in local markets, hitting the country’s own farmers. Liberalization has also led to an increase in the prices of farm inputs, putting them beyond the reach of most small farmers. [There have been] persistent food deficits, decreased incomes, families eating fewer meals each day, poor infrastructure, poor medical services, increased alcoholism, hooliganism...’. While it may not be easy to directly attribute all factors mentioned by Madeley (2000) to SAPs, it is undoubted that economic liberalization, in the short-term, worsened the situation of many of those engaged in primary food production in Kenya. Evidently, they became less able to grow their own food, sell what they grew or buy alternative foods.

In the Lake Victoria fisheries, the liberalized trade conditions provided the right incentives for investments in the industrial fish processing and the internationalization of fish trade. For example, the lack of price controls and other limitations ensured that the fish business remained lucrative, attracting new investors to establish fish factories all around the lake with strong links to the global market. Like other businesses geared towards exports, the fish processing industry readily acquired low-interest loans provided by local or international banks for constructing and equipping fish factories. Under the export promotion scheme (intended to support enterprises that had potential to earn substantial foreign exchange); some factories also benefited from low taxes or tax exemptions for a period of time, duty exemption on essential factory equipment (Bokea and Ikiara, 2000). Similar advantages were not extended to the other sub-sectors of the fisheries sector that were not directly exporting fish, such as the artisanal fish processors and traders.

For much of the last decade it was taken for granted that international trade was automatically beneficial to the development of the Lake Victoria fishery. The common argument was that global trade had increased the overall value of the fishery and raised incomes of all players involved. However, such reasoning rarely considered the other angles to fish export trade, particularly the environmental, employment and food security impacts. In the last five years, more attention has focused on these issues, revealing that the negative impacts of expanded trade could far outweigh the benefits (O’Riordan 1997; Jansen, 1997; Abila and Jansen, 1997; Abila, 2000; Bokea and Ikiara, 2000). This report makes further contribution to the debate on the impact of international trade of Lake Victoria fisheries on local livelihoods. The report reviews concepts and perceptions of food security and examines how it is affected by global commercialization of the Lake Victoria fisheries.


Food security is a broad concept, whose meaning and scope has evolved over the years. The traditional concepts of food security included simple measures such as national food production, food grain storage, national food self-sufficiency and food aid (Brown and Kane, 1994). These were mainly macro indicators reflecting food supply, and which were used as basis for developing conventional early warning systems against famine. In designing these systems, it was believed that such indicators could predict acute food insecurity and cause the relevant authorities to respond adequately through centralised distribution of national food reserves or food aid (Davies et al, 1991). However, famine has continued even in the face of conventional early warning systems. It has also not been possible to develop interventions that may reliably prevent or reduce the extent of food insecurity situations in future (Buchanan-Smith et al., 1994).

This has prompted the need to redefine food security, to come up with concepts that aim for longer-term, sustainable improvement in access to food. The new definition of food security should take cognisance of a number of facts. First, there is ample evidence that food supply and availability alone are not sufficient to relieve food insecurity. Borton and Shoham (1991) explained that food insecurity could occur in a situation where food was available but not accessible to sections of the community because their entitlements to food had been eroded. This argument counters the general assumption that deficits in food supply are the only important cause of food insecurity. Secondly, the levels of food production by households are not always positively related with differences in household food consumption. This negates the assumption that food production is a sufficient indicator for food consumption, or that increased food supply will automatically result in improved nutrition. Third, the generalization that malnutrition is a conclusive indication of food insecurity is not necessarily correct. Malnutrition can as well result from other causes that are independent of food insecurity, for example, poor health or poor maternal and childcare. Thus, household food security is a necessary but not sufficient explanation for adequate nutrition. Similarly, deterioration in child growth cannot be interpreted on its own as identifying a decline in food intake or a conclusive indicator of food insecurity.

The World Bank (1986) defined food security as ‘access by all people at all times to enough food for an active healthy life’. Its essential elements were availability of food and the ability to acquire it. A more detailed definition used at the World Food Summit was ‘all people at all times having physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life’ (FAO, 1996). In brief, food security means ‘access to food for a healthy life by all people at all times’ (Barraclough, 1996; Mwale, 1998).

Food security, thus, is defined in terms of access to food, sufficiency of food, ability of food to ensure an active and healthy life, and the consistency of access to food. The capacity to produce and store food is still critical, even though not sufficient, to ensure food security. Similarly, access to food - determined by the ability to buy or acquire food, control productive resources, or exchange other goods and services for food - is another important index of food security. The food quantities accessed must be sufficient to meet national, regional or household needs, and should fulfil nutritional needs of adequate energy, protein and micronutrients. Access to food should also be equitable for individuals in the group. In summary, therefore, a community or group will have food security if there is sufficient food available; they have the necessary purchasing power or means of exchange to acquire it; and their social relationships allow them access to it within the household.


One of the declared policy goals of the Kenya Government is to improve the quality of life of its citizenry. It is well stated in government policy that nutrition objectives should be considered in development projects, and that priority be given to collection and analysis of information on nutritional status of the population so that programs are designed to eliminate nutritional deficiencies. The Session Paper No.4 of 1981 on ‘National Food Policy’ stressed the role of government in attaining food security, by reducing problems relating to production, distribution and consumption (Kenya Government, 1994b).

On paper, the Kenya Government has clearly spelt out the policy objectives for the fishery, giving sufficient attention to food security concerns. They include goals to achieve increased per capita fish consumption through the production of low cost protein food (fish). Second is to generate employment opportunities and incomes in fishing, fish processing and trading. The third objective is to enhance the living conditions of the fishermen and their families by maximizing economic benefits to them (Kenya Government, 1995). A fourth, and somehow conflicting goal, is to maximize foreign exchange earnings from fish exports. If these stated objectives of the government were achieved in equal measure, the fishery would greatly contribute towards food security for lakeside communities. However, in practice, much of the present effort of the Fisheries Department is geared towards the promotion of export trade. This is because the amount of foreign exchange earned is a more attractive indicator of performance, which the Fisheries Department would prefer to be judged upon. Additionally, the fish processing industry has become a very powerful player, contributing immensely to any new decisions and policies that support increased exports.


Lake Victoria is Kenya’s dominant source of fish, contributing over 93 percent of all the fish landed annually in Kenya in the last decade (Table 1). Besides Lake Victoria, the other sources of fish in the country are the fresh-water lakes, most of which are located in the Rift Valley, including Turkana, Baringo, Naivasha, and Jipe. Additional fish is landed in the dams and rivers located in various parts of the country, most of which drain into Lake Victoria. Marine fisheries and aquaculture produce the remaining portion of fish landed in Kenya, the latter constituting less than one percent.

Table 1 Quantity of fish landed 1992 - 2000 (tonnes)


L. Victoria

Other inland lakes and rivers

Fish farming

Marine fish and products
























































Source: Kenya Fisheries Department

Lake Victoria is known to have a high fish species diversity, although, there are conflicting estimates of the actual number of species. Some reports put the number of species at 170 while, on the higher side, Greenwood (1981) estimated that up to 350 fish species might be present in the lake. However, only three species - Nile perch, ‘dagaa’ and tilapia - are of commercial importance. In recent years, these three have constituted about 58 percent, 30 percent and 10 percent respectively of the total fish landed on Lake Victoria. Since the early 1990s, the quantity of fish landed from Lake Victoria (and from most of the other inland lakes and rivers in Kenya) has been on a generally declining trend.

The catch decline is one indicator of over-exploitation, and has been a cause of concern for Nile perch, whose catch has gradually decreased since 1991 (only rising sharply in 1999 following the lifting of the ban on fish exports to the EU, then falling off). The declining catches are largely attributed to the use of small mesh nets, indiscriminate gears and mass-target fishing methods, which have been prevalent in Lake Victoria. In particular, there has been a gradual reduction in mean mesh sizes of gillnets used in the lake in the last decade. For example, the average mesh size of gill net used in the lake to target Nile perch reduced from 12 inches in 1981 to six inches in 1996 (O'Riordan, 1997; Othina and Osewe-Odera, 1996). In addition, trawlers and beach seines operated in the lake for much of the last decade, with serious environmental consequences. Fortunately, trawling has now been eradicated but beach seining still persists.

Besides the annual catches, the other two commonly applied stock assessment indicators - mean catch sizes and catch per unit effort - have also generally declined in the past decade. For example, in 1981, the mean weight of Nile perch caught in Lake Victoria ranged from 50-100 kg. In 1996, this had reduced to around 5-10 kg (O'Riordan, 1997). Similarly, the catch per unit effort dropped from about 180 kg per boat per day in 1989 to about 80 kg per boat per day in 1999 (Othina, 1999).

Attempts have been made to estimate the maximum sustainable yield for the commercial species in Lake Victoria (Figure 1). Based on stock assessment data collected over five years (from 1997 to 2002) by the Lake Victoria Fisheries Research Project funded by the EU, the maximum sustainable yield for Nile perch in the Kenyan part of the lake has been estimated at about 39 200 tonnes (Bwathondi et al, 2001). Even though this figure is still contentious, the current exploitation rates of Nile perch (about 90 000 tonnes in 1999) were much above the sustainable exploitation levels. Othina (1999) also estimated the maximum sustainable yield for ‘dagaa’ in the Kenyan part of Lake Victoria to be 86 000 tonnes, which indicated that the exploitation levels in the early 1990s was close to the sustainable limits. The over-exploitation of Lake Victoria fisheries has consequences for long-term food security to those dependent on the fisheries. It is, therefore, imperative that efforts geared towards developing the fish exporting industry must address the causes and consequences of over-exploitation in Lake Victoria.


The number of fishermen in Kenya has consistently increased since the 1960s (Figure 2). Recent statistics from the Fisheries Department indicate that there are now about 42 000 fishermen in Kenya, of whom about 90 percent are in Lake Victoria. While the number of fishermen on Lake Victoria has increased by about 28 percent since 1995, the number of fishermen in marine fisheries and in other inland Kenyan lakes Turkana, Naivasha, Baringo and Jipe actually decreased or remained constant during the same period. Thus, there seems to be increasing fishing pressure only on Lake Victoria, while other lakes - probably due to low productivity - are being abandoned. The fast increase in the number of fishermen and fishing vessels, particularly from the mid-1990s, may be directly attributed to the increased scope of marketing Nile perch, which has attracted fishermen from other lakes, and even from other informal occupations in the country. While there seems to be increased opportunities in the fish production sub-sector, there is indication that informal fish processing sector has suffered. In the absence of consistent data on the number of fish processors, the best indicator of the declining employment opportunities in this area is the number of traditional kilns used to smoke fish, particularly Nile perch and tilapia. In many areas where such kilns existed previously, there are presently none. Since all Nile perch now leaves the lake area for urban-based factories, and there is insufficient tilapia for processing, the traditional fish processors have been rendered jobless.

Figure 1 Catch trends on Lake Victoria (1976-2001)

Sources: Fisheries Department statistics; Othina, 1999

Figure 2 Fishermen in Kenya

Source: Adapted from various sources


There are two parallel kinds of trade channels for Kenya’s fish (Figure 3). One is the channel supplying the local market, which is commonly referred to as the artisanal or informal trade sector. The logistical arrangement in this sector is quite simple, with fishermen supplying fish to women or male traders at the lakeside, who then sell the fish in the nearby market or to second level middlemen who transfer it to other rural market or to distant urban markets. The mode of transport is also simple depending on the distant to the preferred market. Traders would make use of public passenger vehicles, bicycles, or just walk.

Figure 3 Fish distribution channels

This channel also has the traditional fish processing sub-sector, where some fish is either smoked or deep-fried before it goes to the market. Previously women who processed Nile perch and tilapia dominated this sub-sector, but these species are no longer available in sufficient quantities for processing. Most of the women have left the trade or just idle around and process the little fish they can get. Some of them have turned to processing Nile perch frames from fish factories, but this trade is also threatened by the fishmeal industry. However, it is evident that the demand for fish has grown over the years, judging from the high prices in most urban and local markets. Fish has also become scarce, and its quality suspect because of the inclusion of Nile perch rejects and fish frames from factories, which are not preserved after filleting. In contrast, the formal trade selling fish to fish factories, eventually to the export market, is well regulated and has very complex logistical arrangements. This aspect of trade is discussed in more detail in the sections below.

6.1 Kenya’s Fish Export Industry

Nile perch is the dominant fish species in the export trade, accounting for about 90 percent in volume and value of Kenya’s total fish exports. The exported products of Nile perch include the fillet, whole body (gutted, headless), fish maws and Nile perch bladder. Other fish products exported from Kenya are mainly marine products, such as crustaceans (lobsters, prawns, crabs and fresh-water cray fish), molluscs (octopus and squid), other marine fish and small quantities of live fish. In the early 1990s, a few firms attempted to export tilapia, but this failed to pick up due to the limited supplies of the fish in Kenya and high competition from low-cost tilapia exporters.

There are presently 18 fish processing and exporting firms in Kenya (see list in appendix). Of these, ten specialize on the processing and export of Nile perch products while seven are marine-based. The latter include four shrimp processors, two firms exporting various crustaceans, such as octopus, squids and lobsters, and the remaining one processing tuna. The Nile perch factories all produce fillet, skin on, headless and gutted products.

Studies conducted by Abila and Jansen (1997) and SEDAWOG (1999a) revealed that there is high degree of vertical and horizontal integration in this industry. Vertical integration arises because a factory owns or controls other enterprises relating to fish supply acquisition, transporting fish, product distribution and export marketing. Horizontal integration arises because factories own or control other factories operating at the same level i.e. different ‘branches’ of the same factories. Horizontal integration now extends beyond Kenya’s borders as some factories in Kenya own similar factories in Uganda and Tanzania.

The typical fish supply arrangement involves the use of middlemen or ‘fish agents’, who operate between the factory and the fishermen. There are two kinds of agents, depending on their relationship with a factory. The first type is company agents, who are contracted by a fish factory to supply it with fish. The factory will normally provide the agent with an insulated fish truck equipped with ice. Such an agent may not supply another firm with fish in the duration of the contract. The second type is independent agents, who sell fish to any factory of their choice without a binding contract. Often they use their own fish transportation facility or they may hire an insulated truck from a factory. In either case, factory owners have the ultimate power over activities of agents.

The factory will agree on a price with an agent in advance of supplying fish. Once this is done, the agents negotiate their own price with fishermen, leaving as high a margin as they are able to take. Commonly agents will pay to fishermen a price in the range of 50 - 75 percent of the price they get at the factory gate. A common complaint is that agents are quite exploitative of fishermen. However, agents argue that the mark-up largely reflects the cost of transporting fish, which is high considering the bad roads to the fish landing beaches.

Some factories exert their influence beyond agents and provide outboard engines, nets and other fishing gear to fishermen under an agreement that the fishermen will supply fish to offset the credit. This has not been a popular arrangement as fishermen are bound to cheat regarding their fish catches while they may also be unnecessarily tied down to a factory paying uncompetitive prices. Some factories also sign agreement with fishermen co-operatives to supply fish. This would be the ideal situation as co-operatives may improve the level of bargaining and some degree of quality control. The problem has been that most fishermen co-operatives have not been performing well. However, as it becomes more difficult to get fish, factories have to adopt new ways, using all available options, to acquire fish.

It is noteworthy that this is a very dynamic industry with frequent closures, take-overs and ownership changes. However, certainly the industry has been operating way below the established capacities of most factories, more so in the face of diminishing Nile perch catches. The expansion in capacity of the factories has been so rapid that from 1997 the Nile perch processing industry was able to operate at only about half of the available processing capacity (Abila and Jansen, 1997; SEDAWOG I, 1999). The main reason for under-capacity utilization has been fish supply problems, but for some factories, insufficient operating capital has also been a limiting factor. One of the strategies taken by the factories to overcome fish supply problems has been to seek their fish supplies from beyond Kenya’s boundaries, an event that has introduced a new line of conflict in this industry (Gibbon, 1997).

6.2 The Export Markets

Nile perch has in the past been exported to the EU both in the fresh/ chilled and frozen skinless fillet forms, the former fetching much higher prices but with very stringent requirements in quality control and logistical arrangement. The fresh form should reach the market within 48 hours after landing, and it was mainly supported by the efficient airfreight and logistical export system already in place for Kenya’s horticultural products going to the same countries. However, following the three export bans discussed below, fish exporters left the lucrative fresh fish market for the less demanding and less paying frozen fish export trade.

The 1997, 1998 and 1999 successive export bans of fish and fishery products from Lake Victoria to the EU, which was already importing about 87 percent of all fish exports from Kenya before the bans, caused a steady decline in Kenya’s fish export both in value and volume terms. The lowest intake by the EU was in 1999 when it imported only six percent of Kenya’s fish. New markets emerged during the ban to replace the void created, including Far East countries (Japan, Australia, China, Hong Kong, etc.), Americas (USA and Canada) and others (Middle East and African Countries (see Tables 2 and Figures 4 and 5). Israel became the most prominent single importer of Kenya’s fish, taking 42 percent in 2001.

However, it should be noted that the EU has consistently offered the highest prices for Kenya’s fish (about US$ 5 f.o.b), hence, despite the emergence of new markets, the overall value of exports went down during the bans. EU is slowly regaining its position in the market, taking 21 percent in 2001, even though Kenya is still restricted to bilateral fish trade arrangement. Once the restrictions are totally lifted, there is no doubt that the EU will again become the number one importer of Kenya’s fish.

Table 2 Nile perch exports by market region

Market region

Export volumes (tonnes)







European Union

10 388

6 882

2 320


1 680

3 818 (21 percent)

Far East

1 801

2 664

2 201

2 722

4 146

4 650 (26 percent)


3 431

4 244

5 252

5 529

7 185

7 530 (42 percent)


1 120


1 394

2 894

2 468

1 947 (11 percent)


16 740

14 719

11 167

11 914

15 479

17 945

Source: Kenya Fish Processors and Exporters Association

Figure 4 Nile perch exports by market regions

Figure 5 Kenya: Fish exports by Value

6.3 Regulation of Kenya’s Fish Export Trade

The international fish trade is very highly regulated. There are set standards and rules applied locally but directly addressing the requirements of the export markets. Additionally, new local institutions have been created and equipped to ensure that fisheries products leaving Kenya meet the high standards of the international markets. As a result of the demands of the export markets, the fish industry in Kenya is now governed directly by six sets of standards operated through three organizations.

The Fisheries Department, which is the body legally mandated to manage the fisheries sector, operates through the Fisheries Act Cap 378 Laws of Kenya and the Fish Quality Assurance Regulation 2000. Because the department (previously) lacked the capacity to develop and implement food standards, the Kenya Bureau of Standards introduced its own two sets of standards which applied in fish processing and export, namely; Kenya Fish handling standards KS05-1516 and Specification for Drinking Water KS05-459. However, the most significant regulations for the fisheries sector are those of the EU, specifically EU directives 91/493/EEC and 98/83/EC. These EU standards are enforced through the competent authority approved by the EU (Fisheries Department) with periodic audits by EU inspectors. The Fish export sector has also organized itself into a professional industry association, the Kenya Fish Processors and Exporters Association (AFIPEK). The secretariat of the association has three main mandates; Liaison with Government, and international bodies on matters of fish quality, enforcement of an industry-wide international code of practice for processing of fish and promotion of fish and fishery products in the export markets.

In the international arena, Kenya is signatory or subject to various pacts dealing with international trade. The EU Directive 91/ 493/EEC, which lays down the requirements for handling and placement into the market of fish and fish products, has the most far reaching implications on the fisheries sector. Other pacts relevant to the fisheries sector include some provisions of the World Trade Organization (WTO), the Lome Convention, the Cotonou Partnership Arrangement (CPA), and the EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).

The EU Directive 91/493/EEC, based on the HACCP principles, has a set of standards governing fish production, handling, processing, packaging and transporting of fishery products for the EU market. It also imposes strict recommendations on the building, construction, equipment, purification tanks and storage tanks intended for holding fish prior to exports. The premises should also have laboratories and ensure strict record keeping and accurate labelling, among other provisions.

The General Agreements on Trade and Tariffs (GATT, 1993), formulated during the Uruguay Round of negotiations from1986 to 1993, formed the basis for the majority of trade agreements currently under the WTO. The Uruguay Round and the WTO agreements aimed to increase liberalization of trade so as to expand traded volumes, improve market access for goods originating from developing countries, and to bring in more of traded goods previously governed by separate protocols, under the discipline of multilateral trading system. The Lome Convention, and its successor, the Cotonou Agreement, also had important implications to Kenya’s fisheries sector. This Convention provided for market access to former colonies of the EEC member states, which were spread across Africa, the Caribbean and Pacific states (ACP).

Market access was limited to unprocessed agricultural products and minerals, allowing duty free entry, and, in some cases, commodity protocols that accorded preferential countries some guaranteed market quotas. The pact also included financial assistance to address supply-side constraints. Market access has also been enhanced through regional and bilateral trade negotiations within the African region as well as through multilateral trading arrangements such as in East African Community (EAC) and Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA). The EAC pact has reduced trade tariffs and other barriers between Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, making it easier for Kenya to import fish from Tanzania and Uganda. It is under such international and regional agreements that Kenya was able to launch and sustain fish exports to EU from the late eighties to the nineties. None of the operational standards, or internationally set pacts addresses the needs of local consumers in the countries where fish originates.

6.4 Positive Impacts of Trade

Despite the food insecurity concerns, the commercialization of the fishery of Lake Victoria has certain significant positive impacts. First, it is undoubted that more people have been attracted to fishing in recent years, and many more people depend on incomes from the fishery. Citing various Department of Fisheries reports, Bokea and Ikiara (1999) estimated that about 798 000 people became dependent on the fishery directly or indirectly for their source of livelihood in 1998. Those directly employed in fish production have also increased four times from 10 000 in 1973 to 38 000 in 2000 (Figure 2). Much of this increase, especially after 1980, could be directly attributed to the expansion of the Nile perch markets, the increase in demand for Nile perch and the resulting good prices. Thus, the fishery transformation has been important in creating new employment opportunities especially in fish harvesting sub-sector. However, since the catches of Nile perch are declining, the average productivity of each fisherman (catch per person) has declined over the years, meaning that most fishermen are, in fact, underemployed. Fishermen too have to travel longer distance to fishing ground for lower unit catches, implying that the average net income is getting smaller.

Another important benefit of the transformation of the fishery has been in foreign exchange earnings from fish exports, whose retail value in export market was estimated at about Ksh 3.9 billion ($ 52 million) in 2001 (Wakwabi et al, 2002). However, Bokea and Ikiara (1999) indicated that much of the retail value of fish is not repatriated to Kenya, and therefore, the actual foreign exchange earnings could be much below the above figure. Related to this benefit is the tax income to the government accruing from fish exports. This is collected by the Fisheries Department as export levy, calculated at 0.5 percent of the f.o.b. price of fish exports. This levy rose to a peak of Ksh. 13 million ($ 0.17 million) in 1996, but subsequently declined following the fish export bans to the EU. The levy collection could be much higher, but some fish exporters under-state the value of fish exported, thus denying the government higher tax income.

In addition, the government earns revenue through licensing fish processing and fishmeal firms, registration of boats, court fines, issuance of fish traders’ licenses and export certificates. The local councils and co-operative societies serving fish landing beaches also receive some amount levied on each Kg of fish sold to fish factories. Bokea and Ikiara (1999) estimated that in one year the Government earns about Ksh. 132 million ($ 1.8 million) from the fishery, which could be directly attributed to commercialization of the fishery. The Lake Victoria fishery also makes a small but important contribution to Kenya’s GDP, although this has stagnated at about 0.3 percent in much of the last decade.

The transformed fishery has also caused an increase in fish prices, which directly interprets as an improvement in unit value of the fishery. Fish price data obtained from the Kenya Fisheries Department and the Central Bureau of Statistics, and adjusted for inflation, show that there has been a gradual increase in the prices of the three commercial species in the last decade. Table 3 displays the adjusted prices for the three commercial species of Lake Victoria. However, the increased unit fish prices might not result in significant increase in overall income to fishermen since they are matched against declining fish catches. To fishmeal processors, there is a benefit in ready availability of fish frames and 'dagaa', which come at a lower price than they would get from the alternative sources.

Table 3 Lake victoria fish landing prices* (1991-2000)


Fish prices (Ksh**/ kg)

Nile perch

Nile tilapia


















































Source: Adapted from SMEC (2002)
* Prices adjusted for inflation
** 1 $ = 75 Ksh

6.5 Negative Effects of Lake Victoria Fish Trade

Taken at their face value, the benefits of commercial transformation of the fishery of Lake Victoria would appear quite impressive. The negative impacts of development of the fishery, on the other hand, are even more compelling. Bokea and Ikiara (1999) argued that the costs of massive fish exports and the use of fish in the manufacture of animal feeds far outweighed their benefits. The costs associated with international trade on fishery products are substantial, and some of them cannot even be quantified. The greatest cost, no doubt, is the possibility of total collapse of the fishery if the current exploitation levels are maintained to satisfy the market demand. Uncontrolled fish exports and use of fish for fishmeal could cause the fishery to collapse, with ecological and environmental consequences that cannot easily be quantitatively predicted. The overall market and non-market value of the fishery is difficult to establish, but suffice it to say, its loss would be too massive to be offset by the current short-term benefits.

Another consequence of development of the fishery is that local people have progressively been edged out of production, pricing, marketing and processing. Fish factories and their agents now tightly control these activities. As earlier discussed, employment chances in traditional fish trading and processing sectors for Nile perch and its products, previously the preserve of poor women, are now largely integrated in the marketing chain for fish processing and fishmeal industries. Now dominantly male actors perform the roles that women played in the past (Lwenya, 2002). The decreased opportunities for local people, especially women, to participate in the fish industry mean they have less access to fish.

Arising from this, there has also been inequitable distribution of income from the fish trade, with local communities at a disadvantaged position compared to fish agents, factory owners and fillet distributors. As previously observed; the declining catches and increasing number of fishermen means that per capita incomes in the fishing communities are on the decline, compromising their ability to purchase alternative foods. Lastly, the unrestricted fish trade has contributed to food insecurity and reduced nutrition by taking out substantial quantities of fish to global markets, which would otherwise be available to local consumers. It is not possible to adequately compensate these people for the fish taken away. To most of these people, the lake is simply as a source of food (fish) since they do not directly benefit from fish exports.

According to Ikiara (1999), the failure to place a ceiling on the amount of fish exported per period is erroneous in that it denies Kenyans a cheap source of protein and increases pressure on the resource base. Similarly, the failure of government to rationalize the use of fish and fish products in the animal feeds industry also manifests a food policy that is focused in the wrong direction. The proteins produced using animal feeds, such as poultry, beef and pork are not as readily accessible to poor people as fish would be, had they been enabled to consume it directly.

With regard to the effects and benefits of global fish trade on the local population, three groups of people may be identified. First is the immediate community around the lake, which is either engaged in fishing, artisanal fish processing and trade or are dependents of fishermen and traders. Because of their location, they are able to get some tilapia, and ‘dagaa’ or Nile perch rejected by factory agents. The fishermen and their dependents may be happier with higher Nile perch prices, and will benefit due to increased trade. However, artisanal processors and trader are adversely affected when there is booming international trade. The second group consists of those living some distance from the lake in rural villages. They do not fish or engage in fish processing and trade, and have no direct dependents in the fishery; Their only benefit from the lake is the fish which the buy in their rural market. Sometimes they find tilapia in their market, but more frequently only dried and poor quality ‘dagaa’ is there. Whenever the international trade is booming, these people cannot get Nile perch. They only see the fish trucks passing by their village to and from the lake. This group has nothing to gain, but a lot to lose from international trade. Finally, the urban based consumers, for example, in Nairobi and Kisumu. They sometimes find ‘dagaa’ and tilapia in their markets, but prices are prohibitive. Commonly fish frames from factories are sold in their markets, but their quality is too poor. If they wanted to buy Nile perch fillets at a factory, they will not get it. This group has nothing to gain from Nile perch exports. Thus, most of the segments of the Kenyan population see no compelling justification for increased export of Nile perch from areas that have protein deficiency problems.


Fish has many advantages over other foods, being one of the richest sources of protein. Dried fish, such as 'dagaa', is also very rich in vitamin A. Mwaniki (1997) estimated that just 10g of dried ‘dagaa’ could provide sufficient levels of vitamin A needed by a growing child. Besides, in many developing countries, fish is cheaper relative to meat, poultry and dairy products. Fish adds flavour to diet; is rich in essential fatty acids and minerals and is easier to process and store, for example by sun-drying, compared to the alternative sources of animal protein. In spite of the benefits that may be obtained from fish, there is little, and very often inconsistent, information on fish consumption in Kenya. Some nutritional studies have been conducted in the lake region, but they tend to be confined to specific districts, localities or to particular communities, and rarely do they focus on fish. In spite of this, the contribution of fish to the economy and diets of lakeside communities is a subject that has attracted a lot of interest in recent years. For example, all major research projects implemented on Lake Victoria fisheries in the recent past had, as one of their objectives, to study some aspects of fish marketing and consumption.

One the most comprehensive studies on fish marketing and consumption around Lake Victoria was carried out by SEDAWOG [An acronym for Socio-economics Data Working Group], which was a unit of the Lake Victoria Fisheries Research Project. The report of SEDAWOG (1999a) showed that the largest proportion of fish consumers on the Kenyan side of the lake, constituting 46 percent, ate fish only 1-2 times a week. For 78 percent of the consumers, tilapia was the favorite fish to eat. However, the favorite fish species was not available all the time, in which case they readily switched to ‘dagaa’ or Nile perch, the latter either juvenile fish or that rejected by factory agents.

Another fish consumption study, conducted for the Lake Victoria Environment Management Program (LVEMP) on 48 fishing and non-fishing households living next to Lake Victoria, revealed that, in fact, most households ate ‘dagaa’ and tilapia more frequently than Nile perch (Abila et al, 1998). Nile perch would only be available if juvenile or factory rejects. There were more households consuming ‘dagaa’ during the dark moon phase, when much of it was landed and the price reduced. Similarly, a majority of households, 85 percent, indicated that they ate more fish during the rainy months of March, April and May. This was the time when more fish was landed and the roads to the beaches were in very bad state, hence, more fish remained at the fishing village. This suggests that there is potential to consume more fish within the country, which is not achieved because of limited quantities available in local markets.

The IUCN Socio-economics of the Lake Victoria Fishery Project also funded a smaller study on the consumption of fish in the lake region in 1997. This was a comparative survey implemented in three sites: Karungu, a small fishing village; Migori, a medium-size urban center; and Kisumu, the largest town in the lake region. A total of 258 households, fairly distributed in the three sites, were interviewed. As in the SEDAWOG results above, this study also found that most households, 61 percent, consumed fish just two times in a week. It also established that Nile perch was eaten much less than tilapia and ‘dagaa’. Nearly 47 percent of the households gave tilapia as the fish they consumed most, 32 percent mentioned ‘dagaa’ while only 22 percent gave Nile perch (juvenile and rejects).

According to various annual reports of the Fisheries Department, Kenya’s per capita fish consumption at independence stood at 2.2 kg. This is estimated to have risen to 3 kg in 1980 and then to 7.5 kg in 1999. However, Bokea and Ikiara (1999) explain that these figures may be inaccurate since they were calculated based only on the levels of fish supply, and completely ignored fish exports, imports and quantities used in fishmeal industry. A more accurate estimation was by Abila and Jansen (1997), who calculated the per capita fish consumption in Kenya at about 3.76 and 3.13 for 1995 and 1996 respectively. In their estimation, the authors took account of the levels of fish landings, exports and imports, quantity of fish used for fishmeal and changes in the population, hence, their estimation seems to be the most reliable. In spite of their inaccuracies, none of the results cited above achieves the desirable per capita consumption of 9.3 (Okemwa and Getabu, 1996). The situation is worsened by Kenya’s very high disparity in income distribution, which means that most of the fish is eaten by the high income groups while the poor may have very little, or none at all.

A Kenya Government (1996) official report indicated that Nyanza province, which is the base of the Lake Victoria fishery, consumed among the highest amount of cereals per household, but had one of the lowest levels of consumption of meat and other non-fish protein foods. As fish became less available in the region, the main nutrition problem facing lakeside communities was, therefore, likely to be protein rather than energy, deficiencies. In the absence of fish, a majority of fish consumers would most often substitute it with plain vegetables (SEDAWOG, 1999a). In their survey, Abila et al (1998) determined that most households living next to the lake ate a meal of vegetable (together with a corn-base food called ‘ugali’) about 21 times in a month. From a nutrition point of view, vegetable, if eaten in large quantity as the main meal, is not particularly very useful. It contains some minerals, but is a very poor source of energy, has very little proteins and few of the essential vitamins (King et al, 1972). This might explain the great paradox that protein malnutrition has been quite high in districts inhabited by the fisherfolk. According to Ikiara (1999), this is mainly because these communities eat very little of the fish they produce and, yet, they have no access to supplementary sources of proteins.

In the study conducted by SEDAWOG (1999a) most consumers gave low income as the reason why they could not eat fish more frequently. Ikiara (1999) explained that due to inequitable income distribution in the lake region, the level of malnutrition of both proteins and energy is much more severe among the lower income groups. The most vulnerable groups are the very poor, the near landless, children, pregnant and lactating mothers.

Even though there may be several differences in the results of fish consumption studies cited above, the following generalizations could be made. First, fish consumption is lower than would be expected in the lake region, with a majority of households eating it just about two times in a week. Secondly, tilapia and ‘dagaa’ are the most consumed species. While tilapia is the favourite fish, ‘dagaa’ has the advantage of divisibility and affordability. Third, consumption patterns tend to change within the month and during the year; and this seems to be affected by the level of fish supply, price of fish, availability and price of substitutes. Fish consumption was largely limited by low availability of fish. Fourth, it is apparent that the per capita fish consumption in the country is relatively low and is on the decline. Fifth, in the absence of fish, the local communities have little alternative protein substitutes, being a leading cause of protein malnutrition, consequently, food insecurity.


Food insecurity in the Lake Victoria is due to a number of factors. The severity of a particular cause varies from one household to another, depending on the nature of that family's involvement in the fishery, their level of dependence on fish, the state of their income and savings, their ability to shift to other income sources, among other factors. Below are some of the most important factors that affect the food security situation of Lake Victoria fishing communities. They include factors that limit availability of food (fish), such as processing and exporting fish, factors that reduce people’s access to fish and other foods, for example, poverty, and household factors (e.g. certain cultures) limiting access to food at household level. There are poor trade policies and fishery management failures, which have led to gear thefts and bad fishing methods. They limit the continued participation of fisher communities in fish production activities. These factors act singly or jointly to limit local communities’ access to fish and other useful foods, by either causing or contributing to a decline in the supply of these foods, or lowering local people’s ability to purchase them and/ or alternatives.

8.1 Nile Perch Processing and Exporting

The development of the fish processing and marketing industry is closely linked to the rapid growth of the Nile perch fishery in the last decade. A huge demand for Nile perch developed quickly in the industrialized countries during that period. In order to satisfy this market, processing factories were established along the shoreline of Lake Victoria. The first Nile perch processing plants in Kenya were set up in the early and mid 1980s to process Nile perch and export its fillets to markets overseas (Reynolds and Greboval, 1988). They proved to be so profitable that more factories soon were set up in all the three countries. Today there are about 30 factories operating around the lake in the three countries, 10 of them in Kenya.

The filleting factories around Lake Victoria are, therefore, competing to secure sufficient raw fish. Besides, the factories compete for fish with the traditional fish processors, traders and consumers. This competition is not easily realized as in many cases the local traders have been completely displaced from the trade. At any fish-landing site, only factory trucks are seen buying Nile perch. The women traders would be standing far off, perhaps buying juvenile Nile perch or that rejected by factory trucks. However, whenever there are problems with the export trade, such as a ban on fish exports, or when a factory truck fails to arrive, the number of women buying Nile perch quickly increases. Traditional smoking kilns are quickly re-constructed and the women processors-cum-traders are able to handle huge amounts of Nile perch at very short notice. Previously the factories only processed Nile perch of minimum weight 2-3 kg. Due to increased competition for the dwindling supply of Nile perch, they now accept lower weights - at times even less than one kg. At least 90 percent of good quality Nile perch above two kg that is landed in Kenya goes to factories for processing. Nearly all Nile perch available in the local markets are the juveniles or that rejected by factories due to poor quality.

The fish factories vary widely in sizes, with processing capacity ranging between 10 to 75 tonnes of whole Nile perch per day. According to Abila and Jansen (1997), the fish factories had the capacity to process up to 380 tonnes of whole fish per day, but processed only about 208 tonnes per day, indicating that only 55 percent of this capacity was actually utilized. A later report by SEDAWOG (1999a) estimated that only 49 percent of processing capacity by fish factories in Kenya was actually utilized.

In effect, fishing on Lake Victoria has been transformed from subsistence into a largely commercial activity. Rather than supplying local food needs, most of the catch is processed into export products or ingredients of animal feeds. This has deprived poor people of a ready access to their traditional source of proteins. Access to fish may be limited in three ways. First, the relatively high prices paid by processing factories make it unaffordable to local consumers. Secondly, the export market takes nearly all good- quality Nile perch, and still they cannot satisfy their demand. Local consumers can only get Nile perch that has been rejected by factories as undersize or poor quality. Third, concentration of fish harvesting resources in the hands of a few rich fishermen alienates majority of potential fishermen from their entitlement to the fish resources.

8.2 Nile Perch Frames Processing

In the earlier years of Nile perch processing, the remains of Nile perch after removing fillet, commonly known as frame (or Mgongo Wazi) was considered a waste, and factories incurred expenses to dispose of it. In less than a decade, this product became an important part of the diet of many people especially in Western Kenya. By the late 1980s, almost all Nile perch frames produced by factories was consumed by local people or discarded. The animal feeds manufacturing industry then depended either on imported fishmeal, fishmeal made from ‘dagaa’, or crushed animal bones and offal’s from the Kenya Meat Commission (KMC) slaughterhouses. However, the fishmeal industry soon started to use Nile perch frames in processing fishmeal. Their demand for frames has increased so much that they now compete directly with the local market processing it for human food. It has been estimated previously that up to 60 percent, of frames produced in Kenya go for fishmeal, leaving the rest for direct human consumption (Abila and Jansen, 1997). The fish processing factories have also adopted filleting techniques that remove more than half of flesh on the skeleton (frame). A common phrase by the artisanal frame processors is that these frames are "too naked". Consumers of such frames hardly get any edible flesh off the skeletons. It should be pointed out that even for a fairly filleted Nile perch; the edible flesh left on the skeleton is only 10-20 percent of the frame's weight. The rest is mainly bone, which are discarded by the eater. Increased filleting efficiency further reduces this little edible flesh.

Despite these practices, the demand for frames by local consumers, who are usually the poorest in the community, has continued to rise. New artisanal "factories", at which frames are fried in deep oil, have emerged in Kisumu, Migori and Homa-bay, the same areas where processing factories are located. The fried frames have got ready market in several parts of Kenya, especially in the western region. Kakamega, Busia, Kitale, Bungoma, Oyugis, Kisii, Awendo, Rongo, Kisumu, Migori and Homa-bay are some of the prominent markets for the product. Other traders obtaining frames from Kisumu have been able to sell it in farther inland markets such as Nakuru, Nairobi, Kiambu and even Taita-Taveta, which is more than 500 km away. As Nile perch catches decline, the quantity of frames available both for fishmeal processing and for local consumers have gone down. This would have been a sufficient disincentive to further investment in industrial processing of frames. In reality, though, the industry continues to expand. The most recent case is a new fishmeal plant at Nyangoma in Bondo District, which started operations in December 2000, and is now among the largest user of fish frames in Kenya.

In summary, the recent changes in the processing and marketing of Nile perch frames have three important negative implications to local food security. First, increased use of frames in the fishmeal industry means that most of it is now not available for direct human consumption. Secondly, the factories remove much more flesh off available frame, thus, reducing its value as food. Third, competition has caused a rise in ex-factory, and consequently, retail prices of frames. Described by Jansen (1996) as a "poor man's food", which many people would not consider to eat, the frame has increased in price so much that poor consumers often cannot afford it.

8.3 ‘Dagaa’ for Fishmeal

Previously ‘dagaa’ was mainly used for human consumption. It had been considered a "poor man's food" and has been a source of protein, especially to many low and medium income fish consumers in the country. However, a significant proportion of this fish now goes into making fishmeal. Based on the annual catches, the fishmeal industry in Kenya uses 50 - 65 percent of all ‘dagaa’ landed in the country. The animal feeds industry in Kenya started using ‘dagaa’ as the main source of crude protein in feeds in the early 1990s. In 1996 there were six major animal feeds manufacturing companies in Kenya that depended on ‘dagaa’. The interest on dagaa has continued to rise, and at least two new factories using ‘dagaa’ have been established since 1997. The interest shown by the fishmeal industry for ‘dagaa’ has important implications for the food security situation in the country. With most of the Nile perch going for export, ‘dagaa’ remained the "staple fish" to many households around Lake Victoria. For a long time, its price was low and many local people could afford to buy it. However, the price of dried ‘dagaa’ going for human consumption rose considerably from less than Ksh 20 ($ 0.3) in 1990 to about Ksh 60 ($ 0.8) per Kg in 1995. This has been attributed to increased pressure due to fishmeal factories buying this fish. The price has since fluctuated at Ksh 30-50 ($ 0.4 - 0.7) per kg, depending on the season (Abila and Jansen, 1997).

The ready availability of ‘dagaa’ continues to attract investors into fishmeal processing. The continued use of ‘dagaa’ for fishmeal will make it scarce and cause further price increases. Since most of its consumers are local people with low incomes, they are likely to be vulnerable to any competition, however slight, with fishmeal factories. Despite the use of ‘dagaa’ in fishmeal industry leading to increases in its price, it has continued to have a strong demand in many communities around Lake Victoria. A fish consumption survey conducted for the IUCN Socio-economics of the Lake Victoria Fishery Project revealed that 89-95 percent of rural households are ready consumers of ‘dagaa’. However 79 percent of these households already find it more difficult now to get or afford ‘dagaa’ than five years previously. As more ‘dagaa’ goes for fishmeal, it has become scarce in many areas, and its price has progressively risen, preventing many consumers from getting sufficient access to it. From the consumers' point of view, ‘dagaa’ has a distinct advantage. Being a sardine-like fish, people can easily buy small quantities of it without any difficulty. Many relatively poor consumers only buy ‘dagaa’ for only Ksh 10-20 ($ 0.1-0.3) at a time, and still the fish contributes an important source of animal protein in their diet. Where the use of fish frames for fishmeal may, to some extent be explained in that it is a by-product of fish processing which is consumed only as a last resort, the use of ‘dagaa’ for animal feeds cannot be sufficiently excused. Its high protein content and flesh composition is an advantage to the consumers, especially to children threatened with malnutrition. Yet, with increased industrialization of the fishery, these advantages of 'dagaa' will be lost to the local communities.

8.4 Constraints in Producing Other Foods in the Lake Region

Besides fishing, the main occupations of communities living around Lake Victoria are small-scale crop farming, livestock keeping, and trading farm produce. The main crops grown are maize, sorghum, cassava, sugarcane, cotton, beans, millet and rice paddy (Kenya Government, 1996). The first three above are the common staple food crops in the area. Cassava, a common crop in the drier parts of the lake region, is very poor nutritionally in terms of energy and protein content. Communities that depend on the crop are thus prone to malnutrition, unless there is sufficient supplementation with carbohydrate and protein foods. In comparison, maize and millet both have higher energy output. However, some parts of the lake region receive very little annual rainfall that cannot support growing of maize or millet. For example, in areas around Muhuru and Kadem in Migori District, maize can hardly grow, owing to the harsh weather. The ability of cassava to withstand prolonged drought makes it the dominant staple crop in those areas. Agricultural production in all lakeshore districts declined in the early and mid-1990s, making the region a net importer of most farm produce.

(Yongo, 1999) has given a more elaborate explanation of the conditions of the Lake Victoria region that seriously constraint its food production potentials. The poor climate of the lake hinterland is a major limitation to its agricultural potential. The soils are mainly black cotton soils that are difficult to work during the dry season and are waterlogged on the first rains, or sandy soils characterized by poor water retention capacity and underlying hard granite basement rocks. In most parts rainfall is bimodal but very unreliable, ranging from 900 mm to 1100 mm annually. Sleeping sickness (or trypanosomiasis in man and nagana in animals), transmitted by tse-tse fly, has been a recurrent problem in parts of the lake region, particularly in and around the Lambwe Valley, which affect both human and livestock development. The sleeping sickness problem remains unresolved, and there are frequent outbreaks, making most of these areas unsuitable for keeping cattle. Any farmer who continues to keep livestock must incur huge expenses in veterinary care. Despite this, a significant proportion of Kenyan fishers, 36 percent, still re-invested their money in buying livestock (SEDAWOG, 1999b).

Droughts and floods, the two climatic extremes, are persistent problems in parts of the region. Ojwang and Ogendo (1972) have noted that droughts or serious floods recur in the lake area after a period of 20 - 30 years. The best known floods are those of the Uhuru rains in 1963 and the most recent, the El-Nino rains. Another hazard has been invasion of the lake region by the desert locusts and army worms, which often appear following periods of serious drought. The effect of the harsh climate and ecological factors is that crop production and livestock keeping in the immediate lake hinterland have not been successfully pursued. Fishing has remained as the main source of livelihood to many local people, exerting much pressure on fishery resources. Declines in agricultural production do not seem to have been offset by earnings from other economic activities in the area. The decline in yields and income from agriculture around Lake Victoria has exposed local communities to increased levels of food insecurity.

8.5 Fishery Management Failures

There is little success in implementing most of the provisions of the Fisheries Act that address the issues of sustainability of the fishery. In particular, the regulations pertaining to restricting the use of under-sized mesh nets, banned fishing methods, catching juvenile fish and closed fishing areas are rarely enforced. According to Owino (1999), these outlawed activities have continued unabated, putting the fishery at risk of over exploitation, and raising concerns of long-term food insecurity for dependent communities.

Gear theft

Theft of fishing gear on Lake Victoria is an old problem that was there even in the early 1970s [for example, Jansen (1973) mentioned it in his report]. Such cases, though, were isolated and not in a scale that could have an impact on the overall fishing activities. In any case, the existing norms in the fishing community ensured that gear thieves received adequate sanction to deter them from repeating the crime. The increased demand for Nile perch in the 1980s and early 90s provided enough incentives for fishers to invest in very expensive gillnets and longlines. Almost simultaneously, there was a rise in cases of gear theft. The situation reached uncontrollable levels in the second half of the 1990s. Gear theft is now recognised by the fishing community as one of the most serious management problems in the Lake Victoria fishery (SEDAWOG, 1999a; 1999b; Abila, 2002). In recent times, there have been even more serious cases of violent robberies on the lake, where outboard engines have been stolen from fishermen at gunpoint. The Fisheries Department appears ill equipped to stop gear theft since they do not have the capacity to confront armed robbers on the lake. At the same time there is no Police unit specifically trained to combat theft or robbery on the lake.

The immediate consequence of gear theft is that many fishermen who have lost nets have become jobless. They cannot earn an income to support their families, making them food insecure. Some fishermen, though, have now turned to using beach seines and mosquito seines. Yongo (1999) has blamed the rapid increase of beach seines in Kenya on gear theft. Beach seine is a non-selective gear, with long-term disastrous effect on sustainability of the fishery. In a way, therefore, gear theft has both short and long-term negative effects on food security of fishery-dependent households.

Trawling and ’tembea’

The Fisheries Act (Revised in 1991) of the Laws of Kenya has banned trawling in the Nyanza Gulf and within five nautical miles from any point on the entire shoreline, which in reality is the entire Kenyan portion of Lake Victoria. Since Uganda and The United Republic of Tanzania already imposed complete ban on trawling in their waters, the whole of Lake Victoria should legally be free from trawling. In practice, however, trawling continued in Kenya until just a year ago. Mbuga et al (1998), Abila and Jansen (1997), Owino (1999) and Bokea and Ikiara (1999) all attested to the fact that trawling, which should have been very easy to stop considering the size and visibility of the vessels involved continued when they should have ceased. The practice seemed so profitable that, irrespective of the legal consequences, trawler owners, supported by factory agents, colluded with some government officers to make this aspect of the Fisheries Act ineffective. Trawling destroyed other fishing gear on the lake, and displaced local artisanal fishermen, hence, had a negative net effect on employment in the fishery. Being largely non-selective, it also had long-term negative consequences on sustainability of the fishery.

Tembea, a type of drift net fishing, has been regarded as a legal fishing method by the Department of Fisheries, yet it has caused havoc to a section of the traditional fishery. Tembea boats are normally in fleets, each outfit costing between Ksh. 300 000 and Ksh. 600 000 ($ 4,000 - 8,000). This puts the tembea technology out of reach of the typical fisherman. According to Jansen et al (1999), tembea fishing technique constitutes a revolution in the Lake Victoria fishery, with important socio-economic impacts. The most negative effect of 'tembea' is that they destroy gear of the traditional fishermen, especially gillnets and long-lines, set out on the lake. Thus, they have caused a number of local fishermen to get out of fish harvesting altogether. Secondly, tembea have greatly increased fishing effort to an extent that may not be sustainable. The initial tembea boats caught up to 1 200 Kg of fish daily (Jansen et al, 1999). This has gone down remarkably as a result of over-exploited fishing grounds, but a tembea boat may still get over five times the quantity of fish caught by a traditional boat of the same size. Tembea and trawling may be high yielding, but they can seriously impair the stability of the lake ecosystem and sustainability of the fishery, consequently, long-term food security.


One of the greatest threats to long-term food security for fishery-dependent communities is overfishing. As previously discussed, overfishing may arise in two ways. First, small mesh nets catch immature fish before they can grow, develop into adults and spawn. According to Abila and Jansen (1997), about one-third of Nile perch landed on different beaches of Lake Victoria were juvenile. Reflecting on this aspect, Owino (1999) found out that about 34 percent of fish landed in Dunga Beach in Kisumu District in March 1997 were juvenile. Thus, juvenile fishing is an important problem in the Kenyan part of Lake Victoria, raising questions about the sustainability of the fishery. It is estimated that the average age of the Nile perch currently caught is 2-3 years, which barely gives most fish time to reproduce before being caught. The average mesh size used in the lake also reduced from 12 inches in 1981 to 6 inches in 1996. Secondly, the use of certain non-selective fishing methods, such as trawling and beach seining, remove large quantities of fish or their food indiscriminately, thus interfering with food chain linkages. This disrupts the aquatic environment, making it less capable of supporting fish life (O'Riordan, 1997). In order to ensure sustainable fishing, there is need to develop a better regulation and enforcement framework for the lake. The regulations should control sizes of fish targeted, mesh size, breeding areas, beach seining, trawling, pollution and aquatic weeds. Most of these regulations are already provided for in the Kenya Fisheries Act. The problem lies with lack of enforcement of the Act.

8.6 Poverty Trap

Madeley (2002) indicated that poverty was the single most important cause of food insecurity globally. The Government of Kenya uses poverty benchmarks to distinguish the poor from non-poor. This is based on the minimum amount of food, and non-food expenditure needed to meet the basic needs of a household. In 1997, a household with a monthly total expenditure not exceeding Ksh 1,239 ($16.5) per person in a rural area or Ksh. 2,648 ($ 35.3) per person in an urban area was deemed to be below the poverty line. Based on these poverty lines, the overall prevalence of poverty in 1997 was 51 percent and 53 percent in rural and urban areas respectively (Kenya Government, 1997). That report used the term absolutely poor or ‘hardcore poor’, estimated at 15 million in 1997 in the country, to describe those who would not meet their minimum calorie requirement, even if they concentrated all their spending on food.

Kisumu town, the largest urban area on the Kenyan part of Lake Victoria, has been repeatedly rated as having the highest prevalence absolute poverty among urban centers in Kenya, with 63 percent of the population falling in that category in 1997 (Kenya Government, 1997). In the same year, the Lake Victoria provinces of Nyanza and Western had the highest percentages of rural poor populations in the country. Among the cited causes of poverty were low agricultural and livestock productivity and poor marketing, unemployment and low wages, insecurity, bad governance, poor land policies, high cost of social services, poor roads, HIV/AIDS, high cost of education and gender imbalance. Most of these problems are evidently a cause of poverty in the fisheries.

Poverty among the fishing households is also closely related to the health of the fishery. The households most dependent on the fishery are prone to be poorest and most food insecure, when the lake is overfished. Over half of Kenyan fishermen surveyed had their wives also engaged in a fishery-related activity, mostly fish processing and trading (SEDAWOG, 1999b; Hoekstra et al, 1991). Thus, an increasing number of households are getting dependent on the fishery as the basic source of family income, at a time when the fishery output is on the decline. The problem of poverty is further complicated by the high dependency ratio in the lake region. Reports of SEDAWOG (1999a; b) indicate that fishing and fish trading households and even the general fish-eating families in the lake region tend to have family sizes exceeding six members. Dependency situation has been aggravated by the AIDS pandemic, which has seriously affected the structure and stability of the family unit in the Lake region.

8.7 Cultural Bottlenecks

In Kenya many ethnic communities did not consume fish as recently as 1980, but fish has now become a delicacy in almost all parts of the country (Bokea and Ikiara, 1999). Certain socio-cultural factors of lakeside communities are partly responsible for low fish consumption. First, are the cultures that restrict purchasing power especially of women, through discrimination in seeking income-generating employment and ownership of productive units. Second are the eating practices that give undue advantages to men over children and women. Thirdly, some cultures (including religious obligations) discriminate against eating certain species, as in the case of Nile perch.


Food security almost invariably results in some degree of malnutrition, especially in affected children. If a community is exposed to critically inadequate supply of food for long period, a situation of famine may develop. There is also interest on how food insecure people relate to their environment. The most prominent view is that, in attempt to survive, communities that are food insecure will destroy their environment, thus aggravating their situation.

9.1 Malnutrition

Malnutrition is the resulting condition when the intake of proteins and energy foods, the latter measured in joules or calories, is critically inadequate for the needs, especially of a growing child. According to Young and Jaspers (1995), malnutrition results from an inadequate intake of energy and protein, as well as other nutrients. Perhaps the most important consequences of malnutrition are the diseases closely associated with deficiency in nutrient intake. Of these, kwashiorkor and marasmus, both which mainly affect children in the first two years of life, are most common, hence, economically important. They represent the extreme forms of protein energy malnutrition. Kwashiorkor often results when children are not getting a particular nutrient, mainly proteins, in their diet, even though they may be eating enough food. On the other hand, marasmus arises when a child is not getting enough food of any kind, as in a situation of starvation. Under-nutrition refers to reduced food intake in relation to recommended dietary levels. Nutritional status of young children is a sensitive indicator of health status and nourishment level of a population. Malnourished children are vulnerable to infectious diseases and grow slowly.

Malnutrition can be caused by a number of inter-related factors. The two immediate causes, which often occur together, are inadequate diet and infectious diseases. Young and Jaspers (1995) explain that the immediate causes stem from three groups of underlying causes. These are food security, basic health services and maternal and child-care. In practice, the three groups of underlying causes interact with one another. In the past, malnutrition was thought to be a protein deficiency problem that could be cured by intake of high protein foods. By the mid-seventies, the interaction between energy and protein was recognized, and energy intake became a focus in nutrition matters. This changed the dimensions of understanding nutrition, to include social and economic issues such as access to food, poverty and related issues. Thus, the main concern now is protein energy malnutrition, which in children, is commonly characterized by wasting or stunting. Wasting, or thinness, reflects recent rapid weight loss or failure to gain weight as a result of inadequate nutrition. Stunting, or shortness, reflects a height deficit that develops over a long period of time as a result of prolonged poor nutrition. King et al. (1972) explained that a young child requires eating about 250g of most common food combinations such as maize, cassava, millet and oils daily to meet the minimum energy requirement. Carbohydrate foods are generally cheap and, in fact, most families in the lake region eat a carbohydrate food in nearly all meals, be it porridge, 'ugali', bread or food cooked with oil. In comparison, protein foods are much more expensive, hence, less accessible to many households. On this basis, the protein-deficiency explanation for malnutrition in the lake area seems more plausible.

Child malnutrition is a problem in all districts around the lake region. Results of a survey carried out in 1994 show that, in most of the districts where fishing is a dominant economic activity such as Homa Bay, Migori, Kisumu, Siaya and Busia, children are moderately or severely stunted, indicating a high prevalence of child malnutrition (Kenya Government, 1996). A study by Whyte and Kariuki (1991) showed that marasmus and kwashiokor were serious problems in Kisumu, Siaya and Busia districts. They attributed the causes of malnutrition to both problems of feeding and poor maternal care. An earlier report by Chalken (1988) cited South Nyanza District as having the highest rate of child mortality in Kenya, as well as very high rates of malnutrition and malaria. The report gave the main cause of malnutrition in the district as the consumption of low calorific value foods that provide insufficient protein, vitamins and minerals. Parents in the district fed children mainly on porridge made from cereal grains. Their incomes were often too low to afford a range of protein foods, including fish. The report recommended, among other things, that feeding children on the relatively cheap ‘dagaaporridge was one way of lessening child malnutrition. Friis et al. (1997) also reported on vitamin A deficiency in children in Siaya District, which they attributed to inadequate dietary intake of the vitamin and low absorption and utilization of Vitamin A due to infectious diseases. In 1987, about 23 percent of children in Kisumu District were stunted, compared to 20 percent nationally (Mogaka, 1999). From the above studies it is apparent that malnutrition of children around Lake Victoria is the result of a number of factors, including poor maternal care and food insecurity.

9.2 Famine

Famine is the resulting situation when there is prolonged critically inadequate supply of food to a section of the population. Sen (1981) showed that famine and starvation are not solely related to overall food supplies, but are the result of a decline in people’s access to food, or as he termed it, a decrease in their ‘exchange entitlements’. The exchange entitlements are attained mainly through trade, own production, own labor or asset transfer. Employment opportunities, wage rates, market prices and cost of essential purchases, food included, all have an effect on exchange entitlements. When these exchange entitlements fail to meet the minimum food needs then famine or starvation results. A reduction in exchange entitlements may be equated to food insecurity.

9.3 Environmental Consequences

Cleaver and Schreiber (1994) explain that a critical link exists between food security and the environment, which may be destabilised by slow growth in agricultural and food production, rapid population growth and increasing environmental degradation. According to Thrupp and Megateli (1998) there is an intricate linkage between food security, environmental security and social security. These three parameters are equally vital for livelihood and sustainable socio-economic development. Environmental degradation, food insecurity and socio-economic decline are, thus, interrelated in a vicious cycle. Reardon and Shaikh (1995) explain that overexploitation, pollution and depletion of resources undermine productive capacities, leading to declining yields in agriculture and fisheries, and to high socio-economic costs. Such conditions, in turn, contribute to food insecurity. In reverse, food insecurity often causes poor people to overexploit and degrade resources in attempt to survive. The stress from a rapidly growing population on the available land and natural resource base has been tremendous in many areas around Lake Victoria. In the past, traditional cropping and livestock production methods and cultural practices were well suited to the needs of a slowly growing lakeside population living off a fragile environmental resource base. However, the situation has changed rapidly in line with a declining per capita arable land. Farmers and rural inhabitants are increasingly being forced to adopt practices that are ecologically disastrous, such as cultivating in forested areas or on erosion-prone slopes.

As expected, fishermen of Lake Victoria have responded to a declining fishery by changing their fishing gear. The change has mainly been induced by high theft of passive gears when left overnight in the lake, causing fishermen to shift to active gears, such as beach seines, which they are able to monitor all the time. Beach seines have intensified fishing, particularly around river mouths. Yongo (1999) reported on the intensity of beach seining at the Nzoia river delta and in parts of Suba District, where it is actively carried out in a continuous basis throughout the day and night. Most of the beach seines had a codend measuring far below what the Fisheries Act specifies. The beach seines, therefore, harvest a lot of juvenile Nile perch and tilapia. Many of the traditional fishing grounds are already over-exploited, and expansion of fish production has very limited scope. Yet, according to SEDAWOG (1999b), a sizeable number of fishermen still re-invest their money and capital in the fishery. Many households are also becoming more dependent on the fishery as the only source of income. In the long run this has negative consequences on food security situation for the fishing communities.


The problem of food insecurity is multi-dimensional, arising from a number of causes that put constraints to food availability or limits local people’s access to it. Fish is central to the food insecurity problem for lakeside communities. As a rich protein food, it offers a solution to the protein-deficiency conditions affecting children in the lake area. It is also a potential income source for those engaged in fish production, processing and marketing. Despite these advantages, fish is lowly regarded in the national food policies. The fisheries policy objectives see the role of fish in improving local food security, but the desperation of the country to earn foreign exchange has superseded the interest for domestic food security. Factors constraining food security are related to transformation of the fishery into an industrial and commercial venture, fishery management problems, low agricultural productivity and socio-cultural impediments. Thus, the development of the Lake Victoria fishery clearly has contributed to the food insecurity problem. The current trends in the fish industry do not promote the important objectives set by the Government of Kenya for development of her fishery, in particular in relation to food security. Because of the large investment already made in industrial fish processing, it would be in order to allow some amount of exports to continue. However, the quantities of exportable fish must be limited to ensure sustainable fisheries and reconciliation with the food security needs.

10.1 Recommendations

A number of recommendations may be made from this study to improve the food security situation in relation to development of the Lake Victoria fisheries;

Policy interventions

Fishery management interventions

Explore opportunities to raise fish supplies

Refocus fish marketing strategies and practice


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Appendix: Fish factories in Kenya

Nile perch factories

1. The East African Sea Foods Ltd
2. Kendag Ltd
3. Prinsal Ltd
4. Food Processors 2000 K Ltd
5. Samaki Industries (2000) Ltd
6. Peche Foods Ltd
7. Afromeat Ltd
8. W.E. Tilley Ltd
9. Capital Fish Ltd
10. Plantex Ltd.

Marine based factories

11. Alpha Serengeti
12. Alpha Manyana
13. Alpha Amboseli
14. Wananchi Marine Products Ltd,
15. Trans Africa Fisheries Ltd,
16. Seaharvest Ltd
17. Basta and Sons Ltd.

Article in Daily Nation Tuesday December 26, 2000

‘Rich Fisheries, Poor Fisherfolk’! This is how a Nowergian researcher, Eirik G. Jansen, once described the turbulent Lake Victoria fisheries. He said in a detailed report that while fishermen toiled on the lake to feed the many fish processors and exporters, they themselves wallowed in abject poverty. They handle hundreds of tonnes of fish per day but only earned peanuts in return. Dr. Jansen, who spent nearly two years researching on the Lake Victoria fisheries for the World Conservation Union (IUCN), submitted that the growing fish export industry had indeed become a threat to employment and food security in the region'.

Dr Jansen wrote, "Although it has been difficult to present conclusive evidence about the effects of the export-oriented fishing industry, there are sufficient indications that large population groups that have depended on the traditional fisheries in the past, are losing out".

The scenario painted by the researcher three years ago returned to haunt the fishing industry last month,when the Nairobi - based Kenya fish processors and Exporters Association (AFIPEK), came under scathing attack for exploiting the Lake Victoria fisher folk. The Kenya Association of manufacturers’ immediate former chairman, Mr Chris Kirubi said AFIPEK was to blame for problems facing fishermen. He argued that the association, comprising rich fish processors and exporters, had refused to treat fishermen as partners.

Speaking during the launch of a new code for the industry - ‘the good manufacturing practice’ - at a Nairobi hotel, Mr. Kirubi criticized the fish processors and exporters association of compounding the problems in the industry by failing to invite fishermen to attend the launch. He wondered why no single fisherman was invited to the Nairobi meeting, where crucial fisheries issues were discussed.

He further told the meeting: "This explains why fish exporters are viewed as exploiters, with the fishing industry generating a lot of suspicions among a majority of Kenyans due to the poor living conditions of the fishermen".

Mr. Kirubi suggested that the processors and exporters should pay a bonus to fishermen at the end of every year, as was the case in the tea and coffee industries. He said key industry stakeholders should play a more proactive role by providing the fishermen with better fishing gear and better pay, adding that such incentives would make them desist from harmful fishing methods such as the use of chemicals.

Mr. Kirubi's hard-hitting statement angered the Kenya Fish Processors and Exporters Association (KFPEA), who claimed the accusations were unfounded. The KFPEA Secretary General, Mr. James Kimonye, reacted angrily, saying his association did not discriminate against the fishermen, and that they earned a bigger share in the industry.

Mr. Kimonye said fishermen earned 64 per cent of the proceeds and that it was the processors who spend a lot of money processing and packaging. "After the whole process, we only make half a dollar (Ksh 38) per kilo as profit".

However, while the KEPEA official was dismissing Mr. Kirubi's utterances, fishermen around Lake Victoria were thanking Mr. Kirubi for his forthrightness. They say he spoke for the entire fishing fraternity. "Mr. Kirubi hit the nail on the head. He spoke as if he has been living among the poor fishermen. I totally agree with him because the fish processors and exporters association treat us as if we are not human", a fisherman and beach leader of Sango Rota, Mr. John Nyakure, said.

Mr. Nyakure said “ They are only out to get as much fish from us as they can at throw-away prices and turn them into fat dollars in overseas markets. They are like the big fish that feed on smaller ones”.

The row comes following the lifting of a two-year ban on Kenyan fish exports to the European Union”.

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