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Assessment of the Kenya part of Lake Victoria covered landing sites around the Nyanza Gulf and along the outer shores. These included three in Kisumu District, two in Siaya District, and one in South Nyanza District. Visits were also made to several local markets in Siaya and Kisumu Districts, and to the main municipal markets in Kisumu Town (map, Fig. 1.1).

Further information was gathered through contacts with Kisumu business-people and government officers in the Fisheries Department, the Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute (KMFRI), and the Lake Basin Development Authority (LBDA). Statistical and other archival material was obtained from Fisheries offices in Kisumu and Nairobi, and the documentation centres of KMFRI and LBDA.


The Kenya share of Lake Victoria is the smallest of the three riparian states, covering only some 4100 km2 (about 6%) of the total surface (Welcomme, 1972). Despite this limited area, levels of fishing intensity over the years are thought to be much higher for the Kenya waters than for those of Uganda or Tanzania (Kongere 1979; Ssentongo and Welcomme 1985).

Statistical information on the Kenya Lake Victoria fisheries is incomplete, and those figures which are available may not be very accurate due to deficiencies in data collection and analysis (CIFA, 1988a; Bernacsek 1986; Coche and Balarin 1982). They may nevertheless provide general indications of magnitudes and trends for various aspects of the fisheries over time, and are reviewed here accordingly.

2.2.1 Production Rates and Species Composition

Official production figures show that Lake Victoria constitutes by far the most important source of fish in Kenya (cf. Kongere 1979). For the years 1974–1986 (Table 2.1), the mean contribution of the Lake to total national production (marine and freshwater) amounted to over 70%. During the same period, the Lake fisheries provided the nation with some 77% of total freshwater fish production.

As elsewhere on the Lake, the Kenya waters support a multispecies and multigear fishery exploited mainly by small-scale operators. Genera of primary importance in the past (pre-1970s) included haplochromine and tilapiine cichlids; Bagrus, Clarias, Protopterus, and Labeo were common; and Barbus, Schilbe, Synodontis, and Alestes occurred in some numbers as well. Rastrineobola argentea (=Engraulicypris argentea) represented a fishery of minor importance until recently and Lates, of course, did not figure at all in the earlier catches (Kongere 1979).

A survey conducted in the early 1970s showed that heavy pressure on immature fish, associated with the use of small mesh gillnets and beach seines, was causing extensive damage to most of the established fish species stocks. In particular, it was remarked that O. esculentus had nearly disappeared and that reductions in maximum length were noticeable amongst O. variabilis, Clarias, Synodontis, Protopterus, and Haplochromis. Labeo, Schilbe, and Barbus were found to be uncommon, and it was suggested that their stocks “…cannot be expected to recover as long as large numbers of Haplochromis gillnets and river traps remain in use” (Wanjala and Marten 1974:84). There was also the suggestion that intense fishing pressure was leading to the disappearance of some of the haplochromines:

Maximum length has declined to 12 cm in some areas of the Gulf. The commercial catch is as much as 35% immature in the South Nyanza region of the Gulf, including large numbers of fish down to 6 cm in length. It is likely that some of the larger species of Haplochromis have been virtually eliminated by overfishing in recent years, though we have no information on this because individual species of Haplochromis were not recorded separately [ibid.].

It should be emphasised that constantly increasing fishing effort within Nyanza Gulf and its adverse effects especially on tilapia stocks have occasioned a great deal of anxiety amongst observers for many decades (Beauchamp 1955; Ogutu-Ohwayo 1988). Information drawn from an EAFFRO report (Whiting 1969) and shown in Table 2.2 traces the decline of catches per net in the Gulf from 30 in the early 1920s to 0.35 in 1968, well before the full impact of the Lates incursion began to be felt.

Nile perch (known as mbuta locally) began to be reported in the catches from Kenya waters in 1969, but remained a neglible component for several years thereafter. The statistical record (Table 2.3) indicates that it made up less than 1% of the 1974 catch tonnage; but a decade later, in 1985, it comprised well over half the total tonnage. The fishery for R. argentea has undergone quite a remarkable though less dramatic development as well. In the late 1960s these fish accounted for only 3 or 4% of the total catch (Kongere 1979), whereas by 1985 they made up nearly 30%.

Taken together, the tremendous upsurge in Nile perch landings and the substantial growth in R. argentea catches recorded in the official statistics suggest an astounding five-fold increase in production for the Kenya part of Lake Victoria over the past decade or so. The strong possibility must be acknowledged that these figures represent considerable overestimates of the situation, as has been suggested elsewhere (CIFA, 1988a). In simple biological terms, it is highly doubtful that annual yields from the very limited surface area of Kenya waters can be quite so prodigious. It is not known to what extent the figures include fish supplies transferred informally into Kenya's markets from Uganda and Tanzania sources. Such supplies are thought to have increased markedly in recent years (CIFA, 1988a).

The latest catch returns for 1986 and 1987 show that total tonnages from the Kenya portion of the Lake have risen to well over 100,000 tons. For 1986 a total of 102,250 t. was reported, of which Nile perch represented 64,959 t., R. argentea or dagaa 31,107 t., and tilapia 4345 t. In 1987, out of a reported total catch of 125,629 t., Nile perch represented 86,833 t., dagaa 30,804 t., and tilapia 3461 t.

The records also indicate that other significant developments have occurred since the 1970s. Haplochromis landings remained fairly high through the 1970s, but went into a sharp decline in the 1980s. From a peak of almost 28% of the total catch in 1978, they hardly registered at all in the 1985 enumerations. Catches of most other species have shown serious to drastic declines in the last few years except, interestingly, amongst the tilapiines. In 1985, tonnage for these fish was at its highest for a decade; O. niloticus in particular exhibits a strong increase over this period.

2.2.2 Fishing Effort and Fisherfolk

Fishing and its satellite activities are carried out on both a full- and part-time basis in the lakeside communities, often as an additional enterprise to farming (Butcher and Colaris 1975; Chiofalo 1986; Comte 1982; Dykstra and van der Giessen 1980; Jansen 1973; Kongere 1979). Sources indicate that there has been a rapid increase in fishermen and fisheries-dependent households over the last few decades, but there seems to be some disagreement in terms of the actual numbers involved.

In 1973 the sociology team of the Lake Victoria Fisheries Research Project (EAFFRO/FAO) reported survey results showing that the Kenya part of the Lake had some 4,100 canoes and about 10,700 fishermen belonging to households estimated to contain 80,000 individuals (i.e. about 7.5 individuals per fisherman; Jansen 1973). Wanjala and Marten (1974) reported similar figures for fishing boat totals around this time, saying that there were about 2000 boats operating inside Nyanza Gulf and about 2000 operating outside. They also noted that: “The fishing inside the Gulf is more intense because the area inside the Gulf is less than half the area accessible to fishing canoes outside the Gulf”.

In 1979, Fisheries Department sources estimated that there were about 4,600 canoes and some 18,000 fisherfolk supporting households totalling about 120,000 individuals (i.e. about 7 individuals per fisherman; Kongere 1979). For 1982 and 1983, the same sources said that there were about 20,000 operators and approximately 5,000 canoes (DFK 1982, 1983). By 1985, the figures had risen to 21,500 operators and 5,500 canoes; but in 1986 there was a decline to 21,000 operators and 5,000 canoes (DFK 1985, 1986).

Other sources cite different figures for recent years. Ssentongo and Welcomme (1985) reported that there were about 25,000 fishing operators in Kenya waters, and that there were 5 canoes/km of shoreline (760 km in total), amounting to some 3,800 canoes in all. Even higher numbers were reported from the Nordic survey of fishing cooperatives conducted in 1981: some 31,000 fishermen operating more than 8,500 craft (Hansen 1981; cf. Coche and Balarin 1982).

Thus, available information provides a somewhat uncertain picture of fishing effort and fisherfolk for the Kenya part of the Lake. Fishermen may number from around 21,000 up to around 31,000; they may support households totalling (at a roughly assumed rate of 7 individuals per fisherman) as few as some 147,000 individuals to as many as some 217,000; and they may be operating anywhere from about 4,000 to about 8,500 canoes.

Fishing operators are legally required to belong to local cooperatives, and all boats are supposed to be registered each year with the Fisheries Department. But coop membership is not universal (Bernacsek 1986; Hansen 1981; Coche and Balarin 1982) and boat registration is often neglected (Bernacsek 1986). Also, it is known that boat registration records are not accurately maintained (Coche and Balarin 1982). Therefore, any estimates of the fishing population and canoe fleet size based on the nominal figures of coop membership and boat registration are probably not very realistic. Figures based on actual field surveys presumably give more trustworthy portrayals of the situation.

Those who rely on the Lake fisheries for all or part of their livelihood include not only the owners and operators of boats and gear, but canoe builders, gear suppliers and repairers, fishmongers, transporters, and operators of other satellite services such as hotels and small shops (Kongere 1979). If these latter are taken into account along with members of the households they support, the total population of fisheries-dependent people on the Kenya shores could easily lie in the range of three to four hundred thousand, and perhaps more. In view of the lack of reliable data, however, it is difficult to fully assess the overall socio-economic importance of the Kenya Lake Victoria fisheries.

2.2.3 Gear and Equipment

Fishing operators in the Kenya waters have always used an assortment of gear to secure their catches (for details see Graham 1929; Kongere 1979; Mann 1970). Gear choice varies according to the particular species being sought and the investment capabilities of individual operators. Over the long run, it also depends on changing technologies (e.g. the switch to gillnets of synthetic fibre during the 1950s) and fish stocks (e.g. the decline of certain potamodromous fish and the proliferation of Nile perch).

In his report on the results of a survey conducted during 1981 and 1982, Mainga (1985) notes that gillnetting was the predominant method employed by artisanal operators at nine sample landing sites scattered around the Kenya shoreline. Gillnets accounted for some 72% by weight of all landings, followed by “mosquito” seining (ca. 17%), beach seining (ca. 7%), longlining (ca. 4%), and trapping (<1%) (cf. Wanjala and Marten 1974).

Kenya Department of Fisheries enumerators collect data on catch by weight and species per individual canoe at the twelve sampling beaches where regular monitoring takes place, but no information is collected on the types of gear employed (Bernacsek 1986). Exact figures on gear types and trends over time are therefore not known. It is clear though that the use of larger meshed gillnets (6–14 in., stretched mesh) has increased substantially as artisanal operators have aimed more and more at Nile perch (Arunga 1981; Mainga 1985; Ssentongo and Welcomme 1985). This trend may now have peaked, however. Officials at the local fishnet manufacturing company in Kisumu report that smaller mesh sizes are again coming into greater use and that longlining is on the increase. If this is the case, it may be a signal that further over-exploitation of Kenya waters is developing (CIFA, 1988a).

In comparing his survey results to similar data collected in 1974 (reported in Rinne 1975), Mainga (1985) concludes that the use of gillnets shows a three-fold increase, the use of traps a four-fold increase, and the use of longlines a slight increase. At the same time, he records substantial declines in the use of beach seines and mosquito seines. These findings may be questioned. The catch of R. argentea from Kenya waters of the Lake has shown a strong upward trend for some time, and they are caught principally through seining operations. Beach and mosquito seines are thought by other observers to be on the increase (Marten 1979; Ssentongo and Welcomme 1985).

As elsewhere on the Lake, fishing craft in the Kenya sector are mainly propelled by sails and paddles. Usual crew size is three to five individuals. Mechanised canoes (equipped with outboard engines) make up only a very small proportion of the fleet (Hansen 1981; Jansen 1973; Kongere 1979; Mainga 1981). In 1979 a figure of about 100 canoes fitted with engines was quoted by Kongere; this amounted to a mere 2% of the then estimated total number of canoes. Most of the outboard-powered craft were thought to be used for the transport of passengers and the collection of catches from different landing sites.

While a few modern trawlers have reportedly operated from time to time in the Kenya waters, up until the 1980s fishing at the industrial scale has been minimal, particularly in comparison with the Tanzanian sector (Kongere 1979).

2.2.4 Prices, Marketing and Value

Fish prices have shown a steady rise in the Kenya national market for many years. Between 1971–1981, prices more than doubled for both wholesaler (ex-vessel) and consumer. In 1971 overall fish prices averaged Kshs. 1.09/kg wholesale and 2.75/kg retail; by 1980, the averages were 2.27/kg and 6.57/kg respectively (Coche and Balarin 1982). In 1985, average prices had reached 2.94/kg wholesale and 10.59/kg retail (DFK 1985). These rises may to a large extent reflect inflationary factors. The average annual rate of inflation during the 1970–81 period in Kenya was just over 10% (World Bank 1983).

The recent evolution of wholesale fish prices for the Kenya sector of Lake Victoria is depicted in Table 2.4. In 1976 the overall average price amounted to Kshs. 1.28/kg; by 1986 this had risen to 4.11/kg - a more than three-fold increase. According to figures available, the wholesale prices for the principal commercial species have shown moderate to high growth:

Data on retail prices of fish by species and year could not be found in the DFK records examined, but it is reported that they generally run from three to five times higher than ex-vessel prices (Coche and Balarin 1982). Smoked fish command substantially higher prices than fresh fish (Bernacsek 1986), and are commonly marketed away from lakeshore communities, in places where fresh fish are more scarce (Coche and Balarin 1982).

The processing and marketing of fish in the Kenya Lake Basin is primarily the domain of women (Prazmowski 1987; Kongere 1979). The local marketing channels are complex and extensive. Fish may change hands several times and travel great distances to reach inland selling points. They may be sold individually or in bulk, by piece or as whole fish, and in a fresh, dried, or smoked state. During the late 1970s, commercial interest developed in Nairobi and elsewhere for Nile perch fillets, and a few outside trading concerns began to collect fresh fish directly from lakeside points.

All in all, despite the disruptions to established fisheries in the Kenya sector of the Lake in recent times, heightened production appears to have brought unprecedented levels of financial return to fishing operators. The reported growth in the value of the fisheries, fueled largely by the prodigious catches of Nile perch, is shown in Table 2.5. In 1976, a total value of some Kshs. 24,050,000 was estimated by the Department of Fisheries Statistics Division. By 1986 the estimate had reached the level of Kshs. 237,333,000, of which Nile perch contributed Kshs. 114,648,000 or about 48%, O. niloticus Kshs. 59,036,000 or about 25%, and R. argentea Kshs. 47,746,000 or about 20%.


Even though the visits made during the mission to local landing sites and markets were of necessity rather brief and rapid, they sufficed to show that the Nile perch boom has indeed produced profound effects upon the Kenya Lake Victoria fisheries and lakeside communities. Clearly the abundance of Lates is proving to be of great benefit to many local fishermen and traders in terms of immediate economic gains. There is a ready market for the fish and a tremendous amount of activity attends its harvesting, processing, distribution, and sale. At the same time, it is apparent that some of the problems which have been associated with Nile perch are quite genuine and serious.

2.3.1 Fishing Operations, Gear, and Investment

Landing sites visited during the mission included three within the Nyanza Gulf (Kaloka, Kusa, and Sangorota) and three located along the outer shoreline (Uhanya, Usenge, and Luanda Konyango). In all sites Nile perch constitute the major species in terms of catch levels and financial return, though it appears that catches from the outer waters and western Gulf are far more substantial than those from the inner (eastern) Gulf (map, Fig.1.1.).

Virtually all of the operators interviewed reported that they were targetting mainly for Lates. Still, a flexible and opportunistic approach to fishing is apparent. If one has the resources, other species may be fished in simultaneous or successive operations. For example, one or more fishing units can be outfitted to fish for Nile perch most of the time because it is most available and has a good market; some larger tilapia may be captured as a by-catch with such gear; but an extra canoe can also be designated especially for tilapia on a permanent or occasional basis, or dagaa might become an objective during particular periods. The use of different gear sets by particular fishing enterprises may be more common in Kenya than Uganda or Tanzania because of the generally greater availability of productive equipment at affordable price. Closed season restrictions on certain fisheries (beach and dagaa seining) also encourages operators to maintain an array of gear, since they can thereby switch target species without curtailing their activities.

The site visits verified that a variety of fish other than Nile perch are still being landed in Kenya waters, as the official records suggest. These other fish are landed either as by-catches or specific target species. Substantial numbers of O. niloticus were seen, especially at Uhanya. Haplochromis, Barbus, Schilbe, Labeo, Synodontis, Protopterus, and Clarias were being caught in small quantities at various sites. R. argentea were not being fished at the time of the site visits because the moon was in the wrong phase (they are mainly fished during moonless nights). But it was obvious from the loads of dried dagaa being sold in Kisumu and other markets that local operators are supplying large amounts of the fish.

Gillnetting is employed at all of the sites visited and is the predominant mode of fishing for those operating in the outer waters. Mesh sizes of 8 to 12 inches (stretched mesh) are commonly used for Nile perch, and sizes of 4 to 7 inches are favoured for tilapia. The reported number of nets carried by fishing teams varies widely, from only a few to more than 50, with a usual length (stretched) of 90 metres. Nets are readily available from commercial outlets in Kisumu and larger settlements around the Lake. They are manufactured locally by Kenya Fishnet Industries in Kisumu. Net costs of course vary according to mesh size and ply, but most operators interviewed reported that they had to pay around Kshs. 700–750/- each for their nets and associated gear (floats, twine, etc.).

Longlines are also used extensively for Nile perch, and appear to be more commonly employed in the inner waters of the Gulf, where catch levels seem to have declined markedly in the last few years. Lines are prepared in 100 hook sets, and baited with live Haplochromis or other small fish, often purchased from local children who catch them by angling along the shore. One canoe can operate many longlines, depending on the amount of bait available. Each line costs about KShs. 150/- to prepare.

Beach seines and mosquito seines are found in nearly all sites. The use of these gears is subject to a closed season lasting from 1st April to 31st July, although there are indications that this restriction is often not observed in some areas. Mosquito seines are widely employed to capture R. argentea at night with the aid of kerosene lanterns. Beach seines are highly non-selective and are used to catch fish of all types and sizes. Although no seining operations were actually witnessed in the course of the mission, huge catches of juvenile Lates caught by a beach seine were seen spread out over the ground to dry in the sun at Usenge. The cost of a beach seine depends upon its length, ply, and mesh size; informants cited figures of Kshs. 30,000/- and upwards. Mosquito seines and associated gear were said to cost around Kshs. 30,000/-, but again prices vary according to the length and quality of netting material.

Fishing enterprises vary substantially in the scale of their operations and investment levels, and returns to labour and capital seem dramatically different depending on the fishing grounds and access to buyers. Illustrative cost-earnings projections for Nile perch gillnetting units using input-output assumptions derived from discussions with local operators indicate that potential rates of return are substantial, particularly for non-motorised units (Tables 2.6 and 2.7; cf. Whiting 1969 for earlier example costings of tilapia gillnetting units). Nevertheless, “typical” cases are difficult to portray in the absence of comprehensive data of the sort that a longer-term survey could provide.

At one end of the scale are the thousands of lakeshore dwellers who practice fishing in a fairly modest way, drawing mainly on their own and their families' labour. For some it is an activity, secondary to farming or other occupations, which offers an occasional supplement to the household diet and income. For others it is a more or less full-time activity. In either case, gear and equipment provision is rather minimal. A family might operate a canoe and a small set of nets or longlines, owned by themselves or rented, borrowed, or shared through some other arrangement with kin or friends.

Case Example Kl: Longlining at Sangorota Beach

An example of such a modest-level operation is provided by the fishing unit of Pius       at Sangorota Beach in the Nyanza Gulf. Pius and his two brothers go out fishing in their father's old canoe, running a string of 15 longlines with which they mostly catch Nile perch. They favour longlines over gillnets because of the high costs of buying and maintaining the latter. The brothers are fortunate in having the use of their father's canoe. Were they to buy one on their own, they could expect to pay between Kshs. 10,000/- to 15,000/-. Since they only have to supply themselves with gear, their investment is minimal, amounting to about 2000/-. Pius and his brothers go out fishing nearly every day, resting on Sundays. Sometimes they are joined by one or two friends who help out with the expectation of sharing part of the catch, and who may also bring along their own lines to set. Lines are checked and reset every morning. The team then returns to the beach to sell their catch to local fishmongers waiting near the weighing shed. The Sangorota Fishermen's Co-operative Society deducts 10% of the value of fish sold and this money is used to cover co-op operations and to deposit in the society's bank account for later use as a loan or equipment purchase fund. Pius and his brothers rely on fishing as the main source of their income, but find that the returns are unreliable. On a good day their canoe can land with several hundred shillings worth of fish; on a bad day they can come back with very few fish and end up with hardly any money at all. Pius finds it difficult to estimate his overall level of income from fishing because of such fluctuations. If catch levels are generally good over a prolonged period he reckons that he and his brothers can each earn roughly 1000/- shillings per month. But earnings at such a level may not be sustained throughout an entire year, and the brothers and their families also rely on farming to meet their needs. For Pius, fishing is a way of “getting by” but not really “getting ahead.” He tends his lines and manages a living, but is anxious to find a better-paying and more secure job elsewhere.

At the other end of the scale are those individuals who run fishing enterprises which involve large investments in canoes and gears, and require the services of many employees. Such people are relatively wealthy by local standards, and rarely take part in actual fishing operations themselves. Instead, they may manage operations from a particular landing site, standing by to oversee sales when their canoes and crews arrive with their catches; or, as absentee owners with jobs or businesses elsewhere, they may delegate management tasks to a trusted relative or friend. The workers hired in such operations are paid either on a salary basis, by share-of-the-catch (10–20%), or through a combination of salary and share.

Case Example K2: Gillnetting at Uhanya Beach

John       of Uhanya Beach is an example of a larger-scale fishing operator. He owns a total of eight canoes, two of which are equipped with outboard engines. A fleet of several hundred nets are distributed amongst these craft. Altogether, John's gear and equipment represent an investment of several hundred thousand shillings. Each canoe is manned by a crew of four or five young men who work for John on a 10% per day share-of-the catch basis. Each canoe is also provided with food worth KShs. 25/- per day. John's operations are principally for Nile perch, although he keeps one smaller canoe specifically for dagaa fishing at night when conditions (phase of moon and weather) are right. For Nile perch fishing, the crews depart from Uhanya early each morning to pull the catch from their nets. Nets are usually left out in the fishing grounds overnight. Sometimes, particularly when gear thefts have been a problem, the crew may stay with the nets throughout the night. Despite his complaints about the high cost of maintaining his operation (net replacements due to loss, damage, or theft, engine running and service costs, etc.), it is apparent that John does extremely well. On a very good day his outboard canoes, which carry more nets, are able to fish further away, and are also able to collect catches from other boats, may return with over a ton of fish each. There is a ready market for the catches since a trading concern based in Kisumu sends a refrigerated van to the beach every day. Whole fish are bought for Kshs. 2.50/kg. Nile perch are checked for freshness, weighed, and placed on ice carried in the van. Local women fish processors and traders provide a good additional market for daily catches. Like other operators, John points out that it is hard to judge with any precision the income he derives on a monthly basis. Catches vary from day to day, and there are times when the fishing is slow for many days on end. Nevertheless, based on his comments, it can be estimated that his gross returns are in the range of KShs. 10–15,000 per month from Nile perch alone.

2.3.2. Perceptions of Fishing Operators

Local fishermen interviewed at the various landing sites agreed that when Nile perch first appeared, and for some years thereafter, it was quite unpopular. Nobody had much use for the fish, for reasons which have been reported widely in earlier accounts: it was too large for existing gear and it destroyed nets; it was thought to be eating the other fish, especially tilapia; and because it was not liked locally, it was difficult to sell at the beaches.

Perceptions have changed over the last five or six years. Several of the older fishermen interviewed claimed that they have completely reversed their earlier opinions and now see the fish as a good thing. This positive regard of Nile perch seems to be shared by most fishermen. Nevertheless, informants expressed a range of views about Lates and the Lake fisheries in general. Some veteran fishermen were a bit reserved in their judgements, pointing out that while Nile perch has become a good source of income it has also brought problems. Others expressed fears that the future of all fishing was in serious trouble.

Perceptions seem to be conditioned to a large extent by locality and degree to which individuals have derived benefits from the new fishery for Nile perch. Fishermen based at points along the outer shoreline (Uhanya, Usenge, and Luanda Konyango), for example, appeared to have generally similar outlooks; but their counterparts who work the inner waters of Nyanza Gulf did not see things in quite the same fashion. Uhanya provides an illustration of circumstances along the outer shoreline.

Case Example K3: Fishermen Along the Outer Shoreline

Uhanya is a bustling landing site with access to rich fishing grounds and plenty of fish buyers. A decade ago it was a beach of minor importance, harbouring a few canoes of some local families. Now a large centre has grown up, consisting of many small shops, eating houses, and lodgings which cater to hundreds of fishermen and traders. Local people attribute this growth to the coming of mbuta, the Nile perch. Some 50 canoes operate from the beach, including 10 which are motorised. Most of these craft have been brought by fishermen with homes elsewhere, particularly from the inner Gulf. Scores of young men have also migrated to Uhanya in order to find work as fishing crew. Many women traders have established themselves here as well. Their fish frying fires and smoking kilns are scattered amidst the shops and lodgings. Fish vans make daily collections of two or more tons of Nile perch. Lates have obviously stimulated a great deal of enterprise at Uhanya, and most of the fishermen interviewed were quite enthusiastic about developments and optimistic about the future. As one of them said, “We didn't like mbuta at first. People feared it. But now we find it sweet. It brings money.” But Uhanya fishermen also remark upon certain problems: there are many episodes of net thefts; gear is very expensive; they would like to have more outboard engines; money is paid to the co-operative but its members are poorly served when it comes to getting loans or supplying fishing gear conveniently and at an easy cost; fish prices are too low and the “fish van people” make disproportionate profits; crews have to work hard and get too little money from the “bosses,” the boat owners.

A rather different picture emerged from those landing sites visited around the inner Gulf, as described below.

Case Example K4: Fishermen Along the Inner Shoreline

At Kaloka, Kusa, and Sangorota activity was virtually stagnant by Uhanya standards. Relatively few canoes operate on a regular basis, there are no large-scale fish buyers, and catch levels seem to be generally low. Both Kusa and Sangorota beaches have poor road access and this poses problems for marketing. Lack of enough buyers is a problem at all three beaches on those days when many fish are caught. While most of the fishermen interviewed at these sites regarded Nile perch as a valuable asset to the Lake, they were on the whole rather more pessimistic about prospects. Several pointed out that fishing in general seemed to be in a state of decline. Species that used to be plentiful were now scarce. More effort and gear were now required to catch sufficient amounts of fish, and the cost of necessary inputs was becoming too expensive. Some older residents of the beaches reported that they had retired from fishing because of these reasons. They also spoke of how many people had migrated to other areas where fishing was more productive and worthwhile. The perceived decline in fish stocks was attributed to a variety of reasons. At all sites there were some informants who believed that the fish populations in the inner waters had been disrupted by the construction in 1982 of the Mbita Causeway between the mainland and Rusinga Island at the entrance to Nyanza Gulf. It was claimed that the old pattern of currents (nger) had been obstructed with consequent adverse effects on fish movements. Some fishermen were certain that Nile perch had played a large part in the decline of other fish because of its predatory habits. Others simply pointed out that there were many more people fishing these days and that there were no longer enough fish to go around.

2.3.3 Processing and Trading

The presence of Lates has drastically changed the nature of fishing operations in the Kenya waters of Lake Victoria; it has produced equally far-reaching effects in the post-harvest sector of the fisheries. As in the case of fishermen, those engaged in the buying, processing, and marketing of fish (collectively referred to here as fish traders) are generally pleased with developments; but adverse consequences are also remarked upon.

Past accounts of the fish trade around the Kenya lakeshore emphasise how it depends on legions of petty entrepreneurs, many of whom are women. Field trips to landing sites and local markets confirm that such small-scale commerce is still the mode. Carried by the headload, on the backs of bicycles, or by bus and matatu (taxis and small passenger vans), fresh and preserved fish reach consumers in all corners of the Lake Basin region and beyond. However modest the investment and profit levels, the fish business continues to provide some measure of livelihood for many thousands of local people and their dependents. And the cumulative result of their efforts is an extensive and fairly effective high protein food distribution system which serves hundreds of thousands more.

Yet it also became clear from site visits that the trading and processing sector is undergoing rapid change. As indicated earlier, Nile perch has become a big business. Fillets command high prices in domestic urban markets and especially overseas, and a number of companies are now involved in this lucrative trade. Fish are purchased directly from landing sites and loaded on ice in vans for shipment to Kisumu, Nairobi, and Mombasa, where they are processed and frozen for onward distribution. The upsurge of Nile perch, therefore, has fundamentally altered the character of the fish trade along the Kenya lakeshore. It now has two aspects: the one local and small-scale, the other industrial and large-scale.

2.3.4 Local Trading Operations

While some male traders were encountered at the markets visited, they seemed very much in the minority. In no cases witnessed were men found to be directly involved with processing (smoking, drying, etc.), though it is reported that they participate in these activities in some sites (Bon 1988). Traders were diverse in terms of age, marital and parental status, and levels of operation and income. Young unmarried mothers, older married women with large families, and widows with or without children to support were all seen to be engaged in the fish business. For some it represents an occasional and supplementary source of income, undertaken when household and farming duties allow; for others it represents a primary and full-time job requiring considerable commitments of effort and working capital and frequent trips away from home. As in the case of fishing operators, it is difficult to describe “typical” cases in the absence of comprehensive survey data. The impression was formed however that it is mostly younger women in their twenties or thirties who undertake the fish business on a full-time basis. Many of these women have left their home areas and moved to major landing sites (like Uhanya) to live in shanty settlements and earn money through trading of fresh and processed fish.

Before the advent of Nile perch, tilapia, Haplochromis (called fulu locally) and dagaa were the the mainstay of small-scale fishmongers in the region. Fulu are now rather scarce, but the other fish are still traded in substantial quantities. Tilapia are sold fresh at markets around the lakeshore and in major centres where they can be shipped by public transport. Large amounts of sun-dried and smoked tilapia are also traded; many of these preserved fish originate from across the border in Uganda. Dagaa are sold in the markets in a dried state. They are shipped from landing sites aboard busses, lorries, and passenger vans in large gunny bags. Very often the fishmonger who buys and dries dagaa at a particular landing site will “mail” her shipments to a partner at a major market. Thus, for example, at the Kisumu market of Kibuye, one will see bags of dagaa being offloaded from the top of a bus with name tags attached. The driver or turnboy of the bus is tipped by the shipper to deliver loads to the market wholesalers designated on the tags. Payments may be settled later through arrangements between the shipper and the market buyer.

Contrary to what has been widely alleged in some of the literature and press accounts, there appears to be quite an active local market for Nile perch. It is sold fresh, smoked, fried, and, in the case of very small juveniles, sun-dried. Because of their large size, fresh adult fish are rarely sold whole to consumers. Instead, they are cut into pieces (head, midsections, tail) which are sold individually. Fried and smoked fish are cut up before they are processed, and are similarly sold by the piece.

When Nile perch are gutted or (sometimes) filleted at landing sites, certain by-products are also obtained. Fatty layers found in the larger Nile perch are often melted down by traders and used as a cooking oil when frying up fish pieces. Swim bladders have become a valuable commodity and are also saved. Agents of several business firms reportedly buy dried swim bladders at the beaches for Kshs. 25./kg. and ship them to Mombasa, where they fetch a price of Kshs. 100./kg. from companies which export them abroad. In the U.K. swim bladders are processed to supply isinglass, a substance used in the brewing industry. In Singapore and parts of the Far East, they are prepared as a food. Nile perch skins are also preserved and sold at some sites. At Uhanya dried skins were seen tied in bundles ready for collection, and were said to be fetching Kshs. 40./kg, though this figure may be an exaggeration. The market for skins is uncertain at present. They have been successfully processed into high quality leather by both the Bata Shoe Company in Limuru (close to Nairobi) and the Kenya Industrial Research and Development Institute in Nairobi, but no commercial production has yet been started.

Although usually purchased at the major landing beaches according to weight, Nile perch (as with other fish) is rarely weighed when sold at local markets. Weighing scales are normally not available at selling points and in any case the convention is for fishmongers to offer different pieces at particular prices, and then to bargain within a certain range with prospective buyers. Some sellers are very familiar with their regular customers' wishes and means, and cut portions of fish to have ready accordingly. Experienced fishmongers are obviously adept at judging their asking price per piece in such a way as to ensure an adequate profit. In this fashion, for example, a 10 kg. Nile perch purchased at a landing site for Kshs. 25/- might fetch a total of Kshs. 50/- to 75/- locally when sold off piecemeal. Final market prices depend on many factors, such as quantities of other fish available at particular sites, distance from the Lake, number of intermediaries involved, time of day, and so on. Fishmongers may travel to markets far removed from their homes in order to secure sales. Such trips often involve a bus or matatu ride of several hours, an afternoon and perhaps a night spent at the market place, and then another ride back.

Case Example K5: Women Fishmongers at Kaloka Beach

Mary      , Elida      , and Alice      , are traders who buy Nile perch from the canoes landing at Kaloka Beach.

  1. Alice specialises in fresh fish and handles her business in a somewhat different way from the other two. A young mother in her mid-twenties, Alice comes from the Kaloka area but now lives with her family in Kisumu, some 30 km away. Fish trading is her main source of income. She visits the beach two or three times a week, travelling by matatu. Arriving in the morning by about 9:00, she waits with other women traders for the canoes to return with their catches. As the canoes land, there is a rush as everyone tries to secure a purchase. If there are fish, Alice can usually count on buying a few because she is a regular customer of some of the crews. After weighing her fish at the co-op shed, she fillets them and settles payment with the fishermen. The fillets are then transported back to Kisumu and sold to certain hotels which Alice usually supplies. If all goes well, she can earn up to Kshs. 100/- in a trip. But as she points out, sometimes there are not enough fish, or transportation is delayed, or other problems arise like a sick child. Thus, the income she derives is by no means regular.

  2. Mary and Elida are older women in their forties, and live with their husbands and children in the immediate Kaloka area. Both are farmers as well as part-time fish traders. Unlike Alice, they usually deal in fried or smoked rather than fresh Nile perch. Their business turnover depends on the amount of time they have to spare and the amount of fish available. Fish purchased at the beach are carried home, where they are cut into chunks and allowed to dry in the sun for a few hours. They are then placed into large shallow pans full of hot oil and deep-fried over a fire for about one hour. The oil used is a commercial cooking variety or, when available, the melted fat of large mbuta. If oil is lacking, the fish will be smoked on wire mesh inside a mud-walled kiln covered by an iron sheet. Processed fish are bulked in loads weighing 100 kg. or more, contained in large, loosely woven baskets. When ready, a load will be transported by hired cart to the main road to await a bus or matatu. Mary and Elida usually take their fish to sell in Kakamega Town in Western Province. They try to complete this trip in one day, leaving in the early morning and returning at night. Sometimes, when transport is delayed or selling at the market slow, they must spend the night in Kakamega and return the following day. Their return from such an expedition, after subtracting costs for fresh fish, oil, firewood, and transport, amounts to Kshs. 300–400/- each.

2.3.5 Perceptions of Local Fish Traders

Fishmongers interviewed at the landing sites and local markets generally expressed positive attitudes towards Nile perch. Views have changed markedly over time as it was learned that the fish could provide good business. Traders were apprehensive when Nile perch first began to appear in huge quantities because it was regarded as a useless and even harmful fish. Nowadays it is the eventuality of a sudden disappearance of Nile perch which is regarded with apprehension. “Mbuta earns us money” is the prevailing sentiment. Nevertheless, in some cases acceptance of the fish seemed a little resigned in nature, along the lines of “it provides a business, yes, but it is often about the only fish you can get now.” Nobody suggested that it would be better for Nile perch to simply “go away,” but there were those who spoke wishfully about having a greater variety of fish available from the Lake -- the old taste favourites that used to be more common.

It is noteworthy that Haplochromis (fulu) do not seem to be missed as much as certain other fish like tilapia, Barbus, and Schilbe which local people say used to be more plentiful in some places. Dagaa and juvenile Lates are caught and sun-dried in bulk in much the same way as haplochromine were in the past, and it is possible that these fish are now regarded as suitable substitutes for fulu in local diets.

While traders are pleased with the money they can earn from mbuta, they recognise that the fish has brought serious problems too. Women at all sites visited pointed out that fuelwood for smoking and frying Nile perch was either in short supply or in the process of becoming so. Many registered complaints about the prices they have to pay for loads of wood brought from adjacent areas, or about all the time they now spend in searching for adequate supplies.

Difficult access to markets is another problem that traders widely commented upon. Roads to landing sites are often in poor condition and public transportation (busses and matatus) is frequently unreliable or completely lacking. Traders are therefore limited in terms of the amount of fish they can conveniently take to market. When catches are abundant and transport lacking, many fish can spoil. Frying and smoking by local techniques prolongs storage life for a week or so only. Thus, even processed fish must be transported to selling points without undue delay.

An emergent problem of critical importance is recognised by some local women traders operating from the major landing sites where fish companies send their vans for daily catch purchases. These traders fear that they eventually may be pushed out of business completely. They have some cause to be concerned. If beach prices are driven up as a result of pressure from fishing operators, competition between the different companies, continued demand in remote (urban and international) markets, a drop in the supply of Nile perch, or some combination of these factors, small-time traders would be likely to suffer.

Their interests have been protected to some degree thus far due to informal arrangements which operate at certain beaches. Fishermen and canoe owners often reserve their catches for particular women buyers and allow them to serve as middle-agents in transactions with the fish van crews. At Uhanya, for instance, women collect fish directly from the canoes upon landing, carry them to the nearby weighing scales where they are recorded and checked for freshness, sell them to the vans, and then settle with the fishermen. In this way, a woman sells fish to the van for Kshs. 2.50/kg, for instance, and pays the boat crew or owner Kshs. 2.00/kg. The 10% commission to the local co-operative is settled by individual agreements between herself and the canoe team. Fishermen freely acknowledge that they could just as easily sell to the fish vans direct, but say that they prefer to give the traders a chance “to eat a little” as well. Yet there is probably more to such arrangements than casual goodwill. It would be interesting to know, for example, how many of the women traders are wives and kinfolk of fishermen.

At Luanda Konyango fisheries personnel take additional measures to secure the position of women fishmongers. Here, when the fish supply is limited, DFK scouts make sure that some part of the day's catch is reserved for sale to the kichwa (“head”) traders -- referring to those who carry fish away by the headload. These measures are helpful for the present, but it is not known how strongly they will endure in the face of changing circumstances.

2.3.6 Perceptions of Local Consumers

Information on local consumer attitudes is sketchy and needs to be augmented through further survey, but it appears that Nile perch have on the whole become much more acceptable than they were at the outset. Interviews conducted by the mission corroborated previously published reports about initial strong dislike of mbuta in lakeshore communities. The fish was regarded as “strange,” “ugly,” and oily in taste and texture; it could not be prepared in the usual ways of other fish; people believed that eating it caused nausea, rashes and swelling; and it was widely blamed for the disappearance of tilapia and other fish which were far more preferable as food.

Although informants reported that many individuals still hold extreme views and continue to eschew the fish, they also spoke of lessening antipathy and wider consumer acceptance of Nile perch around the lakeshore and particularly in the interior, in places like Kakamega and Kericho. Simple habituation and force of circumstance were often cited as explanations for this change. Locals have become more “used” to mbuta and have had to adapt to its presence as a matter of course: there is so much of it around, it no longer seems so strange, and other fish are frequently in scarce supply. Lates is certainly eaten more widely these days, and fewer people speak of possible adverse reactions. Finally, it has the distinct advantage of being cheaper to buy than most other fish. This last point is especially appreciated by consumers in the interior highlands, who are also pleased that because of Nile perch, they are able to buy more fish from the Lake than ever before.

2.3.7 Industrial Operations

There are now some ten companies involved in the Nile perch fillet business who buy their fish directly from landing beaches. More are planning to start operations in the near future. Existing companies range in size from those with a few fish vans and basic processing plants of limited capacity to those with large fleets of vans and highly sophisticated plants capable of handling several tons of fish per day. But by local standards they can all be regarded as large-scale industrial concerns. Even the smallest of these companies can count its investment level in the million shilling range -- a different order of magnitude entirely from the local traders who deal in basketloads of fish carried by bus or matatu.

No attempt was made during the short time available to delve into details of investment and profit levels of large-scale concerns. Judging from what was seen during the mission, however, business activity is intense. Fisheries officials believe that there are now (late 1987) some 50 to 60 trucks and refrigerated vans operating to and from various landing sites around Nyanza Gulf and the outer waters. The largest of these can carry a payload of 8 or 9 tons of fresh fish, and the smallest from 1 to 2 tons. Depending on load capacity and catch levels, fish vans may spend a few hours or a few days loading at beaches. Exact records are not available but it seems likely that daily iced fish transfers from Kenya shores are on the order of 30 to 40 tons or more. Shipments are delivered to company plants in Kisumu, Nairobi, and Mombasa, where fish are filleted and packaged for distribution locally and abroad. Frozen Kenya Nile perch fillets are shipped in special ocean freight containers and reach outlets in Israel, Europe, Australia, Japan, and elsewhere. Limited quantities are also sent fresh to some destinations as air freight. An indication of the volume and value of this export trade is provided in Table 2.8. More than 4000 tons of fillets were sent to destinations abroad in 1987, representing a total worth of KShs. 134.7 million.

Case Example K6: The Frozen Fillet Business in Kisumu

The       Co. of Kisumu has been in the Nile perch fillet business for only a year and a half, but has in that time managed to establish a thriving operation processing up to 2 tons of fresh fish per day. The company's plant is located in the industrial area of town and comprises a receiving deck, filleting and packing room, blast freezer, storage freezer, and office. A staff of 20 labourers is employed. Operations are carried out in night shifts starting each evening when the company's two fish vans arrive from their purchasing trips to landing beaches at the entrance to the Nyanza Gulf. Production levels depend on the amount of fish received from the landing beaches but can amount to 15 or 20 tons of fillet per month. After filleting, fish frames are usually thrown out as waste. Sometimes they are sold at Kshs. 1.00/kg to local women who fry them for sale in local markets. Swim bladders are saved and dried for eventual sale to a Mombasa firm which exports them to the U.K. The company has a supply contract with an Australian food products firm, and thus sends all its fish abroad. Frozen fillets are packed in cartons and loaded into deep-freeze freight containers which are hauled to Mombasa for transfer to ships. The Kisumu processing plant is currently undergoing expansion with the addition of an ice plant and one more blast freezer. A small trawler has also been recently purchased and refitted, and is now operating in the Nyanza Gulf. Catches amount to about a ton per day. It was decided to start trawling operations in order to augment the supply of fish for the plant. There have been some problems in the past with obtaining sufficient quantities of good fresh fish from the landing beaches on a regular basis, and it is hoped that the new trawler will help in this regard.

The entry of large fish processing companies into trawling operations in the Kenya waters adds another dimension to the Nile perch fishery. It means that industrial concerns will now be competing directly with both local traders and fishermen for catches, and not simply relying on them for supplies. At least one other small trawler is operating for Nile perch (around the entrance to Nyanza Gulf) in addition to the one cited in the above example, and two very large trawlers belonging to another company are being constructed locally and will start operations when licensing details have been settled. Local fishermen are reportedly already expressing concern about such industrial fishing plans. An editorial in the Sunday Standard (16 August 1987) noted that:

Fishermen on Lake Victoria are up in arms against what they claim is unfair competition from Nairobi and Mombasa based businessmen. They claim these businessmen are seeking licenses to introduce trawling on the lake which would mean traditional canoes and nets would have little chance of staying in existence….

It is a pity that an industry through which the country could solve its protein deficiency and earn valuable foreign exchange seems beset with problems….

Private sector companies are not the only ones with plans for the Nile perch fishery in Kenya. The Kenya Government (through the Lake Basin Development Authority) is currently considering prospects for an integrated cold store - fish processing project to be funded through a Kshs. 100+ million loan from the Italian Government (LBDA 1987). This is an extremely ambitious scheme which envisages a network of cold storage facilities at strategic points around the shoreline. These would supply a filleting plant in Kisumu with a planned capacity for handling 75 tons of fresh fish per day. In addition to producing fillets (mainly for export to European markets), the plant would also manufacture fish oil and meal.

The above project is intended to rationalise fish collection and reduce post-harvest losses, generate revenue, and save foreign exchange. It is to be noted however that similarly ambitious collection and processing operations like the Mwanza fishmeal plant (Section 3.2.3) or the Lake Turkana fish factory (Gjerstad, 1987) have not proved to be very sound developments. Questions of fish yield sustainability, technological appropriateness, and financial viability demand the closest and most careful consideration in connection with such investments. In the case of the LBDA project also, the extent to which such a considerable undertaking would affect the interests of local fishing and consumer communities may not be fully appreciated. Indeed, the overall balance of interests between existing small-scale fishing and trading operations and established or proposed large-scale operations, public or private, constitutes a crucial domain for much more research and analysis. The need is urgent, for the Nile perch fishery is obviously undergoing rapid transformation as a result of the immense prospects it seems to hold for commercial exploitation.


The foregoing discussion has reviewed various aspects of recent and current developments in the fisheries of the Kenya portion of Lake Victoria, as derived from official statistical reports, evaluation and research accounts, and the observations recorded during mission field visits. The following important points are reiterated in summary.

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