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The fisherfolk in the project area can be divided into the group of fisherman-entrepreneurs, who own the fishing equipment and who are considered as the decision makers in the fishery, and the much larger group of crew members, who are employed to operate or to assist in the operation of the fishing units. Both groups interact in fishing integrated enterprises. Consequently, socio-economic research to assess the economic status of the fisherfolk and to provide basic information for advanced impact assessment of potential management strategies was primarily focused on those groups. Two surveys were carried out in 1990 and the findings were updated in the light of further knowledge gained at subsequent stages of the project.

Baseline survey on fisherman-entrepreneurs

A frame survey, carried out by the project in January 1990, recorded 1,007 fisherman-entrepreneurs. For the baseline survey, 20% of the fisherman-entrepreneurs were selected at random and interviewed with a previously prepared and field-tested questionnaire (Mdaihli and Donda, 1991 a.).

Crew member survey

Two case studies were undertaken in two villages in the project area. A census was conducted and from a total population of 203 crew members in Chapola (Lake Malombe) 20% were chosen at random. In Namalaka (south-east arm of Lake Malawi) all crew members (23) were interviewed (Mdaihli and Donda, 1991 b.).


8.1.1 Fisherman-entrepreneurs

a) Distribution

An annual frame survey, carried out by the Department of Fisheries in August 1991, recorded 1,130 fisherman-entrepreneurs (FE) in the project area. Lake Malombe alone employs ca 30% of the total. Some 700 fisherman-entrepreneurs earn a living from fishing in the south-east arm of Lake Malawi. The Upper Shire river area is of minor importance with only 92 fisherman-entrepreneurs. A comparison of results of previous frame surveys shows that the number of entrepreneurs remained almost stable in the three water bodies within the last 10 years, with a slight upward trend in Lake Malombe and downward trends in the south-east arm and in the Upper Shire river. The number of fishing units has steadily increased in the past, which indicates a tendency to concentrate equipment in a few hands. The number of crew members shows large fluctuations, which can be explained by counting errors and changes in fishing techniques (Figure 8.1).

b) Fishing rights

The artisanal fishery in Malawi is of an open-access character. Although a license system exists which permits an individual to fish, these are issued without any access restrictions. Any fishing gear has to be registered every year and a license fee has to be paid. Further, there is no traditional control system in existence, which would reserve specified lake areas for certain fishing villages. Any fishermen is entitled to fish everywhere in the lake. Half of the fishermen move between beaches, searching for good catches. The peak season for movements is the cold dry season, when the catches are low and irregular (Figure 8.2).

Every fishing village maintains its own beaches and if fishermen from outside use the beach as a landing place, they give a certain amount of fish to the village headman. In addition, more than half of the fishermen feel occasionally obliged to give some fish to the village headman of their home village.

c) Socio-economic background

Ethnic composition

The project area is overwhelmingly occupied by people of Yao origin and the majority of fisherman-entrepreneurs (79%) belong to this tribe. Tonga and Tumbuka settlements are also found, especially north of Monkey Bay. A few Chewa, Lomwe and Nyanja fishermen are spread throughout the project area.

Religious groups

The majority of fisherman-entrepreneurs are Muslims: almost all Yao fishermen (77.5%) belong to this religion. Tumbuka, Tonga, Chewa, Lomwe and Nyanja are mainly Christian.


Muslims were known to be reluctant to send their children to government schools in the past. Consequently, a large number of fisherman-entrepreneurs (45%) lack formal education, but most of them have basic knowledge of reading, writing and calculation.

Household characteristics

Almost all fisherman-entrepreneurs are residents in the project area. They are married, with one or two wives. They have, on average, 6 children, but also in many cases, feed other members of their extended families, which is indicated by a mean household size of 12 people.

Employment status

The mean age of fisherman-entrepreneurs is 45 years. Most of them (72%) work on a full-time basis (defined as more than 10 days per month throughout the year). A small proportion (5%) fish on a part-time basis (10 days per month or less throughout the year). Members of a third group consider themselves as fishermen, although they do not go out fishing. They organise and supervise all fishing activities from the beach.

(d) Start-up capital

The mean age of starting up in business for fisherman-entrepreneurs is 32 years. An earlier entry into the fishery and the entry of newcomers appears to be hampered by the large amount of start-up money required for all the gear (Tab. 8.1).

Table 8.1 Minimum amount of start-up money required for the different fishing units.

NetHeadline length (m)CraftAmount of money (MK)
1 plank boat
1 plank boat
1 plank boat
2 plank boats
1 plank boat +
  2 dugout canoes 

Most fisherman-entrepreneurs do not originate from traditionally fishing families. In most cases the start-up money is accumulated through employment in other than fisheries related activities (Figure 8.3). A high percentage of fisherman-entrepreneurs earned the start-up capital in the mines of South Africa, where the salaries are higher than in Malawi and where the interviewees said they were able to save money without being pressurized to support their extended families.

e) Sharing system

In the project area, the sharing system between the fisherman-entrepreneur and the crew is of limited use to characterize a certain group of fishing economic units. In addition, in many cases the crew size differs according to the length of the net (Tab. 8.2).

Figure 8.1 Number of fishermen in the project area (1981 – 1990). Note: In 1990, 26% of the entrepreneurs in Lake Malombe, 14% in the Upper Shire and 13% in the south-east arm of Lake Malawi operated more than one fishing unit. No frame survey was carried out in 1987.

a. Lake Malombe

Figure 8.1a

b. Upper Shire River

Figure 8.1b

c. South-east arm of Lake Malawi

Figure 8.1c

Figure 8.2 Seasonality of fishermen's movements.

Figure 8.1d

Figure 8.3 Sources of start-up money.

Figure 8.3

Figure 8.4 Common sharing arrangements between entrepreneur and crew.

Figure 8.4

Figure 8.5 Main problems of fisherman-entrepreneurs.

Note: 1 - catches are too low or too irregular
2 - fishing gear is too expensive
3 - lack of money to invest
4 - too many people to feed at home
5 - crew instability
6 - problems with fisheries administration
7 - fish prices are too low

Figure 8.5

Figure 8.6 Fisherman-entrepreneur's attitude regarding fishing.

Figure 8.6

Figure 8.7 Percent distribution of crew members by gear.

Figure 8.7

Table 8.2 Standard crew size

Fishing unitNo. of crew 
GN2 – 4
CS8 – 30
KS7 – 20

A uniform sharing system exists only for the nkacha and chirimila net fishing units (Figure 8.4).

f) Income sources

Fisherman-entrepreneurs are of the opinion that “nobody should put all their eggs in one basket”. To diversify the risk they also invest outside their fishing businesses, but fishing is the main cash income source for 80% of them. Almost all fisherman-entrepreneurs (86%) own agricultural land with the main crops being maize and rice. Soils in the project area are not very fertile, hence most entrepreneurs harvest less than they would need to feed their families well. Almost all entrepreneurs own livestock, mainly poultry. Goats and cattle are expensive and considered as a kind of provision for future and are owned by the more successful entrepreneurs.

g) Problems and potentials

Over 70% of the entrepreneurs complain about low or irregular catches and consider this as their main problem. Fishing gear is considered to be too expensive for many fishermen (Figure 8.5). Despite this consideration, the pricing policy of the Blantyre netting company, which supplies most of the fishermen with netting material, should not change. In the prevailing situation of overfishing, where a reduction of fishing effort is strongly recommended, any measure which prevents newcomers from entering the fishery and increases natural wastage, is more than welcome. Despite all the problems that entrepreneurs face at present, the overwhelming majority of them would prefer to stay in the fishery, even if other serious job opportunities would be available to them (Figure 8.6).

8.1.2 Crew members

a) Distribution

The last frame survey, carried out by the Department of Fisheries in August 1991, recorded 8,535 crew members, with 2,405 in Lake Malombe, 732 in the Upper Shire area and 5,398 in the south-east arm of Lake Malawi. Since recorders were primarily concerned with fisherman-entrepreneurs, the crew member counts are bound to suffer recording errors. Further, it is believed that the number of crew people in the project area is substantially underestimated, because many entrepreneurs employ 2 sets of crew, one for the first half of the month and the other one for the rest. In the frame survey census, only one set of crew is recorded because of misunderstandings caused by the formulation of the relevant question. However, the figures show that fishing provides a living for a large group of people in the project area. In Lake Malombe, the majority of the crew people works for fisherman-entrepreneurs operating kambuzi seine nets and nkacha nets. Chambo seine owners are the main employers for crew in the Upper Shire area. The fishery with chirimila nets plays the most important role in terms of employment in the south-east arm with more than 2,000 crew people. The remaining 3,000 are employed by gillnet owners, kambuzi seine net owners and chambo seine owners, with approximately 1,000 crew each group (Figure 8.7).

b) Socio-economic background

Crew members are generally younger than fisherman-entrepreneurs (mean age in the two sample villages: 26–27 years). Since no investment is required they are able to start working at an age of 15 onwards. Fisherman-entrepreneurs often require previous practical fishing experience before they employ an individual as a crew member. Candidates are therefore selected to go out with a fishing unit in order to obtain the required experience and to prove their abilities. Such on-the-job training is usually done without any payment.

The competition for the job among the young men is usually high and to be related to the entrepreneur is very often of great advantage. More than half of the crew members have their own families to maintain (mean household size: 5 people), the others contribute to the overall cash income of their parents' or relatives' families they stay with.

c) Income sources and job alternatives

Fishing is the entire cash income source for the majority of the crew members. Their income depends in most cases upon the catch (it did not exceed MK 35 per month in the two sample villages). Most crew members get a small amount of fish for as an incentive every fishing day. The small amount of cash is certainly not sufficient for a crew member to save for a fishing unit. Most crew members are very realistic about their job prospects and do not even plan to open their own fishing business. A sudden shortfall of cash income could hardly be compensated by other income earning activities. Crew members' second income source and only job alternative is agriculture. Almost all crew members cultivate, mainly the staple food, maize, but their gardens are usually smaller than those of fisherman-entrepreneurs and their crop is very often only sufficient for 5–6 months after harvest. An increase of crop production is limited by the shortage of land and by a lack of capital to hire labour. Most crew members keep livestock, usually of lower value than those of fisherman-entrepreneurs.

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