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close this book Boiling Point No. 10 - August 1986
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View the document Fish Smoking on Lake Victoria
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Fish Smoking on Lake Victoria

By. Simon Burne

Flora Dongo is a fishmonger on Rusinga Island on Lake Victoria. She makes her living-buying fish from the fishermen "her-husband is one) and processing it by sun drying the smallest fish, smoking bigger fish and frying the biggest fish in steaks.

The family has always made quite a good living. She doesn't only buy her husband's fish but will buy from anyone who pulls up on the beach in the morning. About 40 women in her village, Luanda Rombo, buy fish to process.


When fish are in short supply, Flora has to compete, not only against other women but against traders, forcing her buying prices up. When there are a lot of fish, the women still have to pay the price fixed by the fishermen's co-operative- in which they have-no right to membership.

While life is hard, the women have been able to make ends meet because their preservation techniques have meant that they could withhold their fish from traders until prices rise.

This has now all changed. A fish called the Nile Perch - called Mbuta in Kiswahili - was introduced by a development agency some years ago annd this has now taken the Lake over. Introduced because of the high protein content it has eaten up every other fish in the Lake and is now eating its own. -It is huge: it can weigh nearly half a tonne.

The problem is that people don't like Mbuta. However, now there is no choice. The problem for Flora and the other fishmongers is that their traditional methods of preservation don't work very well with the Mbuta. Because of its size, it can't be smoked or fried whole so it has to be filleted and cut into steaks. Conditions are none too hygienic in Luanda Rombo or- any of the other fishing villages and gutted fish are prone to rapid decay.

Traditional-'' smoking techniques extend the life of small fish up to two weeks. This hot smoking method extends the life of Mbuta by only 4-5 days which means that the fishmongers have to accept whatever price they are offered by the traders. This has led to a great reduction in their incomes, especially as their buying prices are controlled by the co-operative. Some women have been driven to extremes: Conselata Diambo spends three days each week on Matatus (public buses) to get to Kakamega market where she can get better prices .

A lot of Mbuta is fried rather than smoked. This hardly extends the fish's life at all and all the fried fish has to be sold in local markets, for very low prices. Frying the fish does have one advantage: Mbuta is very oily and frying actually yields a surplus of oil. This oil causes an additional problem for smoking: the oil drips on to the fire and sometimes the whole lot goes up in flames.

Other problems loom. Firewood is becoming increasingly in short supply. The women no longer collect it themselves but buy it from poorer people living up 'in the hills up to four hours away. Wood is now a major cost for the fishmongers. The three-stone fires used to fry the fish in the open now have mud shields, and the remaining gaps are plugged with the fish's guts. All in all, the fishmongers' viability is threatened and many are already thinking of giving up. The only problem is: there is no alternative.

A government research organisation, the Kenya Marine Fisheries Research Institute, 'has been doing some interesting work on coId smoking on a small scale. ,The fish tastes quite different from hot (traditional) smoked fish, but is very palatable to western tastes. Their problem is that they don't have any links with the ,fishing community, and their research stays firmly, stuck in the centre. It is not clear whether cold smoked fish can be made attractive to' Kenyan palates or whether the fishmongers will change their preservation methods.

ITDG and KENGO (Kenya Energy Non-Governmental Organisations Association) have just started working with the Diocese of Maseno South, a local community-based NGO, on addressing the problems these fishmongers face. We know it can be done: the pioneering work done by the National Council of Women and Development in Ghana on the Chorker smoker shows that it can. We will keep you posted in future Boiling Points.