Accessibility links

Fishing Industry Symptomatic of Neglect in Western Kenya's Opposition Stronghold

The violence that erupted in Kenya following December's elections brought to the fore long-standing feelings of marginalization in the opposition stronghold of western Kenya. Economists say the decline of the once-prosperous fishing industry on Lake Victoria is one highly visible symptom. Correspondent Scott Bobb has this report.

It is shortly after dawn in Dunga, a small fishing village on the shores of Lake Victoria in western Kenya. Fishermen are returning from the night's work. They paddle their small dhows with their sails now rolled up through the thick green water hyacinth, pull the skiffs onto shore and begin unloading the night's catch of fish.

Nile Perch, the lake's prime catch, are carried in baskets to the local fishermen's cooperative. These high-quality fish are weighed and stored in ice chests to be sold to fish processing houses and exported.

The remaining catch, including Tilapia, catfish and tiny fish called Dagga, are sold directly from the boats to a crowd of market ladies who gather every morning for the auction.

The traders swarm around the boats. Negotiations sometimes are intense.

One of the traders, Mary Angeso, makes a living re-selling fish at a market in nearby Kisumu. She says on an average day she will buy 1,000 Kenyan shillings worth of fish (about $15 US) and resell it for 2,000.

She says ten years ago the quantity of fish was small but profits were good. Now she says there are fish, but no money. And because of the post-electoral violence the roads are blocked and there are no visitors from other wealthier parts of Kenya.

As the trading subsides and the women leave with pans of fish balanced on their heads, the fishermen take a break. Morris Juma says on an average day his boat makes $20 to $30, which is divided among the four crewmembers. Fishing here, he says, is declining. The catch has dropped by 40 percent in the past decade.

"Ten years back we were catching big, big fish, but nowadays we are catching small ones," he noted. "You can find two or three kilos and some small ones that's (are) undersized."

He blames the decline in part on environmental changes in the lake.

"Now there is no fish because the water has receded so much," he explained. "Now there is no water. Another problem is this weed, hyacinth, water hyacinth."

He says farms along the shores of the lake have lowered the water level and fertilizer-laden run-off has fueled the invasion of water hyacinth.

A colleague, Moses Omoni, says over-fishing and the use of illegal nets that catch even the smallest fish are also responsible. But most of all, he says the prices paid to the fishermen are too low.

"There's a gap between the producer and the consumer," he said. "There's middlemen who have been taking too much from the fishermen."

When the ice chests at the Dunga cooperative are full, the Nile Perch are trucked to fish processing plants where they are cleaned, filleted and frozen. The fish are then trucked to Nairobi and flown to markets in Europe, Asia and America.

But the fish processing industry here is in decline. Of the eight local factories, five are closed. And the remaining three operate only a few days a week. As a result, most of the workers have been laid off and have become day laborers.

Chris Owalla heads the Community Initiative Action Group, a local civic organization. He says the decline of the fishing industry is due to neglect by the central government.

"There is no infrastructure. There are no roads. Look at our airport. It is so small that it cannot connect you to the export market so you must pass by Nairobi. Fish industries are located in Thika, Central Province," he said.

He says the government has never implemented a plan to revitalize the fish processing industry in western Kenya, which not only competes with plants in central Kenya now, but also with new facilities in Tanzania and Uganda, countries that control most of the lake.

Owalla says the fishing industry is just one example of the area's neglect by the central government. Cotton and sugarcane farming once flourished here but now hardly exist.

Nairobi University Professor Ken Ouko says the fishing industry is a particularly sore issue among the Luo people who predominate in the region.

"The Luo see the fishing industry as one of the means which the ruling class presses them down [oppresses them]," he said. "Because you go and buy the fish from them. You're kind of exploiting them, so they think, and then sell it at a higher price. You get rich. They stay poor and they live in a vicious cycle."

President Mwai Kibaki, following his election six years ago, promised to establish a fishing authority run by the Luo, but this promise has not been fulfilled.

Historically the Luo have been the backbone of the political opposition in Kenya. They largely supported opposition leader and favorite son Raila Odinga in the disputed December elections.

So the grievance over fishing was just one of many that exploded into violence when Odinga was declared the loser in the presidential election that the people here believe was rigged to keep Mr. Kibaki in power, and them in poverty.