Fish is the number one source of protein for people living in Malawi, but for years now, fishermen have been pulling in smaller and smaller catches. How can fish farms help?
Though Malawi, in southeast Africa, is landlocked, it still has 50 kilometers of coastline along the continent's third-largest lake - Lake Malawi.
Fishermen usually go out to fish at night, leaving at 9 p.m. and returning at dawn. Davison Paulos and his colleagues will head out tonight to catch usipa - sardine-sized fish that Malawians like to eat dried or smoked. Scotch Latchschon smokes the fish on the metal grate of a homemade grill in a straw-thatched hut.
"We buy the fish right here on the beach when the boats come in," Latchson explained. "We dry it in the sun and smoke it over the fire." They then sell it right away or at the next market.
The men go out fishing at night because Usipa love light and they can be attracted with paraffin lamps. Once lured, the fishermen pull them on board using nets.
Paulos has checked all the lamps for this particular trip. "We have enough gas for the engine, and paraffin for the lamp, both of which are very expensive," he notes. The fishermen often can't find paraffin at gas stations, so they're forced to either buy it from small traders or at a cheaper price of 1,400 kwacha a gallon (around seven euros, or $ 9.25) across the border - meaning across the lake - in Mozambique.
Making a living
Formerly a school teacher, Paulos had to give up teaching when he contracted an eye disease. He turned to fishing after receiving funding from the African Development Bank for gear.
He heads one of two groups of five men each who share a boat. Masamba Wasi - a jovial, elderly man with short grey hair and a long-time fisherman - heads the other.
"I used to be employed by another boat owner, where I would operate the lamps," Wasi recalled. "In 2007, I got a loan, so we bought a boat, an engine, life vests, nets, lamps and other things."
Each of the two groups received one million kwacha (around 5,000 euros) that they were supposed to pay back within three years at 29-percent interest.
"Some months we managed to pay back 60,000 kwacha, sometimes even 100.000," Wasi said. "There's not much left for us because we're still repaying the loan. We should have paid everything off in June but we can't catch enough fish."
"Sometimes a month will go by without a payment being made," noted Maclean Sikwese, of SEDOM, an aid organization that manages the loans for the African Development Bank.
Coming up empty
When the fishermen got their loans just three years ago, studies projected that waters at Malembo were plentiful enough to feed the fishermen and enable them to repay their loans, Sikwese said.
But Philbert Chimdenga, an official with the local fishing authorities, confirmed that the situation has changed over the past few years. "Our last studies showed […] that the shallower waters have been overfished, and that the fishermen can't reach the fish because are staying down deep in the water."
It's a change dramatically affecting the Malawian diet. Fish has been a major source of protein for most Malawians, and for generations, usipa and the larger chambo fish have been an important part of traditional cooking.
But with fishermen finding ever fewer chambo in their nets, the government has tried to protect endangered populations by banning chambo fishing in the breeding season - November and December. They also banned the use of small-mesh nets to allow the fish to grow to a certain size and age.
Yet reality is different. "The fishermen are still using those sorts of nets everywhere," said Chimdenga. "We don't have enough inspectors to control the use." There are just a couple of inspectors for the entire lake some 29,600 square kilometers (11,400 square miles) in size, he said.
Adapting is part of the business
Maldeco Fisheries, which operates the largest fishing boats on the lake and sells fresh fish in stores across Malawi, has seen its nets coming up less full and has started its own fish farm to combat the problem.
"We have 53 cages, each one 1,200 cubic meters (47,400 cubic feet) in size, which can contain 130,000 fry," said Menton Mkandawire, who manages the farm. "We harvest the fish Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays - as soon as they have matured."
Sam Masauli, another fish farm manager, admitted it's not easy to market such commercially raised fish.
"Our nets in our cages are black and when we release the fish in the cages, their skin turns black. It's the way the fish protect themselves from its enemies," Masauli explained. "But a lot of customers don't want black chambo. They think it's been raised in a pond and that its black color comes from the mud."
Maldeco is considering switching the dark nets in the cages for white nets.
Meanwhile, the Malawi government is aiming to expand fish breeding. In Zomba, in the south, plans are in the works for the National Aquaculture Center to produce up to a million young fish every month - to then be passed on to small fish farmers.
Maldeco itself already has a breeding station there, where fish are bred in several concrete basins before they are large enough to be transferred to cages. Three months in the basins, nine months in the cages at sea.
Sam Masauli says Maldeco breeds enough young fish to help supply farmers in the region. They also produce fish food.
"We have a feeding mill that we bought in China 2006," said Masauli. "With our feed, which contains corn, soy and cassava, breeders can fatten the fish much faster. We have all of that in Malawi, but have to import fish meal, vitamins and minerals from South Africa."
Masauli is proud to report that Maldeco runs the only fish food factory in southern Africa. And they could produce more than Maldeco itself needs, so small fish farmer customers are welcome. One potential customer is 21-year-old Ali Thomu, who has just returned from a feeding trip on the lake.
"We started breeding fish here in June. We got the cages, nets, boats and young fish from an organization, and don't have to repay them," he said. "At the moment, we have a cage with 16,000 little fish, but we're also building a second cage."
The UN development program and a Malawian NGO donated the cages. They're smaller than the ones Maldeco operates but large enough to be shared by a group of ten fishermen.
"The deal was that the first batch of young fish were free," Thomu explained. "We can keep the proceeds from the sales. We only have to pay for the young fish once we've sold the second batch of fish.”
Like almost everybody here, Thomu grew up among fishermen. He, too, has gone out on the lake all his life to fish. But like so many, he's often returned with nets that were barely full. That, he hopes, will soon be a thing of the past.
Author: Mercy Kayange, Mathias Bölinger/ als
Editor: Anke Rasper