Small fish with a big potential

African inland fisheries are increasingly reliant on the capture of small fish species that are sundried and traded to reach consumers often at large distances away from where they were produced. Largely unrecorded, the “hidden catches” go a long way in alleviating “hidden hunger”: as they are consumed whole, small fish are an important source of micronutrients for many Africans. Only that, unfortunately, politicians haven’t yet realised this.

 

Kisumu in Western Kenya: Landing of the small sardines on the shore of Lake Victoria. © Dirk Ostermeier, GIZ

Paul van Zwieten

Paul A.M. van Zwieten is Assistant Professor of Fisheries Management at the Aquaculture and Fisheries Group, Wageningen University, the Netherlands, with long-term experience in working in small-scale freshwater and marine fisheries in tropical regions in Africa and South-East Asia. His main research interest is in data and information requirements to evaluate fisheries resource use in data poor situations, spatial use of fisheries resources (fishing effort allocation) and fishing patterns (balanced harvesting). He currently works together with experts from Norway, Germany, the Netherlands, Ghana, Kenya and Uganda on the Small Fish and Food Security project.

Wageningen University

This article first appeared in Rural21 Vol. 54 No. 3/2020 on: Changing times, changing diets and is part of a media cooperation between weltohnehunger.org and Rural 21.

 

Capture fisheries are an important economic subsistence activity all over Africa, supporting 200 million Africans directly or indirectly through food and income. While conspicuously absent in global debates about food security, small indigenous fish species have always played an important but unrecorded role in African food systems. Along the shores of rivers, swamps, lakes and ponds, fishers, mostly women, can be seen fishing with baskets or small lift nets lined with mosquito-netting, catching a host of small fish species “for the pot”. Of the 3,500 African freshwater fish species, 60 to 70 per cent do not grow larger than 15 cm, but most have small populations. Around four decades ago, many African lake fisheries saw a shift from targeting larger catfishes, carp, and tilapia to include large catches of open water species such as small freshwater herrings, carps and characins that do attain large population sizes. In dried form, these fish find their way to the markets of any African city. Kapenta caught in Lake Kariba, Zambia, is traded in Johannesburg, Dagaa from Lake Victoria is found in Juba, South Sudan, and the pygmy herring from Lake Volta, of only 3 cm maximum length, is hawked in small plastic bags as “one-man-thousand” on the streets of Tamale in northern Ghana. Sold in small quantities and eaten whole, small fish are accessible to many households and are thus an indispensable source of animal protein and micronutrients in many African societies.

 

Fisheries and species

The recent boom in small fish fisheries targets species that all are highly productive and can sustain very large catches. With high turnover rates, annual biological production of small fish can reach up to six times their average biomass (see Table), meaning that they sustain large catches and can hardly be overexploited with current fishing methods. For example, the largest freshwater fishery in the world is on Lake Victoria’s Dagaa. Carried out at night through light attraction, catches reach around 450–550 thousand tonnes annually.

 

Kisumu in Western Kenya: The small sardine species is the most important economic asset in Lake Victoria fishing. © Dirk Ostermeier, GIZ

To give a sense of magnitude, hypothetically, this catch could provide 25 grams of dried fish once a week to all 144 million inhabitants of Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. Yet, fishing pressure is still low, and the potential sustainable catch of Dagaa is estimated to be around 2 million tonnes. In a survey of eight large African lakes with more detailed information on ecosystem properties and fisheries, the total potential yield of small fish was estimated at around 5 million tonnes per year, of which only 15 per cent is utilised today. This unparalleled level of production, simple capture methods and reduced availability of bigger species due to heavy exploitation are the main reasons for the recent considerable increase in fishing effort and catch.

 

Processing and trade: women’s task

In all cases, small species are sundried after landing. Sun-drying is the most environmentally friendly and energy-efficient processing technology available, requiring limited investments to obtain potentially high-quality products. Nevertheless, the main bottleneck in utilising the full potential of small fish fisheries is precisely in this first stage of processing, as drying usually takes place directly on the beaches and lake shores or on nets. Rainy seasons, overheating and mixing with sand and soil cause high quality losses. Fish is re-dried after rainfall, but then becomes unfit for human consumption and enters the animal feed value chain. For example, 60–70 per cent of the Dagaa caught in Lake Victoria is used as animal feed. Simple raised racks or more sophisticated solar-dryers would greatly increase the quality of dried produce but are rarely used in any of the small fish fisheries. Recent work in Kenya and Uganda showed that first-stage processing, mostly carried out by women, on average hardly adds value due to the low prices for low quality fish, thus limiting their capacity to invest. In general, women involved in the small-fish processing sector are constrained by bad working conditions, poor market and transportation infrastructure and limited financial and business services. Strengthening women’s capacity to invest would lead to both improvements in nutrition and health for their families and to improved value chains.

 

Strengthening women’s capacity to invest leads to improved nutrition for their families and to improved value chains.

 

Once dried, small fish is packed in large bags and transported by any means possible: bicycles, motorcycles, vans, mini-buses and trucks. The advantages of small fish become especially clear in this stage of the value chain as they can be packed in large quantities and stored with a shelf life of over six months. Local and regional traders buy directly from the shore and transport to rural, roadside and urban markets at destinations often far from the origin of the fish (see Table). Specialised wholesale markets exist, as for instance the large Kirumba market in Mwanza, Tanzania, or the large fish-markets in Kumasi, Ghana, from where fish is transported to all major towns and again to surrounding rural areas. Low-quality dried fish is re-processed into fishmeal, which is mainly used in poultry feed. The emerging aquaculture industry shuns the low-quality meal and still relies on imports from marine sources. Most of our knowledge here is from the Dagaa value chain. Very little is known about the proportions of small fish of other freshwaters going into human consumption and animal feed value chains.

 

In the Kisumu region on Lake Victoria, women process and trade their catch. © Dirk Ostermeier, GIZ

Consumption and nutrition

Product diversification is in its infancy. Occasionally packaged salted-dried or deep-fried fish is offered as a snack, while fish-powder is used in baby food or as fortification of porridge served in hospitals. But the heaps of sun-dried small fish that are sold in small quantities to consumers continue to dominate trade and are found in all African fish markets. A recent short online survey in Kenya, focused on urban consumers, found that, despite its slightly bitter taste, more than 50 per cent consumed Dagaa, 80 per cent of those daily to at least once a month, while over 70 per cent bought it at a local market. Like the dried sardine species, which have a sweeter taste, Dagaa usually is cooked as part of a stew that goes with the various staple foods known to African cuisine. While important as an animal protein source, small fish is eaten whole, including bones and intestines, which makes it particularly nutritious as it is rich in numerous micronutrients such as iodine, vitamins B12, D and A, long-chain fatty acids including omega−3, and calcium, iron and zinc. All play a critical role in cerebral development, immune defence and general health.

 

So …

Small fish always have been part of subsistence fisheries in African water bodies, but they are conventionally regarded as of “low economic value” and consequently have low priority in policies. Current fisheries policy, also in Africa, has a narrow focus on productivity gains and economic output, concentrating on international trade and markets. This is reflected in the global food security discourse that does not recognise the nutritional qualities of fish. Sustainable development goals do not mention fish in strategies to combat nutrient deficiencies (SDG 2), while nutrition and food security are not the primary focus of SDG 14, life below water, which, incidentally, also does not mention the freshwater resources that play such a dominant role in African fisheries.

 

The huge underutilised potential of small fish could be realised with proper policy attention as well as investments.

 

Fish represent by far our biggest source of harvestable protein. Of all food production systems, capture fisheries are the most energy efficient and have the lowest environmental impact in terms of greenhouse gases and use of freshwater, fertilisers or pesticides. Africa relies quite heavily on fish, which forms 18–20 per cent of the animal protein intake per capita overall, including several landlocked countries. Catching small pelagic fish, sundried with a long shelf life, sold in small quantities and consumed whole, is the most high-yielding, eco-friendly and nourishing way of utilising the natural food that aquatic ecosystems provide. Moreover, the unique nutrient content of fish plays a significant role in combating the triple burden of hunger, micronutrient deficiencies and non-communicable diseases. The huge underutilised production potential of small fish could be realised with proper policy attention as well as public and private investments. There is room for diversification of production systems and improved value chains through investments in commercial, technologically advanced and professionally managed chains focused on scale, next to and including a shift to nutrition-sensitive fisheries policies aimed at improving the existing, thriving, African small fish chains.

 

This article first appeared in Rural21 Vol. 54 No. 4/2020 on: Changing times, changing diets and is part of a media cooperation between weltohnehunger.org and Rural 21.

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Companies in Africa that need financing between $20,000 and $200,000 find relatively few investors, as this sector is too large for microcredit and too small for institutional investors. This creates a "gap in the middle" where companies have limited options. A project of the World Resource Institute provides a remedy with the Landaccelerator 2020.

A World Resources Institute project

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Mr. Samimi, what is environmental change doing to Africa?

Interview with Cyrus Samimi (IAS)

Environmental change is having a particularly strong impact on the African continent. Its landscapes see both negative and positive processes. What is science's view of this? A conversation with Cyrus Samimi about mobility for livelihoods, urban gardening and dealing with nature.

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(c) GIZ

COST-BENEFIT ANALYSES FOR MORE SOIL CONSERVATION

With the help of sustainable farming methods, soils can be preserved and made fertile again. The investment required is also worthwhile from a financial perspective.

A project of GIZ

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©WFP/Rein Skullerud

Revolutionising Humanitarian Aid

A contribution by Ralf Südhoff

Financial innovations can prevent a crisis turning into a catastrophe. The livelihoods of people in affected areas may well depend on intervention before a crisis – and on risk funds.

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Pesticides – a blessing or a curse?

A debate between Lena Luig and Ludger Weß

What are the consequences of using synthetic pesticides in agriculture? Where do they help, where do they harm? Lena Luig, expert for the development policy organization INKOTA, and science journalist Ludger Weß discuss this controversial topic of international scope.

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Joerg Boethling/GIZ

"The Green Revolution reaches its limits"

Interview with Stig Tanzmann (BfdW)

Stig Tanzmann is a farmer and adviser on agricultural issues at ‘Bread for the World’. Jan Rübel interviewed him about his reservations about AGRA's strategy.

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(c) Privat

The 'Grey Gold'

A contribution by Maria Schmidt (GIZ)

The Cashew Council is the first international organisation for a raw material stemming from Africa. The industry promises to make progress in processing and refining cashew nuts - and answers to climate change

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(c) Privat

Human Rights, Land and Rural Development

A contribution by Michael Windfuhr (German Institute for Human Rights)

Land rights are no longer governed by the law of the strongest. That is what the international community has agreed to. Governments and private companies have a duty to respect human rights and avoid corruption.

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Land is Crucial for Development

A contribution by Roselyn Korleh and M. Sahr Nouwah (WHH)

The Liberian town of Kinjor is a picture-book example for what happens, if land rights aren’t protected, and it illustrates how to move forward from there. The keyword: Multi-Actor Partnership

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From Berlin to Yen Bai: 10,000 trees for Vietnam

A contribution by GIZ and BMZ

It began with clicks at a trade fair and ends with concrete reforestation: a campaign at the Green Week in Berlin is now enriching the forests of the Yen Bai Province in Vietnam. A chronicle of an education about climatic relevance to concrete action - and about the short distances on our planet.

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Quinoa could have a huge potential in Central Asia, where the Aral Sea Basin has been especially hard-hit by salinisation.

Planetary Health: Recommendations for a Post-Pandemic World

A contribution by Dr. Kathleen Mar and Dr. Nicole de Paula

Against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, health is receiving unprecedented public and political attention. Yet the fact that climate change is also affecting the environmental and social determinants of health in a profound and far-reaching way deserves further recognition.

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No rainforest for our consumption

A contribution by Jenny Walther-Thoß (WWF)

In the tropics rainforests are still being felled for the production of palm oil, meat and furniture. It is high time to act. Proposals are on the table.

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Biodiversity and agriculture – rivalry or a new friendship?

A contribution by Irene Hoffmann (FAO)

In this article, the author describes what we know about interlinkages, what role agriculture has to play in the sustainable use and conservation of biodiversity, and what the necessary changes in agricultural systems might look like, both on small and large-scale farms.

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The fight against illegal fishing

A Report

The oceans are important for our food supply, but they are overfished. To halt this trend the global community is now taking action against illegal fishing. Journalist Jan Rübel spoke with Francesco Marí, a specialist for world food, agricultural trade and maritime policy at "Brot für die Welt," and others.

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Ideas on the ground: Local solutions for global challenges

Interview with Sebastian Lesch (BMZ)

A world without hunger and with sufficient healthy food as well as climate-friendly agriculture can only be achieved if ideas are transformed into innovations and ultimately also applied - a conversation with BMZ Head of Division Sebastian Lesch on the Innovation Challenge programme of the new Agricultural Innovation Fund.

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(c) Christoph Püschner

The price isn’t everything

By Bettina Rühl

In Togo’s capital, Lomé, home-grown rice costs almost twice as much as the imported product from Thailand. Yet there are good reasons for preferring the local product

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(c) Christoph Püschner/Zeitenspiegel

Slaves do not produce quality

By Tilman Wörtz

Every child in Germany knows Ritter Sport – but most of the children harvesting cocoa on western African plantations have never even eaten chocolate. Can a chocolate manufacturer change the world? Conversation with Alfred Ritter about the power and powerlessness of a businessman.

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(c) Simon Veith

The Big Bang is possible

Interview with Joachim von Braun

Happy youngsters in rural areas, green development and the connection to the digital age – professor Joachim von Braun believes in this future sceneraio for Africa. For three decades the agricultural scienties has been researching how politics can create prosperty on the continent. 

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(c) Simon Veith

A fresh opportunity

Interview with Lutz Hartmann

By leasing a three hundred hectare fruit plantation in Ethiopia, Lutz Hartmann has realised a long-cherished dream: to run his own business in Africa. Now he has a personal interest in the issue of Africa’s development.

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Controversy: Do supply chains need liability rules?

Discussion about the potential supply chain law

The German government is struggling to pass a supply chain law. It is intended to address violations of human rights, social and environmental standards. What would the consequences be for business? A double interview with Veselina Vasileva from GEPA and economics professor Andreas Freytag.

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Ebay Against Hunger - How an App Supports Crop Sale of Rural Small Holders in Zambia

Small holders around the world are often forced to sell their harvests below market value due to a lack of market and pricing information. A new app by the UN World Food Programme (WFP) is going to change this.

A project of WFP

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(c) Foto Privat

Story: In Blocked Chains We Trust

A contribution by Solomon King Benge

It is 2080. We are on a farm somewhere in Africa. Everything is digital. The blockchain is an omnipotent point of reference, and the farm is flourishing. But then, everything goes wrong. A dystopian short story, written exclusively for SEWOH.

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Reference values: A building block on the road to social equality

A contribution by Friederieke Martin (GIZ)

A quick and cost-effective method calculates living wages and incomes for many different countries. The GIZ together with Fairtrade International and Richard and Martha Anker have developed a tool that companies can use to easily analyse income and wage gaps.

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Quinoa could have a huge potential in Central Asia, where the Aral Sea Basin has been especially hard-hit by salinisation.

Supermarket Scorecard on Human Rights

A contribution by Dr. Franziska Humbert (Oxfam)

Oxfam’s supermarket scorecard, which is in its third year, shows one thing in particular - it works! Supermarkets can change their business policies and focus more on the rights of those people around the world who plant and harvest food. However, this does not happen without pressure. 

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Uli Reinhardt/Zeitenspiegel

Bitter fruit

A contribution by Frank Brunner

Why aren’t bars of chocolate made where cocoa is grown? Author Frank Brunner analyses the industry’s fragile value chain from the plantation to the supermarket

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Africa's face of agriculture is female

A contribution by Beatrice Gakuba (AWAN-AFRIKA)

Africa has a huge opportunity to make agriculture its economic driver. However, the potential for this is far from being made exhaustive use of, one reason being that women face considerable difficulties in their economic activities. The organisation AWAN Afrika seeks to change this state of affairs.

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Good health is impossible without healthy food

A contribution by Heino von Meyer

Corona makes it even more difficult to achieve a world without hunger by 2030. So that this perspective does not get out of sight, Germany must play a stronger role internationally - a summary of the Strategic Advisory Group of SEWOH.

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“They said: You can do it”

A contribution by Bread for the World

As President of the IABM cooperative in Muhanga, Alphonsine Mukankusi is not simply focused on the figures. She has learned how to deal with people and how to take on responsibility. At the same time, her work helps her to come to terms with the past

 

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Small Farms, big money

A contribution by Agnes Kalibata

Agnes Kalibata, AGRA president since 2014 and former minister of agriculture and wildlife in Rwanda, is convinced that Africa's economy will only grow sustainably if small-scale agriculture is also seen as an opportunity.

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