• Lamu prides in being the highest producer of fish in the country, and its harvest is mostly exported to the Middle East as well as Europe
• Women have ventured into the octopus fishing with boats from donors, and the gains are expected to rise
Women venturing into fishing is mostly viewed as a taboo in most of the communities not only in Kenya but in most African countries.
But at least 137 women in Lamu county, in a small island kilometres away from the mainland, are changing the narrative.
They have wrapped their lesos, covered their heads and are now going to the ocean in search of fish just like their fathers, husbands and sons.
To them, this is not a competition but a way of economically helping each other, especially during these economic hardship times.
It is 8am. We beat the early morning winds and high tides of Indian Ocean to reach the Pate Island at the Shanga Ishakani village, where we meet Amina Juba, popularly known as Mama Pweza, as she prepares to go to the ocean in search of octopus.
She is readily armed with her sticks and “chambo”, which she will use in harvesting the octopus.
Octopus is one of the highly valued fish in the world, but it also one of the hardest to catch.
By 10.30am, the water levels have gone down and it is time for these women to go to the ocean in search of the octopus.
The process is not for the faint-hearted as it requires skills and attentiveness, or you risk losing your life if the octopus attacks you.
But for Juba and her fellow fisherwomen, the process is smooth as they have the experience.
And two hours later, when the waters began to rise again, the women meet at a point where the weighing of their harvest happens.
Mama Pweza, the chairperson of Shanga Shikani fisherwomen association group, leads the weighing process, which was being supervised by the local marine patrol and several conservation groups.
Looking on are buyers who are ready to buy the octopus as they are brought in from the ocean.
When the water levels rose, the women embarked on taking their newly bought boats back to their villages.
I have been able to educate my children, I have a beautiful house and my children wear the best clothes as a result of octopus fishingMama Pweza
EARNING FROM FISHING
For Mama Pweza, a single parent of five children, octopus fishing has not only been her source of income but also a life changer.
“I have been able to educate my children, I have a beautiful house and my children wear the best clothes as a result of octopus fishing,” she said.
Since their octopus harvesting is seasonal, she said they usually harvest other types of fish during normal days.
Fishing for women at the Coast, especially in Lamu, is viewed as a man’s job. But Mama Pweza said they were able to beat all the obstacles, such as cultural perception, to be where they were.
Men in their society have embraced their decision and even assisted whenever they needed help, such as using their boats when going to the ocean.
“Previously, we did not have boats of our own so we used to hike rides on men's boats, which is against our culture," Pweza said.
“But with the help of The Northern Rangelands Trust and the Nature Conservancy, we have been able to get two boats for our women.”
With the boats, these women have now commercialised their fishing, contrary to previously, when they fished for domestic purposes.
Pweza and Juba are among 137 women from 10 villages on Pate Island who have benefited from a partnership between Northern Rangelands Trust and The Nature Conservancy to involve women in conservation as they benefit from their resources.
Other stakeholders are Lamu county, the KWS and other conservation organisations.
HOW IT STARTED
In 2019, the NRT and the TNC started a programme in the island, whereby they brought together women who fish from the island’s 10 villages.
They were empowered in terms of proper fishing practices, conservation and financial management as well as how to increase their harvest for commercial purposes.
Under this programme, the women fishers have zoned two fishing areas in the ocean and temporarily suspend any fishing for four months. No one is allowed to fish in these “farms” in the ocean, which are marked using floating buoys.
Yusuf Hassan, director of NRT, Coast region office, said, “We alternately open the farms at the end of the fourth month but close after some time. This gives room for the octopus to grow.”
Hassan said this new practice has seen the fishers have a bumper harvest as the octopus mature enough to reasonable weight as well as controlling the fishing of young fish.
This practice was first implemented in Andavadoaka village in Madagascar 15 years ago by an organisation named Blue Ventures.
The community temporarily closed a small rift and after opening of the reef, fishers caught larger octopus. This was a motivation to the villagers, who later started establishing the zones by themselves.
And years later, this system is now benefiting at least 17,000 residents of Pate Island.
Hassan said when they first opened the closed zones back in June 2019, they harvested less than 100kg of octopus. But recently, they were able to harvest more than 200kg.
However, their best harvest was when they got 800kg of octopus. Their target is to harvest tonnes of octopus.
Lamu county fisheries officer Simon Komu said the county has a potential of fishing more than 500 tons annually, up from 200 tons currently.
He said the fishing sector currently faces challenges which, when they settled, residents will benefit more.
“With the equipment we use, we harvest like 200 tonnes, but with modern equipment, I believe we have the potential to increase our fishing harvest," he said.
JOURNEY TO SUCCESS
To get where they are today, the women have gone through a lot. Some of them were first taken for benchmarking in Madagascar, where the system was first implemented, alongside other community conservancy groups.
The women were later educated on how to manage their zones as well as conserving the environment. They were further trained on how to manage the finances they got from their fishing business.
And the benefit of this investment is evident in the villages of Pate Island.
NRT's Hassan said the organisation wants the communities in Lamu to benefit from their resources as well as ensure they protect them.
“Our aim in having this project in Lamu was due to the poverty levels in this area despite the resources they have. We target to eradicate poverty and empower the communities to sustain themselves," Hassan said.
With the women recently given boats and safe fishing equipment, the octopus fishing is expected to go a notch higher and the harvest is set to increase.
The county also presented the groups with the registration certificate and by-laws, which signified that the groups are legally recognised beach management units.
Lamu was targeted due to its rich environment as well as untapped opportunities for the residents.
Hassan said the county also had improper fishing practices, such as use of beach seine nets and fishing of young fishes, which destroyed the marine life.
Lamu also suffers from sea turtle poaching and illegal logging of mangrove, which are the breeding zones for various marine species.