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Small fish, enormous potential?

Pius Sawa
Could small fish found in many waters in Uganda contribute to improved food security?
22.07.2022  |  Kampala, Uganda
Silver fish (Mukene) drying in a solar tent. (photo: The Niles / Pius Sawa)
Silver fish (Mukene) drying in a solar tent. (photo: The Niles / Pius Sawa)

The Silver fish is considered food for the poor and animals by many. But a group of researchers at Uganda’s Makerere University say that the small fish contain higher micronutrients than bigger fish like the Nile Perch or Tilapia commonly found in Lake Victoria.

However, few people consume small fish known as Mukene, Ragoogi and Muziri in Uganda because they are unhygienic, smell bad and are full of particles like sand. The way these fish are caught and processed has discouraged many people from eating them.

Perus Logose has been buying and selling Mukene for many years. She says finding buyers was a problem. “You would walk with the Mukene for a day and sell a few kilos.” For those who can afford it, Tilapia and Nile Perch are the favoured fish in the region.

But several reports show that the populations of both Tilapia and Nile Perch are decreasing because of overfishing and climate change. In December 2019, many dead Nile Perch washed up on Lake Victoria’s shores in Kenya and Uganda.

The Ministry of Agriculture, Animal Industry and Fisheries in Uganda described the incident as a usual phenomenon caused by hypoxia (low oxygen levels in the lake). “The climatic changes favour small pelagic fish. Whereas the Tilapia and the Nile Perch die, they (Pelagic) survive,” says Dr. Jackson Efitre from Makerere University.

In 2019, the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), and the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR), through their joint programme ‘Cultivate Africa’s Future Fund (CultiAF)’, awarded research funds to a consortium of researchers to work with other actors in the fish value chain to implement the NutriFish project.

The partnership between The Department of Zoology, Entomology and Fisheries Sciences at the Makerere University’s College of Natural Sciences, the National Fisheries Resources Research Institute (NAFIRRI), Nutreal Uganda Limited and McGill University, Canada, was expected to reduce losses and increase product quality, safety and accessibility.

Besides, the project aimed at improving the distribution of the nutritional value of the small pelagic fishes to vulnerable groups who cannot afford expensive commercial fish but who critically need high-quality, nutritious diets. The NutriFish project started in April 2019 and is expected to end in October 2022.

Fish has become less available.”

Nutritional deficiencies are widespread in poor rural and urban communities of Uganda, particularly among women of reproductive age and children under five years. They mainly affected these groups because of limited access to animal protein and micronutrient-rich foods, especially fish.

“The micronutrients – iron, zinc, calcium and vitamins – are required for optimal growth and in prevention or treatment of diseases”, says Dr. Margaret Masette, one of the researchers.

“Fish has become less available to Ugandans due to declining stocks of large fish species and high exports and post-harvest losses. Uganda’s per capita fish consumption is estimated at 10 kilograms per person per year. The Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) recommends 25 kilograms per person per year,” says Dr. Efitre, Principal Investigator of the NutriFish project.

To promote the consumption of the small fishes, NutriFish developed value chain additions which have led to the production of different products for the consumer market. NutriFish has trained ‘champions’ to create an awareness of how to improve along the fish value chain: good fishing, proper drying, handling and hygiene. The project started with 68 champions, 26 of them women and youth, from different fishing communities and to date, the champions have trained 70 new champions.

Dr. Efitre says the other aspect of project training targets students. “The project supports eight graduate students, four of whom are Masters and the other four are PhD. These students have strategically aligned their research areas to address the project objectives.”


Small fish, enormous potential?


Easy to cook

In Uganda, there is a common meal called ‘Kikomando’, a mixture of flatbread (Chapati) with dry cooked beans. The roadside food vendors must use a lot of charcoal to cook the beans. Nutreal Uganda Limited offers an alternative, a fast cooking sauce made from silver fish.

“It takes between one and three hours to cook the beans. That is a lot of charcoal or firewood required to cook the dry beans,” says Dr. Dorothy Nakimbugwe from Nutreal. “With just ten minutes [cooking time of the sauce], we will save a lot of trees. On top of being nutritious, it is also convenient and tasty.”

We will save a lot of trees.”

Dr. Nakimbugwe says Nutreal developed a range of five products that cover the dietary requirements of women of reproductive age and children aged between six months and two years.

However, the products can, of course, be eaten by anybody. “We have maize flour enriched with fish and amaranth grain that can be used as porridge or for meals like Posho or Ugali.”

Nutreal also developed a seasoning enriched with silver fish with natural spices and free of preservatives. The Uganda National Bureau of Standards (UNBS) has already certified the seasoning product.

“We also have developed a baby food that contains millet, a bit of maize and amaranth but also fish,” says Dr. Nakimbugwe. The baby food is prepared using hot water. “A mother will only take hot water and mix it in less than a minute and feed the child.”

The baby food is packed in sachets of 50 grams for hygiene and affordability, sold individually or in a pack of ten. A single 50 grams portion costs UGX 1,000 Uganda (about USD 0.30).

“And finally, we didn’t forget the snack. So far, the one that is completed is a Bagiya. It looks like any other Bagiya, except it is enriched with fish. It comes with protein and micronutrients and also comes with a taste,” says Dr. Nakimbugwe.

Dr. Masette and her team produced a cookbook containing simple and affordable recipes based on small fish and locally available and commonly consumed ingredients. “All our prepared meals are less than UGX 10,000 (about USD 3.00). So technically, you can eat Mukene, Muziri or Ragoli in different forms throughout the year, so you will not get tired of eating our small fish.”


From water to market

NutriFish introduced several innovations in handling the fish from the water to the market to ensure that the processed fish meets the standard.

“The first one is just simple plastic containers to reduce the losses during fishing. Instead of putting the fish in stacks, they put them in separate containers. The container lets out water, which reduces spoilage that would take place if they stack the fish,” explains Dr. Efitre.

The project also encourages the fishers to use salt to preserve their catch during fishing. This reduces the spoilage between the fishing time and the delivery at the shore.

For processors, the project introduced the solar tent drier technology, which helps reduce losses, especially during the wet season when there is not enough sunshine. The solar tent drier is a greenhouse-like structure constructed from wooden poles and covered with ultra-violent treated polythene.

They are earning twice as much.”

“It helps to avoid the waste during the rainy season and also improves the quality of the fish since now they are not exposed to extraneous material. Above all, we have seen the price of the solar tent dried fish has risen. They are earning twice as much per kilo as the open sun-dried fish,” says Dr. Efitre.

At the Kiyindi landing site, 500 boats have been acquired specifically for the silver fish business. They have also improved the hygiene of the ships and fishers to ensure that the fish reach the drying area fresh and clean. Every boat attendant must dress in clean aprons and gumboots and ensure that the boat is well subdivided to handle the caught fish.

Dr. Masette moves with her team around the country, demonstrating how the silver fish is best handled. “We are urging our male and female folks to upgrade the drying method so that the final product is sand free. Once it is sand free, it is possible to cook it in various products.”

She says her next move is to see Ugandans sell clean pelagic fishes to other African countries. “I know of the cost per kilo in Zimbabwe and South Africa. It goes for at least USD 10 a kilo. If they sell it here, it is less than a dollar. So I want to impress them that apart from eating it themselves, they can make an income to buy other things they need.”


Small fish business

The improved small fish business has created opportunities for many women. Shedding off prejudice and stereotypes, some women became boat owners. Busijjo Sophia is one of them:

“After the NutriFish training, we formed a group. Then I was voted as the group treasurer. I was the first one to receive a loan of UGX 1 million (about USD 300). I bought my boat, which now employs three men, and it has earned me money to repay the loan.”

Fish is the best option.”

Sophia has motivated seven other women in her group to become boat owners, changing the mindset that women are not supposed to own boats.

This has created employment for young men. They transport the fish from the ships to the drying racks on bicycles. They transport the fish from the drying rack to the storerooms and then to the lorries for delivery to other towns.

Mary Petty Tembe from the Ntoroko fish landing site now sells deep-fried small fish to her clients in her bar. “I now sell fried Mukene to my customers in my bar almost daily. I earn between UGX 10,000 and 20,000 just from the fried Mukne.”

Perus Logose, the Director of Kiyindi Women Fish Processors Association, which sells dried silver fish to Nutreal for processing, says that the woman’s association also produces sun-dried, deep fried, hot smoked and powdered silver fish for sale. She calls on other women in Uganda to engage in the once neglected small fish business.

“Fish is readily available in all seasons. Fish is the best option for the families’ protein supplies and micronutrients. Consider the time you spend on the farm planting beans, then wait for months, and you are not sure if you will harvest enough due to climate change. Let us embrace the small fish business,” she says.

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