Can Fish Farming Reduce Sexual Exploitation in East Africa? - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Can Fish Farming Reduce Sexual Exploitation in East Africa?

Can Fish Farming Reduce Sexual Exploitation in East Africa?

By Nick Dall

A woman from Kenya's Homa Bay sells her fish to local customers.
SourceDonwilson Odhiambo/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty


For years, women in the Lake Victoria region have had to trade sex for fish. Now there's a way out.

By Nick Dall

  • Small-scale fish farming is allowing women near Lake Victoria a chance to avoid having to trade sexual favors in exchange for catches.
  • That’s dramatically increasing their incomes — and bringing down HIV rates.

Eddy Ouko’s fishpond is no bigger than a tennis court. But since the 48-year-old farmer in the village of Jimo in western Kenya built it in 2017, he has enjoyed a ready supply of free protein and regular cash. Every three months he buys a thousand catfish fingerlings for $47. After fattening them up on scraps from his vegetable farm (maize, kale and yam), he sells around 800 of the fish for $3.30 each. The remainder are eaten by his family (and a few lucky birds, monitor lizards and snakes). If he has unexpected guests, he can feed them too.

“Fish farming has changed my life,” says Ouko, whose wife and four children also participate in the “family project.”

Fish farming can bring in a lot of money.

Godfrey Kigoye, fish farming expert

Across Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania, the three countries that abut Lake Victoria, small-scale fish farming is helping boost food security and family incomes. It’s also allowing women to sidestep sexual exploitation. Lake Victoria is the world’s largest freshwater fishery, supporting the livelihoods of 4 million people. But while fish stocks remain steady at best, the region’s human population is growing 3.5 percent every year — among the fastest in the world.

That’s adding to the competition for limited fish. Jaboya — or “sex for fish” — has grown into a common phenomenon across the Great Lakes region. Women, who are “traditionally involved in selling but not catching fish,” are forced to give sexual favors to secure their share of catches, explains Chris Macoloo of the Oklahoma City-headquartered global nonprofit World Neighbors. Thanks in part to jaboya, almost a quarter of people living around the lakeshore have HIV — compared with national averages of around 5 percent for all three countries.

Fish farming is promising to change that, offering women a chance to earn without depending on catches from the lake, or on men. In Kenya’s North Nyakach ward, home to 42,000 people, HIV infection rates have dropped 20 percent and household incomes have surged 32 percent since World Neighbors launched a program encouraging fish farming, says Macoloo. Most smallholder farmers are women. And for female fish traders, it’s safer to buy from female, as opposed to male, fish farmers. World Neighbors is currently setting up similar initiatives in Uganda and Tanzania.

The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization is also working with fish farmers — including many women — across the region, to boost their incomes. Other platforms are emerging too. Rio Farms in Kenya has an online database where carefully vetted fish farms upload details of their produce. Female sellers can purchase fish from these farms. Also in Kenya, Victory Farms, a fish farm, supplies female sellers. And, as small-scale fish farming expands across the region, so too could the benefits.

In Tanzania, FAO data shows that freshwater aquaculture production more than doubled, from 5,000 tons in 2016 to 11,800 tons in 2017. And in Uganda, Godfrey Kigoye and Semwogerere Robert Katende, co-founders of the privately owned Katende Harambe Rural Urban Training Centre on the outskirts of capital Kampala, are demonstrating aquaculture for farmers with limited space — in 2,500-gallon wooden boxes or plastic containers.

“Fish farming can bring in a lot of money,” says Kigoye. Especially if it’s part of a mixed agriculture strategy where excess water is used to irrigate crops, and scraps of food are available for fish, either from crops or animal droppings.

That’s true for nations as well as for farmers. Uganda last year witnessed record fish exports, bringing in a never-before $171 million in revenue. Small-scale farmers account for 40 percent of the fish production.

In the past two years, Katende can think of over a dozen people who have started their own fish farms after visiting the center. That’s only a drop in the ocean compared to the tens of thousands of listeners and viewers whom Katende and Kigoye have reached through frequent television and radio appearances in Uganda.

This exploding interest in fish farming hasn’t followed a smooth trajectory. In Kenya, despite the growing interest demonstrated by the increase in cage farming, overall production has dropped since 2014. This, according to Macoloo, is because a government program that led to a fivefold increase in production between 2009 and 2012 was ended, leading to steep drop-off. The program also had “many loose ends” — especially a lack of training — he says. But it did effectively build an industry from scratch, establishing a supply chain that would-be farmers can tap into.

The cost of entering the profession can be a disincentive. It costs $140 to build a pond — half of adults in western Kenya live on less than $27 a month. But the upside is that “you only have to spend this once,” says Ouko. In a region with two rainy seasons and two dry seasons, access to water can also be an issue, but to get around this, Ouko tops off his pond with water from his irrigation dam when the need arises. 

A setup of fish cages at the Pioneer farm in Kisumu.

A setup of fish cages at the Pioneer farm in Kisumu, which sits on the northeastern shore of Lake Victoria.

Source Donwilson Odhiambo/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty

Training such as that provided by Katende Harambe and World Neighbors is critical so first-time fish farmers can avoid running into trouble. If water lies stagnant, for example, fish die. Ouko uses a modified bicycle to circulate the water in his pond — all the pedaling keeps him fit, he says.

But Kigoye says the biggest barriers are mental: “Ugandans tend to be job seekers, not job creators.” Persuading people who have always viewed fish as a free resource, to instead spend money on fish farming has, Macoloo concurs, been an uphill battle. But as catches become less predictable, people are starting to understand that, unlike fishing, “aquaculture allows you to plan your income,” he says. Seeing the success of “the innovators and gamblers,” Macoloo adds, “is convincing others to give it a try.”

Meanwhile, Ouko’s already planning his next move. “We are hoping to build a bigger fishpond soon,” he says. “The money we get makes a big difference.”

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