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Technology arms fish processors

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Post-harvest fish losses have been a major cause of business losses among fishing communities around lakes Malawi and Chilwa. However, a new innovation that uses sun radiation, dubbed solar tent fish dryer, is proving effective in ensuring improved fish quality and reducing losses. CHARLES MKOKA writes.

Climate change, evident in reduced water levels and fluctuation, has affected several sectors, including the fishing communities around lakes Malawi and Chilwa.

The environmental changes affect the survival of fish species, which are a major source of livelihoods for many people.

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Apart from climate change, there is also another cause of worry for the fishing communities—post-harvest fish losses.

For every 10 fish caught in Malawi waters, scientists estimate that four are spoiled and their value lost before they find their way to the market.

Post-harvest losses prevent fish processors from penetrating the lucrative up-market chain stores with value-added and well-packaged fish products.

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Most of these losses happen when fish is sun-dried in the open air; unfortunately, catches from the lake increase during the rainy season, which interferes with the drying process.

Other causes of spoilage include damage by insects and other animals or dust which exposes fish to microbial activities.

Post-harvest fish losses can be translated into production of food and nutrients that ultimately nobody benefits from.

The loss of the fish before they find their way to the markets is a major concern within the value chain.

The fishing industry in Malawi supports over 300,000 people, including other sectors of the economy.

The fish value-chain comprises fishers, crew members, processors, traders, fish transporters, firewood sellers, fisheries associations and traders of fishing gear and equipment.

Realising the important the role fish plays, development partners and other players are empowering affected communities.

The development partners have introduced the “Tipindule ndi nsomba” initiative for Lake Chilwa and “Nsomba M’chuma” for Lake Malawi.

The multiplier effect of the 17 solar tent fish dryers has now proved effective in addressing problems of fish spoilage among processors.

The two initiatives targeted communities in the two lakes to use the solar tent fish dryer from 2015 to June 2017 as a more convenient and hygienic way of fish processing.

Technical backstopping in developing better structures was provided by World Fish Centre, Fisheries Research Unit and University of Malawi.

In the value-addition chain, Peoples Trading Centre, a local chain store, was involved as the target market for the finished product.

During a recent visit to Mchenga Njala on the shore of Lake Chilwa, fisherman Amidu Rashid explained that contrary to traditional fish drying methods, solar tent fish dryer processes fresh catches faster. Additionally, spreading the fish on a mesh, instead of sand, ensures hygiene.

“The internal environment is free from houseflies and dust and is very hygienic. Not even dogs, rats and cats have the capacity to fool and penetrate the technology. Solar tent fish dryers have reduced post-harvest losses at processing and marketing stages, which means more than half of the losses are expected to go down,” Rashid said.

Interestingly, the use of solar tent fish dryer is defeating gender barriers as women are also actively using the technology.

One of the women, Stevina Chitedze, said over 60 members of Mchenga Njala Food Processors are benefitting from the solar dryer.

“Sales from fish are being used to buy food during the lean period of the year. We also use the money to pay school fees for our children, especially those at secondary and tertiary education,” Chitedze explained.

She was part of the entourage that showcased some of their value-added fish products in Lilongwe recently.

Although men and women are involved in fish processing, it was found that 58 percent of the females are involved in sun-drying of smaller fishes such as usipa, utaka, kambuzi and ndunduma compared to 42 percent of men.

In trying to break the gender barriers, 413 participants (202 males and 211 females) were trained in gender transformative approaches.

Participation of males was increasing in each subsequent session as these men acted as change agents in their respective households and communities.

To promote the gender transformative approaches at community level, 18 (10 women and eight men) gender champions were empowered with skills in how to lead discussions on gender transformative approaches using the Johns Hopkins’ “African Transformation Toolkit”.

This has led to women now accessing lucrative markets through the use of the technology. So far, the fish supplied through this technology has reached 17,000 consumers.

To ensure everyone is accommodated as part of entrepreneurship, Cultivate Africa Future Fund (CultiAF) empowered the youth with a business approach to the fish value chain.

This was done realising the limited access to natural and financial resources, limited opportunities for upward mobility skills and experience to run successful business.

CultiAf is a partnership between Canadian International Development Agency (IDRC) and the Australian Centre for International Agriculture Research. Both institutions contribute 50 percent to the funding.

The funding supports applied research to improve long-term food security in east and southern Africa, said Jemimah Njuki, Senior Programme Specialist in Agriculture and Food Security at IDRC.

In Mangochi District, beneficiary Hamisi Nyampesi is also involved in fish processing and packaging.

As part of the value-addition, Nyampesi packs his final fish products in well-labelled packets.

According to Nyampesi, if he buys a bucket of fish at K4, 000, he is able to make a profit of over 50 percent from the sales after processing and packing them.

“This technology reduces microbial growth, the air vent on solar tent dryers allow circulation of air for the fish to dry faster. The solar tent fish dryer also keeps them safe during both rain and dry seasons,” Nyampesi explained during youth training in Lilongwe.

Different approaches have been used to empower communities to remain climate resilient.

One such method is the group approach. This approach has resulted in five groups of 15-20 members being formed and trained at Nsaka, Malembo, Madzedze, Lifuwu and Chikombe in the use of environmental-friendly solar tent fish dryers owned and utilised by the groups.

The sharing of ideas, skills and knowledge, reduced labour and buying and selling in bulk have been some of the benefits.

Although there are challenges, the benefits, in the long term, outweigh them.

However, there is problem related to the misconception on group ownership of solar tent dryers.

When solar tent dryers were constructed on loan for some groups, they continue to consider these as belonging to the project.

The groups use the solar driers while expecting the project to give them operating capital.

In terms of milestone, there is now increased awareness of solar tent dyers, in the area from 14 to 88 percent.

There are also 188 individuals that are using solar tent fish dryers out of which 123 are female compared to none at the start of the initiative.

Mangani Katundu, Dean of Research and Senior Lecturer in Food and Nutrition Security at the University of Malawi is Chancellor College, who was a principal investigator, says findings showed that technology and willingness to pay among users was at 84.7 percent.

However, those reluctant to use a solar tent dryer were at 15.3 percent, showing that many processors had embraced the technology.

It is hoped that such an initiative, that target age groups of diverse demographic brackets, could help build resilience of communities that rely on fishing, Katundu summed it up.

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