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Small but mighty: Championing Uganda’s silver fish 

April 1, 2022

In Uganda, low-income groups and individuals cannot afford larger and popular types of fish, such as Nile Perch and Tilapia – meaning they miss out on a crucial source of nutrients. The solution? Embracing an overlooked variety that’s little in size but packs a big punch: silver fish, or ‘Mukene’.    

This small, finger-sized fish species is one of the three main pelagic varieties found in Ugandan waters. However, it has mostly been ignored, and only eaten by poor families or used by animal feed processors in chicken, dog or pig food.   

For 20 years, Charles Kyeswa fished on Lake Victoria at the Kiyindi landing site without appreciating the true value of this small fish. “We used to handle this fish like dirt,” he said. “We just poured it on the boat and stepped on it. At the landing site, we threw it on the ground for women to buy and carry away for drying.”   

Poor handling resulted in the fish being mixed with sand and animal droppings, or it being stepped on or eaten by birds. Furthermore, insufficient storage facilities saw most silver fish laid out on plain cement in unventilated rooms once they were landed. This caused them to change colour, from silver to brown or grey, and the resulting bad smell, taste and appearance affected the market price and deterred many people from eating it. “I could not imagine Mukene in my mouth,” explained Enyou Peter, a fisherman at Lake Victoria's Kikondo landing site.   

Catching the next wave    

Widespread nutritional deficiencies are prevalent in Uganda’s poor communities, especially among women of reproductive age and children under five years. To help address this problem, IDRC and the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research, through their Cultivate Africa’s Future Fund (CultiAF) program, awarded funds to a consortium of researchers to work with fish value-chain actors to implement the ‘NutriFish’ project.    

The partnership, which began in April 2019, involves the Department of Zoology, Entomology and Fisheries Sciences at the College of Natural Sciences at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda’s National Fisheries Resources Research Institute, Nutreal Uganda Limited, and McGill University in Canada. The researchers aimed to find ways to reduce post-harvest losses of Mukene, increase product quality, safety and accessibility, and improve the nutritional value of the fish.     

The project looked at various improved post-harvest and processing technologies. “The first technology we promoted was simple plastic containers to reduce losses during fishing. Instead of piling the fish in stacks, every catch is put in a separate container which has the ability to let out water, thus reducing the spoilage that takes place if all the fish is stacked in one large container,” explained Jackson Efitre, NutriFish principal investigator. The project has also encouraged fishermen to use salt to preserve their catch and further reduce spoilage.     

For processors, the project introduced solar tent drier technology to reduce losses. This is particularly important during the wet season when there is insufficient sunshine to fully air-dry the fish. The solar tent drier is a greenhouse-like structure constructed from wooden poles and covered with ultra-violet-treated polythene. “It helps avoid waste during the rainy season, and improves the fish quality because it is no longer exposed to contaminants,” Efitre revealed. “Above all, we have seen the price of solar-dried fish increase dramatically; processors now earn twice the amount per kg compared to open sun-dried fish.”   

NutriFish has also trained value-chain actors as project ‘champions’ to create awareness about the importance of improving the fish value chain, including proper drying, fishing, handling and hygiene. The project started with 68 champions from different fishing communities, 26 of them women and youth, and, to date, these champions have trained another 70 champions. “The project supports eight graduate students, four of whom are MSc students and four PhD students. They have strategically aligned their research areas in terms of addressing the project objectives [such as assessing post-harvest fish losses, evaluating local fish stocks, and measuring the effectiveness of the fish-enriched foods and solar drying technologies],” Efitre added.  

Media
NutriFish ‘champions’, including women and youth, are creating awareness about the importance of improving the fish value chain – and nutritious fish consumption 
Pius Sawa
NutriFish ‘champions’, including women and youth, are creating awareness about the importance of improving the fish value chain – and nutritious fish consumption 

A new way of thinking    

It was as a result of the project training that Enyou developed an interest in eating the silver fish. “We realized we have been missing a lot of nutrients from not eating Mukene,” he said. Enyou explained that he, together with other trained fishermen, was made aware of the importance of improved hygiene practices on his boat to ensure the fish were kept clean. The training helped 127 fishermen improve the quality and profitability of their catch. As a result, 500 boats have been purchased that are well partitioned (unlike the traditional boats) to handle a specific amount of fish so that it is not compacted together, enabling the fishers to retain a certain quality standard. Every boat attendant is required to dress in a clean apron and gumboots.     

Busijjo Sophia, a fish seller who was trained to become a project champion, has also benefitted from NutriFish and now owns her own boat. “After the NutriFish training, we formed a group saving account in which I was voted treasurer. I was able to access a loan of 1 million Ugandan shillings [about CAD375] from the group to buy my boat – which now employs three men and has earned me enough money to repay the loan.” Her example has motivated seven other women in her group to purchase their own boats, a process which is slowly pushing back against gender norms and stereotypes. Through NutriFish awareness-raising, more men are allowing their wives to participate in the silver-fish business by giving them capital to buy and sell the fish in their villages.    

Nambawa Daisy, a youth who trained as a champion, said the project has created employment throughout the entire value chain. “The boat owner gets money from the boat, and fishers get income from bringing the fish. Young men earn money from transporting the fish to the drying area, women are paid to spread the fish on the drying racks, and the store owner gets paid for storing the fish.”  

“The future is in these silver fish. All over Africa, their importance is emerging, and more Ugandans are learning how to harvest, process, market and consume them,” Efitre concluded. “Stocks of large fish species are declining, but the future of the small pelagics can be secured if we sustainably harvest, preserve and market.” 

Research Highlights

  • By increasing food quality, safety, accessibility and nutritional value, the NutriFish project aims to address widespread nutritional deficiencies prevalent in Uganda’s poorer communities, especially among women of reproductive age and children under five years. 

  • NutriFish has promoted a range of innovative post-harvest and processing technologies to reduce food losses, from simple plastic containers able to drain excess water, to solar tent driers to avoid waste during the rainy season and protect drying fish from exposure to contaminants.  

  • The project has also trained value-chain actors as project ‘champions’ to create awareness about the importance of improving the fish value chain, including proper drying, fishing, handling and hygiene.