Bringing electricity to fishing communities on Lake Victoria

Dotted around the shores of Lake Victoria are hundreds of villages that depend on fishing. As night falls, thousands of fisherman row out on boats to catch omena, nile perch and tilapia. The lake lights up like a city, as a thousand paraffin lamps flicker through the night, attracting omena fish (silver cyprinid) to the surface so fishermen can sweep them up in their nets.

Grid electricity is not available or affordable in these villages which means that the catch must be sold within hours, before the fish turn rotten in the heat. Ice-filled trucks arrive in the morning to take away the night’s catch to be sold in fish markets as far away as Europe.

I’ve recently spent a few days visiting some of these villages to scope out the potential for a project to install wind and solar systems that can power cold storage for the fish as well as charging stations for electric lights. I was with a group of university professors and two NGOs that we are partnering with. In our interviews, we talked with Beach Management Units (BMU). Each fishing bay has a BMU that everyone involved in the local fish trade are members of. From experience, we had decided not to approach the fishing villages to present our ideas, but rather gather information, understand their greatest challenges, and understand the suitability of an energy project and how it might fit.

Establishing cold storage facilities would enable the fisherman to have greater bargaining power, enabling trade at more reasonable rates on their terms. The other major energy opportunity is providing renewably powered lights for omena fishing boats. Omena are small fish, caught at night time and dried during the day. They are used in cooking but also as feed for chickens and other livestock. Even pets – I’ve seen my housemates feeding omena to the cat.

So what’s the opportunity for replacing paraffin lights with electric lights charged during the day from renewables? Each omena fishing boat has four fishermen and four paraffin lamps that are used all night. The fuel cost is significant, we were told around KSh 600 per night (about US$7). For a typical village such as Got Kachola, this amounts to over a daily expenditure of KSh 21,000 per night. At this price, renewable energy would quickly become within easy reach.

We aren’t the first to think of this. Osram are an organisation that have built solar powered charging stations that lease out solar lamps to locals. When interviewing the fisherman, they spoke highly of the idea, but most complained that the solar lamps could not hold enough charge to last the night. So the challenge is to provide better quality, longer-lasting lights, and also ensure they are within easy reach of the fishing communities (Osram stations aren’t always located nearby).

There’s one other important benefit to getting affordable electricity into the fishing villages. The fisherman we interviewed often talked about a trend of declining catches: overfishing on Lake Victoria is occurring and well-recognised. To try and manage this, there is an omena fishing ban from April-September. Some fishermen probably ignore the ban, but most switch to catching tilapia and nile perch, or continue on the Ugandan shores where no ban exists. Declining fish stocks means declining jobs and these villages don’t have many other means of income. Providing electricity provides opportunities for new businesses, for example, video stores, barber shops, manufacturing facilities. This is an indirect but important reason why fishing communities need affordable, clean electricity.