Meet Lake Victoria’s tiniest fish

Sunday May 03 2020

A woman dries Dagaa (Omena) fish on fishing net at Usenge beach in Bondo, Kenya. Greenhouse-drying techniques could reduce post-harvest loss and also improve product quality. FILE PHOTO | NMG


Fatima Seleaum has been up early. She is now on her way to Igombe landing site just outside of Mwanza city in Tanzania. The fishing boats with sardine-like silverfish (Rastrineobola argetea) usually get into the shore just before sunrise between 6.30 and 7 am. 

From the size of the small bright-shining dots from the fishing boat’s pressure lamps out on the lake, Ms Seleaum can estimate how much time she has got before they will be at the landing site. 

“The boats are about to reach, I’d better hurry up,” she says. While she hurries, she starts talking about how many buck-ets of silverfish she would like to buy and dry today.

“A customer contacted me yesterday and asked if I could deliver 30 buckets of silverfish,” she says and glances up to the sky.

It is in the middle of the rainy season and the fishermen’s catch is usually quite small during this period.

Also, if it starts raining in the afternoon, it will interfere with the drying process of the small fish. Nevertheless, the 30 buckets are what Ms Seleaum is aiming at today. 


She has six children. The oldest is attending secondary school, and she would like to see him and the younger children at university or at least getting some kind of higher education. It takes many buckets of small fish to succeed in that kind of life dream.

Animal feed

Ms Seleaum is not the only one who relies on Lake Victoria’s small fish for her family’s livelihood and fortune. Every morning, buyers and processors flock to the lake’s shore of more than 7,000 km to meet the fishing boats when they come back home after a long night on the lake.

Under the local names Dagaa, Omena or Mukene depending on whether the locality is Tanzania, Kenya or Uganda, the silverfish fishing employs over two million people and makes up 72 per cent of the lake’s total landings.

The market demands for the fish is also growing from Zambia, South Sudan, Rwanda, Malawi, DRC, Zimbabwe and South Africa. Mostly as animal feed, but in recent years increasingly for human consumption, which has led to higher demand for processing quality.

Abuzz with womenfolk

This is, however, easier said than done. There are various challenges involved.

Traditionally, it is mostly women, who process the silverfish. They dry the fish directly on rocks, sand or old nets spread out on the grass or beach. The result is that the dried product often contains bits of sand and grass and 80 per cent of it ends up being of a substandard quality only suitable for animal feed.

Sometimes these figures are even higher in the rainy season and may reach 100 per cent.

A few processors do dry their silverfish on raised racks, but generally drying racks have not caught on, and neither has salting nor smoking.

When Ms Seleaum reaches the shore, it is already buzzing with fishing boats and buyers. With the facial expression of a true connoisseur, she inspects the small silverfish, which lay in heaps in the bottom of the boats. She selects the ones she wants.

However, her hopes for today are not met. The boats are half-empty today and the price is high.

Instead of Tsh5,000 ($2.16) per bucket, the price is Tsh10,000 ($4.33). She ends up with eight buckets.

Ms Seleaum leads the way to the area where she will dry the content of the eight buckets. She is one of the privileged processors at the Igombe landing site that dries her fish on racks.

“I have seven racks that I rent for Tsh400,000 ($173) a year. It is expensive, but worth it. I can sell at a higher price than if I dried the dagaa on the ground,” she explains while she spreads the content of today’s eight buckets that only fill one of her racks.

Even though the sun is shining right now, one heavy shower and her entire investment and potential profit for the day will be washed away.

Racks drying or not, when it comes to the rain, Ms Seleaum is in the same situation as everyone else. The post-harvest methods the hundreds of thousands of processors are using are inadequate and outdated.

Economics of scale

Five years ago, a team of researchers from Sokoine University of Agriculture, Nelson Mandela Institute for Science and Technology, the Technical University of Denmark and University of Copenhagen set out to try to find possible solutions to this problem.

With the support from Denmark’s development agency Danida, they examined methods that could reduce post-harvest losses, increase the quality of processed fish and thereby contribute to lifting the entire sector to a new level Josephine Joseph Mkunda of Nelson Mandela African Institute of Science has led the project’s examination of the supply chains and market mechanisms.

According to her, the main barrier for the development of the silverfish industry is that capital invested in fishing activities may well be detrimental to subsistence fishing.

“The existing business models are inefficient and imperfectly competitive. They favour a minority in the fishing industry at the expense of the majority who can barely uphold a sustainable livelihood anyway. This is very unfortunate, because in effect it holds back the entire industry,” says Ms Mkunda.

Her suggestion is a new model where the different actors in the sector, from processors, to traders and exporters, get together in co-operatives or form innovative collaborative platforms.

Such professional group formations would make it easier for anyone in the supply chain to keep informed about market dynamics and prices and to share knowledge about fishing and processing techniques.

It would also make it easier to obtain loans that are virtually impossible to obtain if you are an individual fisherman or processor.

“Only if the fishermen, processors, traders and transporters collaborate will they have a chance to realise economies of scale,” Ms Mkunda said.

Post-harvest losses

This cluster based business model could also be helpful to counter the current processing technique’s vulnerability to the weather conditions.

Dr Davis Chaula, lecturer at Sokoine University of Agriculture has looked into how greenhouse-drying techniques could reduce post-harvest loss and also improve product quality.

During his research, he experimented with ventilated greenhouses in which trays of silverfish are placed on shelves that are raised off the ground.

“Greenhouse drying is especially recommendable during the rainy season to prevent losses,” he says.

Besides securing a drying process undisrupted by rains and a sand and grass free product, Dr Chaula’s findings also showed that greenhouse drying may minimise nutrient loss as compared with open sun drying.

“There is an unquestionable need to develop new drying technique to improve the product quality to tap the expanding domestic and regional market—and give the fishermen and processors a chance to make a better living,” says Dr Chaula.

Ms Seleaum was lucky today. The rain never came and the small fish on the rack are now dry and ready for frying. She has also been in touch with the customer who wanted 30 buckets. She has come to the landing site and the two of them have settled a deal that works for both of them.

“We agreed that I’ll try to deliver over the next three days,” she says as the customer nods.

She starts to fry the fish. The distinct smell of dagaa frying in cooking oil now drifts from Ms Seleaum’s workshop. It mingles with the smell from all the other places along the shore where people are processing or cooking the small fish.

Traditional cuisine

Virtually, everyone around the lake enjoys daily meals of dagaa at home or at their workplace, but finding dishes with the small fish on a menu in a restaurant is not easy. At least not in Mwanza.

One has to go to specific restaurants in Nairobi for example at Amica, a restaurant specialising in traditional African dishes or to Nasha’s café in Bagamoyo, in Tanzania to find them.