Binga fish cooperatives face uncertain future
FOR probably the first time in years, members of Kapenta Fishing Cooperatives in Binga are questioning the capability of Lake Kariba to sustain their lives. Dwindling water levels and overfishing in the great lake are threatening to sink Binga’s kapenta fishing cooperatives. Pioneers of the venture in Binga, Mwenda and Kariva Kapenta Fishing Cooperatives have seen the gloss of the once-thriving fish harvesting business dimming by each passing year. But still they hang around.
Mwenda Kapenta Cooperative chairperson, Mr Robert Machika (58), says the many challenges bedeviling most kapenta cooperatives are crippling and driving members away.
“Times are tough. Business is low and competition is high. When we started in 1987, we were 16 members but membership has since shrunk to 10.
“Even other cooperatives’ are also losing members. There were also very few fishing cooperatives back then.
“We were only three kapenta fishing cooperatives but today there are over 20 cooperatives based in Binga operating in Lake Kariba. We have individuals who have their own rigs,” he said.
Local fishing cooperatives are also battling fierce and aggressive competition from Zambian cooperatives and individuals who own fishing rigs.
Mr Machika says the Zambian fishermen often overlap into the Zimbabwean side of the lake to poach fish.
“Breeding areas are exposed to poachers hence the fish are not multiplying as they should. Most poachers are Zambians though there are a few Zimbabweans involved as well.
Zambians employ unethical means in their fishing operations at times. Besides poaching our fish they even invade breeding areas. You pay a fine of $4 000 if you are caught poaching but it’s not always that one gets caught,” he said.
Mwenda Cooperative, the oldest such fishing venture in Binga district, started its formal operations in 1990.
Mr Machika says kapenta fishing is a capital intensive venture. Local fishermen put the price of a backyard industry manufactured rig at around $6 000 while a topnotch model has an asking price upwards of $18 000.
Most cooperatives kick-started their operations using loans availed by the Small Enterprises Development Corporation (Sedco) and the European Union.
“We used the European Union loan to buy our first two fishing rigs. We all lacked adequate knowledge of the business. We had to first learn the trade during those formative years.
Government working with some non-governmental organisations arranged some training programmes for all cooperatives. It was not easy getting into an industry dominated by whites.
Irvine and Johnson was the only company fishing big fish; most whites were competing with us in fishing kapenta as it was and still is brisk business,” said Mr Machika. Mwenda Cooperative, which started with three fishing rigs in 1990, now has only two.
The two rigs are old and continue to give the cooperative problems despite having changed their engines.
When business was at its peak, all cooperatives employed locals on contract basis to help them at the rigs and dry kapenta at the fish racks.
The cooperatives terminated contracts of respective auxiliary staff as kapenta yields dropped.
“Most cooperatives also employed clerks full time to keep records but had to terminate their services when things got bad,” said Mr Machika.
Mr Andrew Sande, who at 36 is the youngest member of Mwenda Cooperative’s leadership, remembers with nostalgia the good old days when they used to clock 90 tonnes (90 000kgs) of fresh Kapenta fish per month.
“Each rig would give us 30 tonnes of fresh kapenta per month. When the cooperative bought a third rig around 1992, the yield shot to 90 tonnes per month. This translates to 30 000kgs of dried matemba per month since three kilogrammes of fresh kapenta give us a kg of dried kapenta,” he said.
Mr Sande took over the shares of his late father, Mr Chumba Sande, who was one of the founders of the cooperative. He says today the cooperative’s fortunes have taken a knock to an extent that members were struggling to fend for their families.
“In the past we could sell 1 000 bags of matemba. Trucks would come to load our kapenta fish. These days things have changed, we only sell two bags,” he said.
Patience is beginning to run thin among some of the cooperatives’ members who are resigning in search of greener pastures.
Mr Windas Muyuni, the cooperative’s treasurer, says some members are now opting to be middle-men, buying fish from the cooperatives and reselling them at a profit to fish companies at Binga Centre.
“We take our membership seriously. Each member paid $250 as share capital. Some members resigned to pursue other interests when the going got tough while others were kicked out for stealing from the cooperative.
Once one is convicted, membership automatically ceases,” he said. their
To help control the overharvesting of fish, Zimparks and their Zambian counterparts introduced a Full Moon Calendar which suspends all rig fishing in Lake Kariba for the seven last days of each month in Zimbabwe and 10 days per month in Zambia.
The Zambian boat fleet is more than double the recommended number on the lake. Binga fishermen say kapenta catches have plunged by more than half over the last two decades because of Zambians’ overfishing.
The Zambians allegedly use banned four-millimetre fishing nets that can catch the smallest fish. Zimbabwean fishermen, on the other hand, are allegedly using eight millimetre-nets that allow small fish to escape then grow and replenish the stock.
Binga’s fishing cooperatives are appealing to the Government to help them diversify and start new projects. They want financial assistance to replace their aging fishing rigs and be able to compete with their Zambian counterparts.
“Some of our members are young and have families. They need to take care of their children. We need more rigs for us to harvest more fish.
The Government can also help us diversify. We want to set up income generating projects like market gardening. Although this is a low rainfall area, the Government can help by sinking boreholes,” said Mr Machika.
Binga has 27 cooperatives but only 17 are registered with their union, Kujatana Kwesu Fishers’ Union. Its chairman, Mr Kenias Chigwagwa, says the Binga-based kapenta cooperatives are in danger of sinking owing to overfishing in the Zambezi waters.
He says Government needs to reduce the permit fees as a way of revitalising the kapenta fishing cooperatives.
“If they can reduce permit fees to $1 000 that will be better. In Mozambique a permit costs $600 only for a year while in Zambia its $400 for a year.
“Zimbabwe’s kapenta permits cost $2 000 per annum yet we fish from the same waters with the Zambians. It is the Government that encouraged us to venture into fishing in 1980. We need its support,” he said.
Mr Chigwagwa said when permits became expensive kapenta fish became few. The union leader also wants a single fishing permit to support more rigs as is the case in Zambia.
“Cooperatives are struggling because here a single rig sustains 25 people yet in Zambia there are many rigs for less people. Our permit is more expensive yet it supports a single rig but a Zambian permit can be used by 10 or more rigs,” said Mr Chigwagwa.
He said some members are pulling out of the cooperatives to operate as individuals. Mr Chigwagwa said the individuals are doing well and buying houses at Binga Centre.
“They are doing well because they have no permits or Zimra to worry about. The money they get is all theirs. They don’t have to share with anyone,” he said.
Mr Chigwagwa says middle-men and unregistered cooperatives were threatening the existence of cooperatives through distorted prices.
“The official price of matemba is pegged at $4 per kg or $120 per bag. A bag is 30kgs. The price can go as low as $3,50 or less per kg when cooperatives sell to unscrupulous dealers,” he said.
Government acknowledged in the past the crisis in terms of the imbalances in fishing in the lake. It said the situation called for both countries to rectify it at diplomatic level.
“What I know is that over the past couple of years there has been a serious conflict in terms of fishing rights within the lake.
The problem we face is that of unscrupulous fishing by some operators and the uneven numbers of fishing rigs between the two countries, but I believe this can only be solved by the two countries taking a hands-on approach in addressing the problem,” said the then Minister of Environment, Water and Climate, Cde Saviour Kasukuwere.
The BaTonga or Basilwizi (people of the Great River) have since time immemorial anchored their lives on farming on the banks of the mighty Zambezi River and catching fish for relish and trade as a way of earning a living.
Lake Kariba covers 5 580 square kilometres and can hold 185 billion cubic metres (653 billion cubic feet) of water, according to Water-Technology.net.
Can a life divorced from the Zambezi River waters sustain members of the cooperatives? Only time will tell.
Dwindling business: A place for drying fresh kapenta