Women had always dried catches of small sardine-like silver lake fish called ndagala on the ground, where they were easy pickings for animals and vulnerable to being trampled and contaminated. During the rainy season, many fish would be washed away or start to rot.
“If the fishes got spoiled and began to smell awfully it was impossible to sell them at market,” said Gabriel Butoyi, president of Rumonge fishing port.
In total, around 15 per cent of the catch was lost or spoiled during the drying process.
Working with Burundi’s Fisheries and Aquaculture Department, FAO first set up a tiny project in the village of Mvugo ten years ago, constructing just 48 cheap wire-mesh racks suspended a metre above the ground, offering training and distributing leaflets on how to build the racks.
Driers quickly saw the benefits, with racks reducing drying time from three days to just eight hours, meaning producers can dry multiple batches of fish in the same day. The fish are out of reach of animals, and racks can also be covered when it rains, preventing spoilage.
“Our fishes are of a good quality without small gravel or stones and they are dried in hygienic conditions,” said rack owner Domitien Ndabaneze. “With our products, customers are no longer concerned with eating sandy fish.”
Explosion of racks
Word spread fast among fishing communities, and the use of racks exploded along the shores of the lake. The area dedicated to fish drying near the village of Mvugo has increased from one acre in 2004 to five acres today, and the number of driers at all official fishing sites along the shores of Lake Tanganyika has increased from 500 to over 2000
The quantity of fish lost or wasted due to inadequate drying practices has more than halved, and as the quality of the dried fish has improved, prices have more than doubled, from 4000 Burundian francs ($2.5/kg) in 2004 to 9000 ($6/kg) in 2013.
“I am able to look after my child because of the business I do trading fish,” said Pelousi Ndayisaba, a former rebel fighter who turned to fish drying. “It is the only activity that provides me with a living.”
The rack drying technique also reduces daily drudgery for the driers, as women no longer have to bend down to spread and turn fish on the ground.
Small-scale operations have sprung up providing the material for, and building, the racks, also helping to improve the livelihoods of fishing communities and the local economy.
The longer shelf life of rack-dried fish means that the high-protein ndagala can be transported not only to inland but also transborder and regional markets, contributing to the nutrition of communities who live far from sources of fresh fish.
Yet at the same time, the increase in supply has not put greater pressure on the lake’s resources, as the amount of fish being taken from the lake has remained relatively stable.
“The extraordinary thing is how this one very small project has created a snowball effect along the shores of the lake,” said FAO Fishery Industry Officer Yvette Diei-Ouadi. “It’s extremely rare now to see people drying fish on the ground – if driers can’t afford wire-mesh racks they will improvise with wood and fishing net. Even fishing communities in neighbouring countries have taken up the rack-drying technique.”
The way forward
The new way of drying fish has brought other changes. Whereas in 2004, about 80 per cent of driers were women, now men keen to join in the lucrative enterprise comprise 30-40 per cent.
“The government has made huge efforts to ensure driers have access to land to set up racks, but it is also important to help women driers specifically through microcredit schemes so that they are not edged out as competition increases,” Diei-Ouadi said.
While the racks have made a huge difference in preventing fish being spoiled and lost, rain and cloudy days can still result in some post-harvest losses.
Among possible solutions to the problem is the use of solar-powered driers and a fish drier and smoker known as the FAO-Thiaroye processing technique (FTT), which is already being rolled out in several African countries including Côte d’Ivoire, Tanzania and Togo. Another way of using fish that cannot be dried would be to introduce alternative value-added products made from fresh fish, such as fish sausages.
Some 60 per cent of Burundians currently do not receive enough protein, and means of improving nutrition in Africa and elsewhere will be under discussion at the Second International Conference on Nutrition (ICN2) organized by FAO and the World Health Organization in November 2014 in Rome.
FAO is meanwhile continuing to promote and strengthen the use of drying racks in other countries including Kenya, Uganda and Zambia, where the success of the technique has resulted in dried fish being exported and sold in Zimbabwe, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.