For the hardworking fishermen of Kalemie, Democratic Republic of Congo, their quest to create a viable commercial industry is thwarted by lack of equipment, cold storage, and the elements
It’s nearly nighttime in Kalemie, a small town in the eastern democratic republic of Congo, nestled in a crescent around Lake Tanganyika – the second-oldest and second-deepest in the world. For the fishermen who rely on the lake, it’s time for them to start preparing for a long night out on the water.
“We use these little dugout canoes, nets, and lights with a battery. We want the fish to follow the light, so we can catch them,” says Shaggy, who has worked on the lake for more than 15 years.
The fishermen work in teams of three, with two canoes and the net between them, to try and catch the most daga, or minnows – a staple diet in Kalemie.
It’s a lot of effort to fish all night and return in the morning, especially when fishermen work and sell only to the local population. But it wasn’t always that way, says Shaggy’s colleague, Jean-Michel.
“A long time ago, Greeks did commercial fishing, and they had the equipment they needed. Now, we use very basic equipment. And when we catch a little, we eat and feed our families,” he says.
Kalemie’s beautiful crescent-shaped bay disguises major concerns. The town has an underused port and a dilapidated train line from colonial times, says Guy Boungubetshi, a fisheries expert and consultant with the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
“Kalemie is very cut off – the roads are in a horrible state, so you can’t get to other towns. The train isn't in a good state either, and they no longer run as often as they used to. At one time, the town regularly sent provisions to Lubumbashi,” he says, referring to the Congo’s third-largest city, a major mining area 900 kilometres south of Kalemie.
The difficulty of getting decent equipment in the town makes it hard for fishermen to expand their business beyond artisanal fishing, says Emmanuel Mwenziro, president of COPEMU, one of a number of fishing cooperatives here in Kalemie.
“You have to go to Tanzania, and pay the visa, so the material is really expensive here. We also pay customs and tax on the materials we buy – it’s enormous,” he says.
Then there's the long lasting impact of two wars fought in and around Kalemie less than 25 years ago. Some fishermen fled; those who stayed lost their boats and equipment; others lost their lives.
The fishing community has returned, but the lack of equipment, stable electricity supply, infrastructure and – at times – expertise, have all hampered progress.
Cold storage woes
Another challenge is the lack of cold storage.
“The problem that we have here is that we can get a lot of fish, but it goes bad because we have no way to store it," says Simon Gatchi, a pastor and the president of COPAKAMO fishing cooperative. "We have to sell at very low prices, which doesn’t cover anything, considering the work that goes into it,” .
To compensate for the lack of cold storage, some of the fish are buried, so that they can be dug up and sold later.
While this seems like a solution in a very hot climate, it can create a number of health problems says fish expert Boungubetshi whose FAO project working with 3,000 fishermen in the area hopes to improve their lives and working conditions.
“Eating decomposing fish which is not quite rotten but has lost its good quality can lead to health problems; so can eating fish that isn't well stored and exposed to bacteria,” he says.
At a recent conference, doctors confirmed that food poisoning is endemic, particularly among fishing families who always sell their best fish.
“We’re losing a lot of quality fish, up to 65 percent is going to waste, so that's a lot of commercial value lost," he adds.
Climate change affects the lake, too
Lake Tanganyika grows more agitated in the afternoon, but it's not as bad as in April when heavy rains enlarged the lake, destroying its shores. Eleven people died in Kalemie and some 44,000 people were displaced.
“As the water rose, our office, 18 metres long, was totally destroyed," says Emmanuel Mwenziro. "There were two doors, one is gone. We had a little wall over here, that we built, but it’s gone,” he says pointing to open area and concrete debris in the water that was once 500 meters away from the shore.
“And the bathroom's gone. It’s such a shame. We're powerless to stop this,” he continues.
This is not only a challenge for Kalemie, or even the Congo, but for the countries bordering Lake Tanganyika –Burundi, Tanzania and Zambia.
According to the charity Save the Children, natural disasters have forced more than 100,000 people to flee their homes in Burundi in recent years, including those who used to live on the banks of Lake Tanganyika.
Residents can see the impact this year, but the FAO’s Boungubetshi says the waters have been rising for the past decade. He saw the lake rise significantly between 2018 and 2020, taking a number homes, health clinics and schools along with it.
Boungubetshi adds that if the fishing industry could be commercialised, it could greatly improve the health and lives of Kalemie’s residents.
“What we're trying to do with this project is to improve the preservation of fish after it's been caught. I believe that's the biggest problem here. The loss is enormous… at least a million dollars” in one Kalemie neighbourhood alone, he says. “That’s a lot of fish.”