In some parts of the country, fishing is a way of life for people who live near lakes.
The fishers have several methods to dry the fish for market. But since the fishers dry their catch in the open air, about half of it decays. It slowly breaks down and goes bad.
Now, solar tents are being used to help dry fish on Lake Chilwa, the country’s second-largest lake. The tents are helping communities to dry fish more effectively. When the fish dries quicker, less of it decays. It is ready for market sooner.
The solar tent is made from clear plastic. The plastic is stretched over a large wooden structure. The tent looks like a greenhouse, a glass building where plants can grow in cold weather.
Jennifer Mussa, a local fish trader, spoke to Voice of America (VOA).
“When we collect fish from the lake, we dry them inside this solar fish dryer and it does not take long to dry because it is so hot,” she said.
Dried fish is the main form of protein in Malawi. Fishing also employs over 50 000 people there, according to the Reuters news service.
Traditionally, the fishers have other ways to dry the fish. They include frying, smoking, or placing them on wire racks. But, by using those methods, the fish can decay during the drying process. Some animals try to eat the catch. The solar tent protects the fish.
Mangani Katandu is a fisheries expert from the University of Malawi. He told VOA that the solar tents decrease the time needed to dry the fish.
“Normally, they would take one-and-a-half to two days to dry. In here, they will put it in the morning; by the evening, they would be taking the fish out.”
The solar tents have also helped the fish traders get higher prices at market for cleaner, better-quality fish.
Financing for the tents came from Cultivate Africa’s Future, a joint project between Canada and Australia. The project works to improve fishing and farming methods with simple innovations or machinery. The goal is to increase access to food, resources, and markets for the communities.
The project urges people to use energy-saving kiln ovens to smoke fish, not open fires. This helps the environment because people will need to cut down fewer trees for firewood.
Cutting the big loss
Loveness Mphongo, another fish trader, said there are good reasons for using solar tents.
“We are using very little wood and it takes a short time to smoke lots of fish,” she said.
Fishing communities on Lake Malawi are also using solar tents. Lake Malawi is the third-largest lake in Africa.
Environmental expert Professor Sosten Chiotha of Leadership for Environment and Development says solar drying is a viable means of minimising the losses.
In his presentation at the Population and Development conference in Lilongwe, he described Lake Chilwa “a highly productive ecosystem.
The lake and surrounding wetlands support livelihoods of over one million, including fishers and farmers.
The marsh plays home to natural resources goods and services valued at over $21 million (K15.3 billion) per year, he says.
“Fish alone contributes up to $18.7 million [K14.02 billion] annually,” Chiotha says.
One of the most productive lakes on the continent, it is home to a dozen fish species, but only three are important in fishery.
The lake provides over 20 percent of all the fish caught in the country and economically sustains almost 7 000 fishers who ply their trade on its salty waters.
An estimated annual income of about K15 billion is realised through the fish trade from Lake Chilwa.
“Lake Chilwa is one of the lakes which are experiencing high fish post-harvest losses in Malawi. Due to poor processing and packaging, nearly 30% of fish caught is lost through post-harvest losses,” Chiotha says.
These losses reduce financial returns to actors in the fish value chain.
Past efforts to improve fish processing include introduction of drying racks and concrete slabs, improved smoking kilns and treatment of processed fish with natural insecticides.
The majority of these introduced technologies failed to reduce post-harvest losses because they failed to meet the needs of fish processors. In particular, drying racks could not be used during the rainy season when fish wastage is highest.
These interventions also did not address post-harvest losses in the retailing stages of fish value chain.
A fish value chain and socio-economic studies conducted in the basin have shown that enhanced participation of women in the lucrative Lake Chilwa fish industry can increase their incomes and reduce fish post-harvest losses.
For the fishing community on the shoreline of Lake Chilwa and Lake Malawi, solar drying is producing better results. – Deborah Block, Voice of Africa