Msaka is a busy beach near Monkey Bay in Mangochi on the southern tip of Lake Malawi.
Before sunrise, multitudes pour from clustered homes, lodges and fish-drying racks to buy fish from the country’s largest lake.
The fierce scramble plays out all day, worsening as catches fall due to overfishing and falling water levels. This disproportionately excludes women and girls.
“We have no say over the catches because culturally, women do not go fishing. Some have to sleep with fishers not to go home with nothing to eat or sell,” says Dora Chinangwa, 25.
Dora leads young women, who have jumped to the front of Mangochi’s fishing culture to avoid risky sexual transactions rampant in the area.
The young women were seen offloading fish worth K250 000 from their boat branded ‘Fishland Ladies’
The fish business offers them the desired escape from poverty, unemployment and risky sex webs in the fishing community.
“The group of 21 started in 2018 with 10 of us putting together our meagre savings and giving each other soft loans for small businesses,” Dora narrates:
After realising that fishing is big business, they started a collective venture.
“We felt sad that many young people were getting unwanted pregnancies, marriages and sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV, because they had nothing to do,” Dora narrates.
United to improve their livelihoods, the group hit the road running by buying a bucketful at a time for sale in Mangochi and surrounding districts.
Dora recalls: “For two years, we have been selling usipa in busy markets as far as Bembeke in Dedza and the cities of Lilongwe and Blantyre.
“However, it wasn’t profitable as we used to buy crushed usipa at the end of the scramble. There were more losses when drying and transporting it to the distant markets.”
She recalls getting just K10 000 from usipa worth K20 000.
“The jostling wasn’t worth it. After braving all that scramble, harassment and sex-for-fish advances, we lost half of our capital just because the quality had deteriorated,” she reminisces.
Now Fishland Ladies have a boat that guarantees them access to fish, a solar drier for improved quality and a steady buyer who packages their catch for sale in supermarkets.
This is part of the K30.5 million matching grant from the government-run Agricultural Commercialisation (Agcom) project funded by a loan from the World Bank. The group contributed 30 percent of the sum they requested to transform their business.
Dora counts the gains: “We have employed 10 fishers. When the boat arrives, we buy all the usipa in peace.”
After measuring the catch using buckets, the young women dry the fish in the facility made of transparent plastic.
“The solar drier doesn’t require smoky fires or expose our usipa to dust, houseflies and germs,” Dora says.
Burning fuelwood to process fish has left lakeside hills treeless, burying fishing grounds in silt. It also exposes people to deadly fumes from open fires.
After selling their processed catch to Hamisi Nyampesi, aged 31, the fish ladies share the proceeds equally with the fishers.
“The Agcom grant has transformed our business. With reliable access to fish, a smoke-free drier and a market that offers K300 per kg, we have the capacity to supply both the quantity and quality the off-taker requires,” he said.
The group reportedly makes about K500 000 a day, up from as low as K35 000 previously.
And the off-taker is excited that the women group now employs men and dominates the business that keeps the beach ticking day and night.
Nyampesi started distributing fish in 2016 “as most fishers were selling their catch cheaply”.
“I grew up fishing, but realised that packaging would add value to the fish and increase the profit,” he says.
The youthful entrepreneur sells the fish packs in supermarkets, including Spar, Chipiku and Metro.
“I started doing business with Fish Ladies in 2019. We clicked because they are as youthful and enterprising as I am. We discussed how we can uplift each other,” he says.
Nyampesi feared that the group would not meet the demand, but they proved him wrong.
“With Agcom support, both the quality and quantities have tremendously improved.
He says the group that once supplied less than 250kgs a week now delivers up to two tonnes from their boat, fishing crew and solar driers.
Mangochi district agribusiness officer Kondwani Nyengo explains: “The future belongs to those who work together to achieve shared goals.
“Since these young women were already organised, it was easy to train them, form a cooperative and develop a bankable proposal to access the matching grant from Agcom.
“With their own facilities and a steady market, they are overcoming the major to their business.”
Nyengo reckons the group has the potential to grow and cash in from the country’s fast-growing growing population, schools, hospitals and other undersupplied market up for grabs.
By July, the fish ladies had banked about K4.5 million, waiting to share annual dividends for boosting their individual businesses and quality of life.
From the proceeds of the collective business, some own groceries, salons and home-based bakeries, land, decent houses, motorcycles, bicycles and other vital assets.
The personal businesses provide food, education and basics for their households.