Several factors go into the pricing of fish. Besides transport costs and taxation, ice used in preservation is another key component.
The delicacy is among highly perishable foods and it must be handled with care at every step en route to the market before it finds a customer.
Every minute that fish stays out of water in a hot environment determines its value.
Time wasted equals loss. One bad fish can make thousands of others bad.
It is therefore important to sell fresh fish and eat it as quickly as possible.
A visit to the Mbita town beach in Homa Bay County reveals just how important ice is in fish preservation.
The beach is dotted with fish retail and wholesale outlets, each equipped with a fridge meant for ice storage.
All the fridges are broken down. But they are still useful.
To keep them functional, they are stocked with ice before they are loaded with fish.
A communal ice plant on Rusinga island, which was supposed to supply ice to traders at a lower cost, has remained shut for the past nine years, with no indication whether it will ever reopen.
The ice business is now dominated by private investors, who control the market.
This is why fish traders are asking the Homa Bay County government to consider reviving the ice plant to provide cheaper ice and create jobs.
For fishermen, surrendering their catch to fishmongers the moment they dock their boats at the beach is the best option to avoid unnecessary losses.
In most instances, trading happens by dawn, when the temperatures are still low and favourable for keeping fish fresh.
The moment the first rays of the sun hit the ground, traders must hurry to put fish in cold storage.
To ensure the whole catch stays fresh before it is consumed, traders are required to keep fish in fridges, which reduce bacterial infections.
It is, however, expensive to own a fridge.
Unreliable electricity is also a major challenge, especially for those who already have fridges that can’t work without electricity.
Most traders, therefore, rely on ice commercially produced by private investors on the shores of Lake Victoria.
Closed due to mismanagement
In Mbita, ice is bought from two ice-making firms. It is, however, expensive for traders to buy the ice every day.
A 100kg sack of ice is sold for Sh900 and takes seven hours before it completely melts, forcing a trader to buy another sack to preserve fish.
Traders have, therefore, been transferring the burden to customers, who must dig deeper into their pockets in order to eat fish.
Ironically, the giant ice-making machine that was supposed to provide cheaper ice to fish traders lies idle 300 metres away.
The Mbita Ice Plant, the first structure a traveller sees on the way to Rusinga island on the Mbita Causeway Bridge, was once owned by the State before being transferred to the public.
It, however, collapsed and was eventually closed due to mismanagement.
The firm was built by the national government’s department of fisheries before it was transferred to community members, who took over its management.
Homa Bay County Fisheries Director George Okoth was among government officers who witnessed the plant producing ice.
Besides ice, the firm purified drinking water for sale and at one time processed fish.
“It was constructed by the government and handed over to the community. A group calling itself Islanders Development Initiative was responsible for its management,” Mr Okoth told Nation.Africa.
Most members of the group, he said, were residents of Mfangano and Rusinga islands, but some stayed in Nairobi.
He said the community signed a memorandum of understanding with the government for the transfer of management of the plant from the State to individual ownership.
From the lake
“The government cannot do business with its people. The plant could not be shut. It was therefore decided that it be handed over to the community, who were getting support from foreign donors,” he said.
It wasn’t long, however, before it was run down and shuttered.
At the ice plant, the machines are silent, rusty and covered with dust and dirt.
A few fans that once cooled the engines can be seen spinning on the power of the prevailing wind from the lake.
There is a parked lorry that used to supply ice and water to various destinations across Homa Bay. It is the only one still functional.
County fisheries officials use one of the buildings in the compound as their offices.
Mr Okoth said managers of the firm could not pay electricity bills, leave alone paying workers.
The plant stalled because workers could not withstand the difficulties.
“Ice making was suspended first before water purification. The whole plant was eventually shut down,” he recalled.
Traders who depended on the plant said it provided cheaper ice, which made the fish business less expensive.
Mr Maurice Muma is among the traders who bought ice from the firm.
He told Nation.Africa that since it closed, fish traders have had to spend a lot of money buying ice for fish preservation.
“Taking fish to Nairobi is a very expensive affair. A lorry carries ice worth Sh10,000 for fish to get to the market while fresh and this is every day. The plant could have provided ice at a fraction of what private investors are charging,” Mr Muma said.
Some of the people who depended on the plant are now engaged in other activities.
Mr Joseph Obilo, 63, went into farming after losing his job at the firm together with 2,000 shares in the plant.
His colleague Stephen Otieno, however, continued working in the compound, only this time as an employee of the fisheries department.
“My duty was to clean up the compound. Life was a bit fair then. I am still based here, though on a different assignment,” he says.
According to Mr Muma, who sits on the Mbita Beach Management Unit (BMU) as a committee member, the beach supplies up to 15 tonnes of fish every day.
The beach is a landing site. It is used as a fish collection centre for other beaches before the catch is taken to the market.
He challenged the county government to take the initiative and revive the firm to create jobs for local youths.
“County government revenue collection officers have never missed collecting revenue from us. We also need to benefit from the government, which is supposed to make our working environment favourable,” Mr Muma said.
Homa Bay Senator Moses Kajwang’ has promised to look into the issue and see if the plant can be revived.