Nestled on the shores of Lake Turkana, the largest permanent desert lake in the world, stretching almost 250 kilometres from Todonyang in the north to Kerio in the south, is Kalokol town.
Once upon a time, the town had one of the most critical fish factories in Kenya that had, directly and indirectly, benefited locals, offering opportunities for various jobs like fishing, transporting, processing and packaging fish products to be sold in major towns and also for export to the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Tanzania.
Referred to as Kalokol Fish Factory, the large processing and freezing facility was set up by the Norwegian Agency for Development (Norad) and began operations in the early 1980s.
The project was part of a Norway-driven regional development programme in Kenya aimed at providing a solution to cycles of drought that had hit northern region for centuries.
“We were maximising on the readily available fish in the lake to end destitution and vulnerability by embracing commercial fishing,” said Mzee Mahumud Ali, a seasoned fish trader.
Mzee Ali said fishing was the main activity for many locals who had lost most or all of their livestock to drought, with fresh Nile perch for filleting and fish maw being lucrative ventures.
Norad, he recalled, also spent millions to improve road infrastructure in the region to facilitate transportation of fish and fish products to the market as well as investing in power production and water provision.
But in 1990, diplomatic relations between Kenya and Norway were severed due to Norway’s criticism of the Kenyan government and its leadership under President Daniel Moi.
In anger, President Moi expelled the Norwegian ambassador, and with that the termination of the programme in 1991, along with most other Norwegian development aid to Kenya.
Though the ties were restored in 1994, fisherfolk who were operating under the Turkana Fishermen’s Cooperative Society (TFCS) noted that the State, through the department of fisheries, didn’t have reliable structures to ensure that they continue netting a record number of fish, especially tilapia and Nile perch in a nearby cove of Lake Turkana known as Ferguson’s Gulf.
The fishermen envisioned that State would support the project and ensure that the factory could continue to process fish, buy fish from members and maintain a ready market to sustain commercial fishing, blaming its collapse on the State.
Joseph Eyapan said that when Norad was active in Turkana the factory, which has now been abandoned, was easily being supplied with water and all the machines were operational.
“Since Norad left, the water supply system was vandalised and the generator stolen. The ice we were getting easily to preserve the fish is hard to come by. We blame the government because it didn't give a better direction of how the operation of the factory would resume," Mr Eyapan said.
The top management at the time was also accused of not prioritising the interests of fishermen by holding onto better structures to properly manage the facility.
"Senior managers overlooked the looting spree that saw individuals take machines like generators. The fish stock declined quickly following uncontrolled illegal fishing activities, with the fishing venture now becoming individually run," he said.
Mzee Ali, now the Kenya National Chamber of Commerce and Industry (KNCCI) Turkana Central sub-county director, said that since 1997, there have never been organised fishing activities and a sustainable water supply system in Kalokol.
Lack of a proper structure and a cooperative society to run the venture, cartels and middlemen have been manipulating the market, Mzee Ali said.
This happened, he said, as the government was working to revive other factories across the country, including Mumias Sugar, Kenya Creameries Cooperative and others,
"We call for the same efforts in Mumias and the Kenya Creameries Cooperatives to be directed to revive the Kalokol Fish Factory,” he said.
“Reviving the factory will lead to improved livelihoods for the local community and players in the fisheries value chain, as well as increased revenue to the government in the form of taxes and other levies.”
The trade lobby has established that the collapse of the Kalokol Fish factory more than 20 years ago has led to a wide range of challenges to the Lake Turkana fishing sector, ranging from poor pricing and very high post-harvest losses incurred by fishermen and entrepreneurs in the value chain.
KNCCI Turkana chapter chairman Pius Ewoton said Lake Turkana has a great potential that has not been fully harnessed.
“Deliberate efforts by the county and other stakeholders to revive the factory and expand markets for fish will be a major milestone in reviving commercial fishing in Turkana,” Mr Ewoton said.
Addressing the needs of traders, he said, will stimulate the fishing sector as a reliable alternative source of livelihood to pastoralism.
He noted that the lake is under-exploited as a result of low-quality fishing gear, threats from militiamen from Ethiopia, poor roads linking Lake Turkana to markets in other parts of Kenya and Congo and Tanzania as well as poor handling facilities.
While emphasising the significance of technical and vocational training colleges, Mr Ewoton called on young people to take advantage of the County Government Technical College in Kalokol, which offers technical courses so that they can later start businesses in line with skills gained and contribute to the local economy.
Post-harvest losses range between 30-35 percent of the total fish value obtained from the lake due to lack of fishing processing plant, said John Malala, senior officer from the Kenya Marine and Fishing Research Institute in Kalokol.
Sonny Epuu, a fish trader, said small organised groups for fish traders should also be supported financially to own refrigerated vehicles and save them the losses they incur when they use motorcycles.
"With vehicles that have refrigerators, we can access markets in Kapenguria, Kitale, Eldoret, Kisumu and Busia even with fresh fish because our once reliable factory collapsed," Mr Epuu said.
Michael Nadiko, the chairman of Natogo Fish Traders Group in Lodwar, said the town is the largest local market but demand was yet to be fully satisfied due to unreliable supply of fish from the lake.
Mr Nadiko said they can also play a critical role in reviving commercial fishing activities in the county if they are facilitated with transport to get fish from the lake.
Truphosa Amere, senior director of the Presidential Delivery Unit, said the fishing sector is right at the centre of the President’s Big Four agenda on food security.
“We have seen the situation and we are going to push through the concerned ministries to see the key concerns affecting this sector have been addressed,” she said during a multi-stakeholder meeting in Kalokol on Saturday.
Ongoing refurbishing work on the Lodwar-Kalokol road is 42 percent complete and it is also among key enablers of commercial fishing in Turkana.
To build the financial muscles of fisherfolk in Kalokol, fish traders were advised to revive cooperatives, where they can save and lend among themselves to boost their businesses.
Acting Turkana Trade Chief Officer James Lokwale said the county government is seeking to revive the Turkana Fishermen’s Cooperative Society, formed in the 1970s to play a pivotal role in marketing fish from the lake, raise the income of fishermen and traders and uplift the welfare of locals too long exploited by middlemen.
"Reviving the cooperative is critical for fishermen and traders in the county to commercialise the sector. Their bargaining power will also assure them of better returns," the county official said.
He confirmed that Lake Turkana fishermen are being exploited through unfair prices for fish.
He said they had established that the fish market around Lake Turkana is controlled by cartels and middlemen who are buying fish as low as one shilling.
"It is a sad state of affairs for our fishermen because though the fish is exported to DRC Congo they are earning negligible income," Mr Lokwale said.