An investigation has revealed that syndicates are making close to $5 million (about Sh575 million) a year by smuggling undersized fish from Kenya’s Lake Turkana to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
The illicit trade is unchecked by the Kenyan or Congolese authorities, and may, in fact, be protected by corrupt officials. It poses a threat to the unique ecology of Lake Turkana in arid northern Kenya, the world’s only permanent desert lake, with the tilapia species facing possible extinction.
The trade is also dangerous to consumers, as fish are increasingly treated with a deadly across-the-counter insecticide to prevent maggot infestation.
The investigation established that there are three smuggling syndicates.
According to Ms Leah Ewoi, a former local councillor also known as “Mama Iko”, who has been in the business for over 10 years, at least three trucks leave Northern Kenya with about 300 bales of the fish each week for the insatiable market in Lubumbashi, DRC’s second largest city, and Kasai, in the south of the country.
Sh9 million a week
She said a bale of fish is worth between Sh27,000 and Sh30,000, depending on its size, implying that a syndicate makes about Sh9 million a week.
According to a government source that preferred anonymity, between seven and 10 million undersized tilapia are caught and traded to the DRC every week.
“The trend of undersized fishing in Lake Turkana is worrying. If it is not controlled, the future is hopeless,” warned Dr Chrispine Nyamweya, assistant director of the Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute.
“Lake Turkana is experiencing multiple stresses. The ecosystem will give in and the stock will collapse.”
The centre of the smuggling operation is Kalokol, a small town on the western side of Lake Turkana. The town, which lacks electricity and running water, has a bustling market for fish that is smoked, salted or sun-dried before being exported. Other small lake settlements that depend on fishing are Lowarang’ak, Nachukui, Kerio and Long’ech.
We visited Kalokol and for three months we gleaned details from government officials, inside sources, traders and fishermen. Rows of docked wooden boats that are used for transport and fishing line the shores of Ferguson’s Gulf and Daraja beach.
Fishing not regulated
From the look of things, no one regulates fishing in the lake. We spot children as young as five years old using polythene bags to trap small fish on the shores of Long’ech peninsula, which is accessible from Ferguson’s Gulf either by road or boat.
Far from being embarrassed, traders take pride in the sale of undersized fish, which is illegal under Kenyan law. A well-organised Kenyan syndicate issues nets and fishing boats and maintains the landing sites where the catch is procured by traders.
The trade has drawn hundreds of Congolese nationals.
There is a strict division of labour: no Congolese are allowed on the lake, while no Kenyan trader is allowed to transport the fish to markets in the DRC.
Turn a blind eye
In an area with very little other economic activity, politicians, community leaders, security forces and local families and their children all depend on the fish trade, which may be why government officials turn a blind eye to it.
“We once intercepted a truck carrying small fish but top government officials issued orders for the release of the truck. This trade funds local politics,” said a county official.
“Almost 100 per cent of the undersized fishing is done in Kalokol area, and the perpetrators, who are corrupt, influential and extremely rich, collude with the government machinery,” a source said. “The Congolese have infiltrated the area with a preference for small fish.”
However, the Turkana government is also a beneficiary as it taxes the trade.
“We are the third-largest revenue earner for the county as per the 2020/21 financial year,” said Robert Kibunja, director of the Fisheries department in the county. According to the department, the county taxes the trade through fishermen, vessels, processors, health and cess licences even though it’s an illegal business.
The smuggling syndicates have their roots in the defunct Turkana Fishermen’s Cooperative Society, established during the 1980s and largely bankrolled by the Norwegian government.
The cooperative and its processing factory collapsed after Norway slashed development aid when it severed diplomatic ties with the government of former President Daniel Moi.
The factory had reduced indiscriminate fishing and channelled the profits of a fairly clean trade into the region. The arrival of middlemen from across East Africa has been fuelled by the closure of the processing plant.
The syndicates, with the alleged support of local authorities, have taken over the facilities that belonged to the co-operative, using them to warehouse undersized fish and coordinate their packaging and transportation out of the area.
“The cartels are purported to fund local politics and are assured of immunity in the illegal business,” said a county official at the Fisheries department who claimed anonymity.
Mr Emmanuel Imana, a former legislator of the defunct Turkana Central Constituency, said that the collapse of the cooperative created an avenue for the undersized fish market, with its main customers being the Congolese.
“Congolese citizens started flocking to Kalokol town as early as the 1990s and have since been smuggling undersized fish out of the area under the watch and with the protection of government and county authorities,” Mr Imana said.
“The illegal undersized fish business is like marijuana in Kenya, which is unlawful. However, it is a booming vice that controls a major part of business in Kalokol,” said Mr Eliud Wafula, a dried fish dealer.
Locals earning peanuts
Very few Kenyan nationals have been able to get a slice of the trade, and the local fishers are said to earn “peanuts” since the business is controlled by the middlemen who are the cartels. They then sell the fish to the Congolese in bulk.
Those that have benefited often have political positions or have risen through the ranks in a business controlled by Congolese.
Mr Peter Ekuleu, also known as “Chapchap”, owns the largest store in Turkana County. The old iron-clad structure, painted in fading blue and red, used to be a part of the factory set up by the Norwegians as a warehouse for dry fish.
It has been in operation since 2012, said manager Daniel Erukudi. One of the people we encounter there is Mr Stephen Ekuwom, allegedly a dealer in undersized fish operating under the guise of a trader in fresh fish.
We spot busy young men and women sorting out different fish species. Our eyes are drawn to huge heaps of dried fish, arranged by size, being packed in bales. According to Mr Erukudi, they are to be transported to the DRC market.
The large fish are prominently displayed at the entrance to the shop, while the undersized fish are stored much less visibly in the corners after being offloaded from pick-up trucks.
The link between the illegal trade and the state authorities is personified by Ms Ewoi. Once a councillor in Kalokol, she has run an illegal business for 10 years – and boasts about it.
“I purchase fish from fishermen and sell directly to the Congolese,” she said. “The dry fish business is juicy, since it’s easy to process with a sizeable amount of salt. The Congolese love small fish. They only take small fish, the big ones they don’t want,”
The Congolese traders live in iron sheet shelters in a compound in the town, isolated from the local community. Many are middle-aged men, and most claim to be in Kenya on business visas.
In the compound, comprising 12 single-room houses, they handle all the transactions related to the smuggling.
“We are here because we are looking for more money. Life in DRC is very hard and there is no money,” said one Congolese, who identified himself as “Mwalimu”, Kiswahili for teacher.
“We are forced to persevere in these harsh climatic conditions to better our lives.”
“I am driven by the desire to make money for a better life,” said another Congolese trader-cum-teacher in Kalokol.
The Congolese we met complained about their dealings with the locals.
“Most of us have lost plenty of cash through untrustworthy business with the locals,” said a Congolese man who only identified himself as Paul. “We have to let it go because seeking justice is a long-forgotten story.”
In turn, the local people accused the Congolese of entangling Kenyan fishers in debt by supplying them with nets, boats and fuel. They said fishers are sometimes given indirect loans so that they are trapped unknowingly.
Mr Dickson Ewoyi, a 48-year-old who started fishing at 13 years of age, is proud that he has been able to use the proceeds to put his children through school.
“I have provided undersized fish to the Congolese for seven years. My life has been transformed,” he said.
A source in the county government’s Fisheries department believes the traders are laundering money or funding the war in the DRC, an allegation we could not verify.
A government scientist in the region, who asked to remain anonymous, said that underfunding of the county government has made it difficult to control, monitor and patrol the 256km shore of the alkaline lake.
Asked about allegations that local politicians are colluding with the smugglers, county Agriculture, Pastoral Economy and Fisheries executive Philip Aemum chose his words carefully and did not offer a denial.
“Has the national government invested a single coin to promote fishing in the largest lake in the country?” he asked.
“When you go to Nairobi, ask the Minister for Agriculture how much money he has sent to the Turkana Fisheries department.”
The lake has more than 55 fish species, with tilapia accounting for up to 40 per cent of the total fish, according to a report by the Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute.
Threat to human health
The dried fish business also carries a threat to human health as traders use “Dudu dust”, an insecticide, to preserve the fish.
“Nowadays, the fish is attacked by maggots because people use less salt. This forces them to resort to using Dudu dust, which is prohibited by the Ministry of Health,” said Ms Ewoi.
In one of the stores, we witnessed a young man sprinkling a white powder in a water bottle on the undersized fish before packing.
As an over-the-counter preparation, 7.5 per cent of Dudu dust is the chemical carbaryl, a known carcinogenic that is extremely poisonous, said Dr Peterson Warutere, a scientist at Kenyatta University in Nairobi.
“Consumers of fish treated in this way are likely to suffer from many different cancers, particularly of the liver and the nervous system. It could also cause hormonal imbalance,” Dr Warutere said.
Attempts to have the dried fish tested at two government laboratories were unsuccessful.
We secretly trailed a truck carrying the undersized fish from Kalokol to the Kenya-Tanzania border, destined for the DRC.
“One lorry carries up to 20 tonnes an equivalent of 100 bales,” confirmed the driver, whose identity has been concealed.
“It’s risky and dangerous transporting such a huge consignment,” he said, adding that it took him two or three days to reach the Isebania border point, where Congolese trucks pick up the goods and transport them via Zambia to the DRC.
This article is part of a series on environmental crime in Africa, supported by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime, the Henry Nxumalo Foundation and Oxpeckers Investigative Environmental Journalism