Women’s group earning more from octopus sales

Thanks to freezers and coolers brought with a KEMFSED grant, a women’s group in Lamu can preserve and transport their catch to markets, turning the tables on middlemen and earning more for their efforts. Shanga Ishakani Women Fishers Group is one of over 60 groups that have benefitted from the community grants.

Shanga Ishakani chairperson Amina Ahmed shows an octopus preserved in one of the freezers bought with KEMFSED funds. She says they now get better prices because they transport the fish to markets

Amina Ahmed has been fishing Octopus most of her life off the shores of Shanga Ishangani on Pate Island, part of the Lamu archipelago. She has been nicknamed Mama Pweza, the “Octopus woman” for her efforts to promote sustainable fishing.

“I started fishing while in primary school and by 18 I was an expert,” says Amina, 43, and a mother of five. “I dropped out of school to concentrate on catching and selling octopus.”

Ï know a lot about the Octopus,” says Amina. “Ït is intelligent and very productive. It lays very many eggs but has a short life.”

When she started fishing it was easy to get large octopus. But over the years, her catch started to decline in quantity and size. The decline is due to the use of illegal gear and methods that lead to overfishing in the nearshore reefs and the destruction of corals the octopus breeds.

Shanga Ishakani group chairperson Amina Ahmed and a group member with their freezer and cooler boxes

The declining catch affected the income of Amina and the hundreds of women on Pate Island who depend on octopus for their livelihoods.

In 2012, the Pate the Marine Community Conservancy was formed to protect the marine environment and promote sustainable fishing practices. The conservancy covers over 9,000 acres and brings together the 10 villages on Pate, including Shanga Ishangani.

From the onset, Amina was actively involved in the conservation work. She got elected to represent her village in the conservancy committee.  This gave an opportunity to get new knowledge and skills in the sustainable management of fisheries.

 “In 2020, we got together and agreed to close off an area of the conservancy for a while to allow the octopus to grow.” This meant that the women would for go fishing for three to four months during the closure. They then open the grounds to fishing for one or two weeks before closing again.

It was a sacrifice that paid off. The closure worked and is today recognized globally as a best practice in sustainable fishing of the octopus.

”We started getting more and bigger octopus that fetched good prices,” says Amina. She attributes the change to a combination of coral restoration and more time for the fish to reproduce and grow.

The octopus farm is closed to fishing thrice a year for three-month periods before harvesting. In the first year of closures, the women harvested 1.5 tonnes from their octopus “farm”, earning the group over 600,00 shillings.

The annual harvest had increased to over two tonnes by 2023 and has been sustained with about 800 kilos recorded for the first quarter of 2024.

“We inform buyers before setting out to harvest the octopus. When we land the catch, we conduct an auction and sell to the highest bidder,” says Amina.

But the highest bid is more often than not the best price.  Amina has always felt that women could earn much more.

A visit to the lake town city of Kisumu, convinced her that something could be done. She explains: “One time I was invited to Kisumu to give a talk on octopus at a university. Some people wanted to know if they could establish an octopus farm in the lake, but I told them this is not possible.”

Amina had carried 10 kilos of octopus in cooler box with ice. She sold them at Sh1,000 a kilo, making more than thrice what she would earn at home. It was an eye-opening encounter.

When Amina heard about KEMFSED community grants, she led her group of 30 members of the Shanga Ishakani Women Fisheries Shelf-Help Group to apply for funding. They received a Sh1,066,000 grant, which they topped up with their own contribution of Sh199,000.

The group bought 30 freezers with a total capacity of three tonnes and 30 cooler boxes.

The equipment has empowered the women, giving them the leverage to bargain for better prices.

“With these freezers and coolers, we do not have to sell out catch to traders unless we get a good price because we preserve and transport it to markets in Lamu and Mombasa,” says Amina.

During the closure of the octopus farm, the women and their families use the freezers to store fish which they buy to resell. This enables them to continue getting income all year round.

Tima Khalid and her husband, Yahya, a fisherman, are some of the beneficiaries. Tima has a freezer at home. Ï used to get heavy losses due to fish going back before it gets to the market. Now I only need to buy ice and preserve the fish as I look for buyers.”

Yahya Ali and his wife Tima no longer suffer post-harvest losses in their fish trade

Says Amin: “All the women now have more money . . . many are improving their homes from mud to stone walls. Others have started businesses such as selling clothes or household items. We can all afford to pay fees so that out children get a good education.”

 As a result of the steady income, the women are able to contribute Sh1,500 each month to a common kitty from which they can take loans to expand their business.

For every kilo sold, the women contribute Sh30 to their group for community projects. With their first harvest in 2021, they bought a Sh120,000 plot and partnered with the County Government to build a nursery school. The women also support needy families from their common kitty.

A school built in partnership of Shanga Ishakani group and the county government

“We plan to build a guest house to increase our income. We will name it Pweza House because octopus fishing has transformed our lives.

Shanga Ishakani is one of 66 groups in Lamu County that have received over Sh121 million in KEMFSED grants for community projects to improve livelihoods, social welfare, and environmental conservation. The grants are benefitting more than 8,000 beneficiaries in the households of group members. Octopus is an important fishery for Kenya, among the three top exporters in the Western Indian Ocean region along with Tanzania and Madagascar, mostly to Europe.

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