Women at the Helm: Reshaping Kenya’s Aquaculture Industry on Lake Victoria

Dr Jennifer Riria in Kenya.
Dr. Jennifer Riria is strengthening women's resilience in Kenya through Echo Network Foundation. Photo by Echo Network Foundation.

It’s nighttime on Lake Victoria and men take to their boats to hunt for wild fish or access cages of farmed fish. As they bring fish up from below the dark waters, much darker realities await women on the lake’s shores.

Each night, men dock their boats with a new supply of fish, while women wait to purchase them to feed to their families and resell in local markets. But these transactions are not as simple as a monetary exchange. Traditional gender norms and poverty fuel gendered trade along Lake Victoria, putting women at the mercy of buying their fish from men.

These transactions are often subject to a practice called ‘jaboya’, by which women are forced to engage in sex to access fish. Jaboya puts women in vulnerable positions of abuse and at risk of contracting HIV. It also robs women of their voice in Kenya’s aquaculture sector and their ability to build resilience through decent work.

Empowering women to change the aquaculture status quo

Creating changes to this entrenched system on and around Lake Victoria requires accelerating women’s inclusion and leadership in the aquaculture sector. This is one of the ambitions of Dr. Jennifer Riria, President and CEO of Echo Network Foundation (previously Echo Network Africa). Echo Network acts as a catalyst for development by working with community-based organizations to empower women and create a more just society. One of its key initiatives focuses on building resilience for women working in the fishing and aquaculture industry by addressing the challenges they face, including limited access to finance and equipment and minimal control in local supply chains – which often lead to jaboya.

The women taking control of fish supply chains

Echo Network’s primary focus is on moving women into positions of leadership in the aquaculture value chain. Organizing women into beach management units allows them to work together and advocate for themselves. They are then equipped with both skills training and equipment to take to the water and farm fish themselves instead of relying on men to bring fish ashore. This allows them to have full control of their own supply chains, which transforms their opportunities and their ability to improve their lives and the communities they live in.

With support from MEDA, women in Echo Network’s program now own boats for the very first time. They can now get to their floating cages and check on their own fish. They have also gained access to fish feed pellet-making machines, lowering the cost of fish food, which used to be a barrier to their participation. Solar-powered freezers have further allowed them to store fish and prevent spoilage before they sell their stock.

The program actively focuses on achieving financial sustainability. Women are empowered to continue to invest in their businesses beyond the duration of MEDA and Echo Network’s support. By improving their access to financial services – especially to secure loans – women can keep enhancing their businesses and positioning themselves in the aquaculture market.

“For the first time, women were owning boats. And you can imagine that made a difference even in the women’s perceptions of themselves. It enhanced their standing in society.”

Dr. Jennifer Riria, Echo Network Foundation
Women in Kenya participate in aquaculture on Lake Victoria.
Women participate in aquaculture on Lake Victoria. Photo by Echo Network Foundation.

Accelerating change around Lake Victoria and beyond

Through the partnership between Echo Network and MEDA, 400 women on Lake Victoria are now able to earn more income in the aquaculture industry – and to avoid jaboya. According to Riria, this improved economic positioning has reduced violence at home as women are in charge of their lives.

Ensuring women are in positions of leadership and decision-making power can achieve powerful results, like those seen through Echo Network’s work on Lake Victoria. These results can extend far beyond the aquaculture industry in Kenya. Now, organizations in other countries around the region are asking Echo Network to expand its leadership programs to where they work.

As UN Women’s theme for International Women’s Day 2024 recognizes the need to accelerate progress on investing in women to create prosperous economies and a healthy planet, Echo Network offers an example of how this can be done in practice. Collaborative action like that seen through MEDA and Echo Network’s partnership is urgently needed, and women must be positioned at the helm of these efforts.

“A nation or a society that excludes women will never know peace and will never develop.”

Dr. Jennifer Riria, Echo Network Foundation

In Kenya, MEDA’s Leveraging Equality for Gender-Inclusive Economic Development (LEGEND) project contributes to improved economic prosperity for women, youth, and other underrepresented populations in the aquaculture, horticulture, and poultry sectors. The project, funded by Global Affairs Canada, works with small and medium enterprises and small entrepreneurs to address the challenges they face by increasing access to information, inputs, technology, financing, and markets through technical assistance, matching grants, and investment capital.  

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  • MEDA (Mennonite Economic Development Associates)

    MEDA is an international economic development organization that creates business solutions to poverty. We work in agri-food market systems, focusing primarily on women and youth in rural communities in the Global South. Our success is measured by income, improved processes, increased knowledge, and the creation of decent work.

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