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From the Field: Small Fish, Big Impact in Malawi
Posted on: 25/02/2013
By Ellie Cooper
If you are a regular lender you’ll have noticed that many of our Malawi entrepreneurs make a living drying and selling fish. The fish in question, abundant in Lake Malawi, is usipa, bitter tasting and measuring about the size of a little finger. Although tiny, this little fish is feeding the whole community.
Usipa is the lakeshore staple diet for both lunch and dinner. It’s served with nsema, a food made from heating up maize or cassava flour with water.
Tiny fish feeding the whole community
Starting in August 2012 I spent three months living in Malawi whilst working on Deki’s microfinance project. During my time there I found out how important usipa is in the local community. At least one family member in every household in Usisya participates in the fish trade. At night men of all ages are involved in the most dangerous part of the process, paddling their dugout canoes out to cast nets into the lake and returning in the early hours of the morning.
The lake looks absolutely magical at night with the fisherman’s kerosene lamps dotted underneath the starriest sky I’ve ever witnessed. They pass the fishing hours drinking and playing Bao, a traditional East African board game involving stealing each other’s counters or stones. I attempted it once and lost all of my stones within the first minute. Considering the game can go on for hours I concluded I should stick to Snakes and Ladders!
Fishing is a dangerous job
However, it isn’t all fun and games out on the lake. Several Deki entrepreneurs and many others in the village have lost their husbands and fathers in fishing accidents. Although the locals make the dugout canoes look like the simplest vessels to operate, it’s highly skilled work. Imagine balancing on a roughly dug out tree trunk which measures three and a half metres long and less than a metre wide. The trick is to sit cross legged towards the back of the canoe, paddling on one side. It’s impressive enough that the men manage to sit like this for hours on end in calm waters – you can only imagine how much more skill is needed when the conditions get rough.
Fish sells for double price in town
Many wives and older couples sleep on the beach by the lakeshore to ensure they buy the best fish on the men’s return. Although most people can only afford to buy enough usipa for their families, the loans provided by Deki’s supporters have allowed some people in the community to make money from selling the fish in town. Once dried, Deki clients can be seen on a daily basis clutching their usipa filled buckets on the only vehicle which runs to the main town, Mzuzu. Here they can sell usipa for nearly double the price.
Small microloans change lives
They return the same day with profit in their pockets. The entrepreneurs I spoke to were using the profits to diversify their business, educate their children, buy nutritious food for their families, develop their houses and in turn improve their family’s standard of living. A £100 loan can allow an entrepreneur to buy a worthwhile amount of usipa to sell in Mzuzu and make a profit. The people in this community have the entrepreneurial skills to improve their livelihoods – we only need to provide them with the resources to allow them to use these skills. I witnessed how such a simple idea is having a truly positive impact in Usisya.
Deki partners with Temwa in Malawi.