Use of solar lamps to boost fish catch stirs regional row

By Isaiah Gwengi | Apr 05, 2022
WHO estimates that breathing kerosene fumes is the equivalent to smoking two packets of cigarettes a day. [File, Standard]


For many years, under the cover of darkness, thousands of fishermen set sail from various beaches on Lake Victoria, their kerosene lamps illuminating the choppy waters.

As they venture further into the deep waters, hundreds of sardine-like fish - popularly known as omena - leap out of the water and into their nets, which are then hauled into the boats.

Although most of the fishermen shifted to solar lamps after environmental and health experts raised concerns about the widespread use of kerosene lamps on the lake for nighttime fishing, the trend is being reversed.

The practice is mostly being perpetuated by fishermen from neighbouring Uganda, where authorities have banned the use of the more efficient solar-powered lamps.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that breathing kerosene fumes is the equivalent to smoking two packets of cigarettes a day, with two-thirds of adult females with lung cancer in developing nations being non-smokers. Many are probably to smoke from open fires and kerosene lamps.

Outlawed fishing gear

Ugandan authorities have classified solar-powered lamps as part of the outlawed fishing gear, citing their impact on Nile Perch production.

“The lamp complements the illegal fishing gear because its light reaches the bottom of the lake and disorients fish,” explained Mr Enock Mwanje, a Uganda Revenue Authority supervisor based on Hama Island.

But 42-year-old Mr Stephen Okoth, a fisherman who operates from Uhanya beach and switched to solar lamps more than seven years ago, says using kerosene for night fishing is extremely inefficient, dangerous and expensive.

Mr Okoth said he spends at least Sh700 daily to recharge his five solar lamps, which is still cheaper than using kerosene, whose cost has been on the rise over the years. 

“Rechargeable lamps are providing a better option for us by cutting our expenditure on fuel,” says Mr Ken Murage, a fisherman on Usenge beach.

The lamps, which are powered by solar batteries, are fixed on floaters attached to the fishing boats.  

Ms Monica Akinyi, a fishing boat owner, said the ban on solar lamps on the Ugandan part of the lake is a threat to the survival of the fish trade.

“There is no fish on the Kenyan side, and we are, therefore, forced to fish in the Ugandan waters,” she explained.

Ms Akinyi, also noted that the traditional kerosene lamps require daily maintenance, and there are very few people who know how to repair them.

The high cost of kerosene eats into the profits of fishermen, leaving them in a cycle of poverty, said Mr Isaack Onyonyi, a marketing officer for We Tu, a social enterprise that delivers sustainable and innovative solutions for better mobility, clean energy and safe water.

“Fishermen make so little money because the cost of input is very high,” said Mr Onyonyi.

He said solar power is a more affordable, clean and safe alternative whose use among the fishing communities can greatly transform their lives.

He added that the use of solar lamps also lowers pollution of the lake as a result of reduced spillage from the paraffin lamps.

“Fishing has been crucial to the lakeside communities, thus the need to increase their access to solar energy, which enhances their economic activities,” he said.


Mr Michael Otieno, a fisheries officer in Siaya County said they will rely on research to develop policies that will guide the use of solar lamps.

“So far, we are taking it as environmentally friendly, safe and cost-effective, but should we find that it has a negative impact, then we will find a way to save our Nile Perch,” said Mr Otieno.

He said any new measures taken to protect the environment and the welfare of fishermen must have the backing of a legal framework.

“It is currently very difficult to prosecute whoever is using solar lamps in Kenya because the law is silent on this method of fishing,” said Mr Otieno.

According to Director of Freshwater Systems Research at the Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute (KMFRI) Kisumu Centre Dr Christopher Aura, the use of solar lamps aids in the increased harvest of other fish species while forcing the Nile Perch to migrate.

Mr Julius Odembo, a Beach Management Unit official, said they have been sensitising members on why they should abandon the solar lamps.

“We are losing millions of shillings in fines for fishing in the Ugandan waters using solar lamps. We are forced to use the paraffin lamp even though it’s an old technology that is costly and unsafe,” explained Mr Odembo. 

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