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Harnessing fishing traditions to help women's dreams sail

 Rukia Pamba Juma, Founder and Chair of Pweza Women Group, with members of the group in Kilifi County. [Levis Musumba, Standard]

Born into a family deeply rooted in the fishing tradition, Rukia Pamba Juma has emerged as a guiding light for the Pweza Women Group in Kilifi County since its inception in 2019.

As a mother of eight with more than two decades of experience in the fishing sector, Rukia advocates for local women, aiming to overcome gender inequalities in accessing fish resources, markets, and employment opportunities.

“My vision was to empower women economically, break down barriers hindering their progress, and provide employment opportunities to young, unemployed individuals,” she expressed during an interview with Health & Science.

With 30 members, the majority being women engaged in fish mongering and trading, the Pweza Women Group has become a catalyst for positive change in the community. Rukia has played a pivotal role in securing partnerships with donor organisations to source funds and training for women, equipping them with valuable skills to navigate the male-dominated industry.

“The objective of the Pweza Women Group was to enable these vulnerable women to have a voice in the fisheries sector, controlling the price of their products, owning their fishing vessels, and achieving financial stability in both business and household levels,” Rukia explains.

Kenya’s fishing industry contributes about 0.5 per cent of the national GDP and approximately 2 per cent of the national export earnings. Kilifi County’s artisanal fishery contributes a total of 9,306 MT annually, translating to 26 per cent of the total catch recorded along the Kenya coastline, valued at Sh2.4 billion.

Despite the crucial role women play in Kilifi County’s artisanal fishery, persistent gender inequalities, limited educational and training opportunities, and cultural beliefs impede their progress. “The Beach Management Unit regulations, for example, aim for at least a third of leadership positions in different levels of BMU structures to be filled by the opposite gender, but challenges persist,” says John Mwangi Gachuru, Director of the Fisheries Department in Kilifi County.

In 2021, the Kenya Marine and Fisheries Socio-Economic Development project (KEMFSED), implemented by Kilifi County Government and funded by the World Bank, was launched to improve the management of priority fisheries and mariculture and increase access to complementary livelihood activities in coastal communities.

“We have some business training programmes focusing on women to equip them with skills to run their businesses, such as fish handling and processing to ensure minimal post-harvest losses and better market values,” says Lucy Kapombe, KEMFSED Project Coordinator, Kilifi.

In 2023, Rukia’s vision received a substantial boost, securing an offshore modern boat and fishing gear for the Pweza Women Group, marking a turning point in their journey. The group can now venture to the 200 nautical mile fishing limit in the deep seas, doubling their fish catch and significantly impacting market prices. “Just in three days, we have made 200 kgs of fish catch. We project to make about Sh200,000 in profit from the fish business monthly,” says Rukia.

 Fishermen sorting their catch at a beach in Kilifi County. [Levis Musumba, Standard]

“The increase in the catch makes them stand a chance to benefit from county funds allocation to priority areas, which will boost revenue collection,” says Nabil Mjahidi, Fisheries Officer.

According to the Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute (KMFRI), the fisheries sector in coastal Kenya has the potential to generate more than Sh300 billion annually if all designated fishing zones are fully exploited.

Halima Mbaruk, a widow and mother of four, is a beneficiary of Rukia’s vision. As an impressive fishmonger, she has doubled her earnings and even employed seven more youth fish vendors to bolster her profit.

“Through our Pweza group, I have been able to take my children to school, feed and clothe them, and now I have bought a plot that I want to put up commercial rental houses,” says Halima.

Sophia Karisa, a procurement committee member for the Pweza Women Group, exemplifies the transformative impact of the KEMFSED project. Trained in procurement and financial management, she has assisted in procuring their modern offshore fishing boat as a group.

The Pweza Women Group now operates a revolving fund that provides members with low-interest loans at favourable repayment terms, allowing women to expand their businesses, pay bills, and educate their children, contributing significantly to achieving sustainable development goals.

“I desire to see women in this society to be self-reliant and independent as a foundation in ending gender-based violence and women marginalisation,” says Rukia.

Despite the promising future in the fisheries sector, climate change poses a direct threat to the productivity of marine and coastal fisheries. Rukia has formed a team of 40 individuals, consisting of 20 women and 20 men environmental conservators, to salvage the maritime and promote sustainable fishing practices.

“We are involved in cleaning up the ocean from plastics, restoring mangroves and coral reefs, and educating the fisherfolk community on sustainable fishing practices,” says Rukia.

The KEMFSED project has allocated Sh289 million to enhance the management of priority fisheries and mariculture, further training fishermen on sustainable fishing practices, maritime laws and regulations, safety while in the sea, and the effects of illegal fishing, as well as marine conservation practices.

Rukia’s commitment extends beyond local borders, as she has expanded market opportunities by partnering with fish traders and fishermen from Tanzania. This not only increases foreign exchange but also creates job opportunities for local youth and women. 

“Every year during the high season, I cruise from Tanzanian waters to Kenya to fetch good prices for fish where I make Sh200,000,” says Sheib Omar, a fish trader from Pemba, Tanzania.

Rukia stands as a pivotal force, steering Kilifi towards a future where women play a central role in shaping the destiny of their communities and the seas they depend on. With a focus on adopting technology, and reducing post-harvest losses, processing, and value addition, the fisheries sector can contribute immensely to the national economy and food security, supporting Vision 2030.

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