Silver cyprinid –Mukene fish takes Micronutrients to Mount Elgon

Silver cyprinid –Mukene fish takes Micronutrients to Mount Elgon

Left to right: A woman selling Mukene at Bulengeni Market, Mukene sold in different volume packs, Beatrice Wofuta at BugiZARDI in Bulambuli

It is a market day up in Bulengeni in Bulambuli district –Mount Elgon, Eastern Uganda. The bustle and hustle of the business is at its peak with many traders, buyers and market inspectors talking in loud voices. Trucks ferrying food produce to and out of the market make the noise louder. I walk uphill to the fish section of the market and all I find is a group of women selling small dry fish –the silver cyprinid (Rastrineobola argentea) locally known as Omena in Luo, Mukene in Ganda and Dagaa in Kiswahili. In the market then, there was no supply of Tilapia and Nile perch. It is the small fish that dominates the fish market.

For a moment I stare at this fish heaped in plastic tins with a brownish tint and I think it could be meant for livestock feed. I was wrong, this fish is for human consumption and the buyers are already stocking up for domestic use.

I ask to speak with one of the women fish traders, am offered a seat and asked to wait for Mayi (Mother). It is Beatrice Wofuta who comes up to meet me after twenty minutes. We pick up a conversation and move around the market as she narrates to me how she started the small fish business in the Bulengeni market.

When Beatrice Wofuta walked to Buginyanya Zonal Agricultural Research Development Institute (Bugi ZARDI), one of the 16 Research centers of the National Agricultural Research Organization (NARO), for advice on farm produce enterprise development, she was getting frustrated with selling dry beans and maize that did not give her much profit. The recommendation for her was to start farming fish because it was among the highly demanded for products in the Elgon region. Buginyanya ZARDI is located in Bulambuli district on the slopes of Mount Elgon in Eastern Uganda, with a mandate to serve communities in 16 districts including those bordering Kenya. The region is a high altitude area that farms cold fish with the Mirror carp flourishing most.

Upon analyzing the costs of starting a fish farm, Beatrice realized that she was not ready to farm fish but perhaps she would try her luck in fish trading. The obvious choice for her was trading in Mukene.

” I choose Mukene because its shelf life is longer since it is sun-dried and people can afford smaller quantities of this fish”, she adds that “the bigger fish like Tilapia and Nile perch are expensive to buy, they have strict restrictions on the sizes and require a lot of handling like cold storage and smoking, which I cannot yet afford”. Beatrice gets her fish supply from Lake Victoria’s Masese landing site in Jinja where she purchases sacks of 100-120 kilograms at a cost of 45,000/-.Upon return to Bulengeni Market, she sells in smaller quantities of basins and cups according to customer preference.

Dr. Jackson Efitre from Makerere University College of Natural Sciences, Department of Zoology, Entomology and Fisheries Sciences, notes that benefits of fish consumption to human health are enormous. Particularly small fishes that are consumed whole, have considerable quantities of micronutrient (Fe, Zn, Ca, P) and vitamins (A, D, K). Besides, absorption of micronutrients from fruits and vegetables is facilitated by fish fatty acids.

Big fish has become less available to Ugandans because of declining stocks of large fish in water bodies in the country, coupled with high exports and massive postharvest losses. Uganda’s per-capita fish consumption stands at 10-12.5kg/person/year which is lower than the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) recommended 25kg/person/year.

It is anticipated that this will decline further due to the high population growth rate of Uganda. Further still, Nile perch as one of the widely consumed fish species is mainly processed for export leaving by-products like bones, skin and heads for the local population. The poorly processed by-products affect the harnessing of the nutrients; hence improved handling methods alongside development of alternative safe, affordable and nutritious fish-based products can increase availability and accessibility to vulnerable populations in Uganda.

Dr. Ogutu Owhayo a Senior Fisheries Researcher at the National Fisheries Resources Research Institute (NaFIRRI) notes that the population has tremendously increased yet fish is becoming more expensive hence households have the option to consume the smaller Mukene.” There are increasing stocks of Mukene in Lake Victoria which provide nutritious food for both human and livestock consumption”.

 He adds that “there is need to enliven and remind people of fish as a good food in all forms because it has numerous micronutrients”.

For Wofuta Beatrice, her main motivation is the Bulengeni market that operates twice a week on Wednesdays and Saturdays with an influx of traders from as far as Swam bordering Uganda and Kenya; and those from the low lands of Sironko and Karamoja.” Every Wednesday, I make a lot of money from fish because I now have an established link of customers who purchase in bulk. I could sell up to six sacks a day. At  a cost between 55,000= and 60,000/-”, says the 37-year-old mother of four.

Beatrice Wofuta acknowledges that fish business today is operating in an even more interconnected and diverse environment. Supply chains of Mukene stretch across the country from landing sites, to major regional markets including Owino market in Kampala, Nakawa market in Kampala, Mbale Market and Soroti Central market;.and to the interior markets to retail shops and to household kitchens that feed multitudes.

Asked why she does not operate her business on other days that are not market days, she says that people with in the community prefer big-sized fish.” The Bamasaba (predominant inhabitants of Mount Elgon) here do not like eating small fish, they want the big ones, which are hard to find in this market, so my biggest customers are those from far places such as Kapchorwa, Swam and Karamoja”. She also notes that things are changing, so far she knows that there are women who cook the fish with vegetables and beans and they enjoy it that way.” She is optimistic that one time people’s  attitudes will change and many will eat the small fish.

Standing at the entrance of her shop, she points to me an empty corner of her store that she hopes to fill up by the next market day.  She also tells me of her plan to add value to her fish trade.” I want to have a stall in Masese, where I deep fry the Mukene so that I also sell the deep fried one that is ready to eat and maintain the sun-dried one as well”. These days I make more money from fish than from Dry beans and maize. Everyone here grows beans and maize, so the price is always low. But with fish, I have made profits. I have finished paying the loan I got for capital to start this business, now I want to expand the business”, she adds.

The fish farmed in the region may not be enough to meet the demand of customers, yet the supply is limited due to the poor road network, says Isamail Kagolola a Fisheries Technician working with Bugi ZARDI. He adds that. “In recent years, the food market has taken keen interest in fish. However, most of the attention has been focused on large fish species more than ½ a kg in size such as Nile perch, tilapia and the African Catfish among others. Small pelagic fish species are steadily weaving their route to markets country wide. One such is the Mukene, that has become a major income earner for many fish mongers and traders in Uganda.” Fish traders are keen to expose their customers to Mukene that is affordable and available with less restrictions from law enforcement stakeholders frequently checking for illegal fish of undersize mainly for Nile perch and Tilapia”.

The once dry grain seller turned fish trader is aware that opportunities for improvement are enormous but first wants to study the business trends against the changing climatic conditions. Nestled up in Mount Elgon at Bulengeni, her biggest fear is the poor roads which make it hard to transport merchandise from outside to the main market in Bulengeni.

 Mukene has established a reputation as one of Uganda’s most consumed fish domestically and regionally that needs to be exploited  to enhance  nutrition of the growing population. Fish has become less available and accessible, particularly to children and women in rural and urban poor communities mainly due to declining catches of preferred large fishes ( 20 cm total length).

This is further compounded by the Nile perch ‘fillet’ export market that is driven by a high regional and international demand that has increased fish prices, making them unaffordable by poor vulnerable communities. The left-over by-products (skins, frames and heads) that are rich in iron and zinc are poorly handled and rudimentarily processed thus impeding harnessing of all nutrients. In addition, the dominant catches in lakes Victoria, Kyoga, Nabugabo and Albert comprising the small pelagic fishes (less than 20 cm total length) are not fully utilised by humans due to rudimentary processing, high post-harvest losses and gender inequalities.

A project- “Harnessing dietary nutrients of under-utilized fish and fish processing by-products to reduce micro-nutrient deficiencies among vulnerable groups in Uganda (NutriFish)”,implemented by Makerere University, National Fisheries Resources Research Institute (NAFIRRI), Nutreal limited, McGill University, Canada, with support from International Development Research Centre (IDRC), Canada and Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR); seeks to address the above challenges. NutriFish aims to increase availability, accessibility, nutritional quality and consumption of under-utilised small fishes and fish products for sustainable food and nutrition security and better livelihoods of vulnerable groups in Uganda. At the 40th World Food day commemoration in October 2019, it was noted that Uganda’s underfed people are estimated at 33%out of 40 million people in Uganda; implying that 13.2 million people in Uganda are hungry. There is a need to improve the handling and develop nutritious low-cost, appealing and safe fish-based products to increase availability and accessibility to vulnerable groups. In addition, the bulk of catches in lakes Victoria, Kyoga, Nabugabo and Albert formed by small pelagic fishes (< 20 cm length) such as Rastrineobola argentea (Mukene), Engraulicypris bredoi (Muziri), and Brycinus nurse (Ragoogi), are not fully utilised by humans due to rudimentary processing, high post-harvest losses and gender inequalities. NutriFish’s goal is to increase availability, accessibility, nutritional quality and consumption of under-utilised small fishes and processing by-products through Public Private Partnerships and consequently reduce micro-nutrient deficiencies among vulnerable groups.

The Minister of Agriculture, Animal Industry and Fisheries Mr. Vincent Ssempijja noted that “We should not eat food just to remain alive, but to keep healthy and productive”,  adding that Ugandans are not hungry, but some of them are malnourished. According to the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization country representative in Uganda Querido Antonio, “Achieving zero hunger is not only about addressing hunger, but also nurturing people and the planet”.

The writer is a development Communications officer at the National Agricultural Research Organization (NARO) and a Communications Consultant (

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