Kenya’s Turkana learns from failed fish project

By Tim Cocks

KAALOKOL, Kenya (Reuters) – Teach a Kenyan cattle herder
how to fish and you’ll feed him for life.

That was at least what Norway’s development agency believed
in the 1980s, when it built a fish-processing factory now
abandoned and decaying on the shores of Lake Turkana in
northwestern Kenya.

In an attempt to develop one of east Africa’s poorest
regions, the Norwegian government saw a golden opportunity in
the huge but virtually unused lake teeming with fish.

It built a fish-freezing plant and set about teaching
Turkana’s largely pastoral communities how to exploit the
lake’s fish stocks to bring hard cash into the poverty-stricken

“Norway felt this is a district that has been neglected by
the state,” Pippi Soegaard, first secretary of the Norwegian
development agency in Kenya, told Reuters on a trip to Turkana.

Twenty years on, the Kaalokol fish factory is another page
in Africa’s catalog of reminders that successful aid requires
more than just money and good intentions.

Apart from a few dried fish sometimes stored here by local
fishermen, the factory is unused.

Aid workers blame several factors: poor consultation with
communities, a lack of monitoring progress, Turkana’s economic
remoteness, a pastoral way of life unsuited to fishing and a
diplomatic row between Norway and ex-president Daniel arap Moi.

Moi briefly broke off diplomatic ties with Norway in 1990
after accusing it of sheltering dissident politicians.

“Moi didn’t realize that if you throw out an ambassador the
aid would also go,” Soegaard said. “(The factory) ended as an
unsuccessful program in the middle of nowhere.”

Ties were restored in 1994 but development aid resumed only
in 2004.

Soegaard did not know how much money was pumped into the
factory itself, but estimated that Norway spent about 1 billion
Norwegian crowns ($152 million) in today’s money in Turkana
over 20 years, on the factory and regional community projects.

Now, local officials want to see what lessons can be
learned from the project. Some say it is time to revive the

“We need to reconsider,” said Turkana district official
Rogers Sikulu. “This factory could work if we learn from past

A drought in the Horn of Africa, killing livestock and
threatening vulnerable communities with famine, has added
urgency to the search for fresh sources of income in Turkana,
one of the worst affected regions.

“We live an environment that is very harsh. You might go
two years without rain. Your livestock die, then what? You need
to diversify and fishing is one way of doing it,” Sikulu said.


Despite living near one of Africa’s biggest lakes, the
Turkana people traditionally do not fish.

Like other Nilotic peoples in the Horn of Africa, they are
semi-nomadic pastoralists who live off the milk, blood and meat
of their herds. Even today, few Turkana fish commercially.

“If you fish it means you are poor because you have no
livestock,” said Philip Ayane, 22, who lives in the remote
village of Nandapal.

“Mostly, it is people who have lost everything to drought
who go fishing, when there’s no other choice.”

Failure to understand such habits was another reason the
Kaalokol project failed.

“It was the old top-bottom approach,” said Cheanati Wasike,
government fisheries officer for Lake Turkana. “The lake was
identified by outsiders as a resource but they never consulted
the Turkana, never asked them what they thought of fishing it.”

Restarting the factory — and Soegaard said the money
needed to do so was “very unlikely” to come from Norway because
of a shift in focus to funding good governance initiatives —
would involve more than just overcoming cultural inhibitions.

Turkana’s remoteness, cut off from the rest of Kenya by
poor roads, few telephones and little electricity, makes it a
difficult place to sustain a fishing business.

“The factory was running on generators. The costs were more
than we were getting back,” said Wasike. “We’re far from the
end consumer and we have a product that perishes fast. The cold
chain is expensive.”

Another challenge would be bringing in outsiders with
fishing expertise. Inviting experienced fishermen from other
regions to start businesses could spark conflict in an already
volatile region, where nomadic tribes have clashed.

“If we could get the Luo (tribe in western Kenya) to come
here, it could be more commercial,” said Wasike. “But the
Turkana won’t have any other tribe on the lake. That is war.”