Fish scaling helps the women in Obunga generate income

Fish business: Everline Owendi Etole (right) and her colleague at the fishing site in Obunga, Kisumu City.Photo by Peter Oliver Ochieng
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For the past 21 years, Everline Owendi Etole has been in the fishing industry and has no regrets.

Etole ventured into the business at a tender age of 13 years when she would divide her time between schooling and helping her parents eke a living buying and selling recycled fish, commonly known as mgongo-wazi.

Since then, Etole has risen in the ranks and now manages her own small outfit that receives fish supplies from Dunga Beach in Kisumu County, Mbita in Homa Bay County, Usenge in Siaya County and Sio Port in Busia County.

Etole is among hundreds of fish mongers who operate at Obunga Beach in Kisumu City, near the busy Nyamasaria-Kondele-Obunga-Bandani bypass.

Obunga Estate is a densely populated informal settlement off the airport-Kondele overpass, where a group of women usually gather around chatting in low tones as they go about their work that puts food on their tables daily.

They scale the fish (separating scales from fish skin) throughout the day using sharp knives for the love of their customers and families.

The women do not earn much but that is what keeps them going. After the scaling, agents of companies that major in processing chicken and pig-food buy the scales while agents of companies that manufacture belts later purchase the fish-skins.

Fish scales are recycled into chicken and pig-food that are later sold in agro-vets across the country, while the skins are used to manufacture shoes and belts which are popular with the public.

The fresh fish is first transported to the many food and fish processing companies in Kisumu town, where finer parts of the fresh produce like the fillet are sliced off, processed and packed before being sold in hotels in Kisumu and other major towns like Nairobi and Mombasa, while the best are exported abroad.

What remains of the fish are heads, bones and skins popularly called Mgongo-wazi.

Fish-heads and borns being dried in the sun before being boiled to become mgongo wazi. Photo by Peter Oliver Ochieng

Fish-heads and borns being dried in the sun before being boiled to become mgongo wazi. Photo by Peter Oliver Ochieng

This is where women from Obunga finally come in. They buy the leftovers from two companies and get down to work. Others pick up the skin for scaling while majority take the heads and bones, which are then cleaned, dried in the sun and boiled in hot oil to become mgongo wazi that is a delicacy in many parts of Western Kenya.

According to Etole, one of over 200 women and men eking a living as fishmongers in Obunga: “We have people who scale the fish; we have those who clean and those who boil them. It is a daily work and no one who comes here leaves empty handed.”

Etole turned to fish mongering after it dawned on her that her parents were not financially able to pay her secondary school fees. She scored 350 marks out of a possible 700 in the 1995 Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE).

“Mrs Faustine Akinyi, seated there (pointing to our right) made me join this business because it was the only way to make money back then,” says Etole. “I have been here ever since and I am not leaving anytime soon.”

Etole is among the many women who own shanties used for smoking and boiling fish heads and bones before they become mgongo wazi.

“I am also here because my husband fully supports me. I am proud because with this I can put food on the table every day. Furthermore, I have educated my younger brother from the proceeds of this business and he is now a teacher at Mbale High School in Vihiga County,” Etole says with pride.

After boiling, the mgongo-wazi is then sold to various women in Obunga and other estates in Kisumu who serve hundreds of customers daily. Mgongo wazi is popular at the grassroots because it is nutritious and is affordable at KSh100, this is enough meal for a family of four people.

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