KENYA: The motorboat engine roars slowly onto Lake Victoria in Rasira village, a peninsula that overlooks the Ugandan border from Kenya’s Homa Bay County, not far from the contested fish-rich Migingo island.
On board is Angela Odero, the CEO and founder of Rio Fish, a social enterprise that is working to provide sustainable livelihoods and increase food security through strengthening market systems around aquaculture in Lake Victoria, and her colleagues who work at the company.
Odero, a former banker, feeds the fish floating on the lake in cages while her aqua farm manager watches. The fish scramble for a feed before they can sink and probably get eaten by the wild lake fish.
She started Rio Fish about eight years ago after realizing that there was a fish shortage in the Kenyan market and as well that women in the area were forced to offer sex for them to get fish to trade in and make ends meet.
When Odero was growing up, she did not know much about fish or the lake, contrary to what many believe about most people from the Lakeside counties of Kenya.
Her family lived in Siaya County, far from the shores of Lake Victoria. But when she got married, she went to her matrimonial home in Homa Bay County and lived with her husband and his family in Rasira, right on a peninsula.
Later, as her husband worked across borders in Uganda, Odero noticed the unending supply of fish in the country near the lake compared to the areas on the Kenyan side, where fish was scarce.
As she was helping type her mother’s research project paper for her master’s degree, she found out that there were women exchanging sex for fish with the fishermen because they were too poor to afford the fish.
They were practicing what is called ‘jaboya‘ in the local Luo language. And this motivated her to help further find a solution to it, as it was one of the fastest ways HIV/AIDs spread across Homa Bay County.
“That’s when I decided I will go into fish farming so I could do my bit in helping these women have the economic power to purchase fish and not have to give out their bodies in exchange for the commodity,” she says.
“The reason jaboya is there is because it’s the men who are fishing, and there’s no fish. And this is because of what we have done to the lake; we’ve messed up the lake, and we continue to mess it up. So, there’s less and less fish coming from it,” laments Odero.
According to the 2018 report by the National Aids Control Council, Homa Bay County leads the country in HIV prevalence, with the rates nearly 4.5 times higher than the national prevalence at 26.0%.
Odero founded Rio Fish, which is now supplying fish to more than 1,000 women, up from only 850 women in 2021. “We are supplying fish to more women than we targeted this year, as our plan was to reach 1,200, helping them women stay away from jaboya,” says Odero.
Rio Fish is now working on making its work easier by acquiring cold chain trucks and setting up an online platform through a mobile app that will help aquaculture farmers monitor these fish cages and connect them with feed sellers who can supply the best feed for their farms.
“The growth we are targeting is ambitious, which is why I decided to undergo training on agribusiness value addition; that helped me get better skills to run my business and connect me to financing opportunities,” she says.
The training, offered by Strathmore Business School in partnership with USAID’s Kenya Investment Mechanism, focused on business management and how to pitch business opportunities to investors.
After this training, Odero pitched her business to invited investors, seeking $500,000 (KES 62.5 million), and says that the money would go to reorganizing the women traders and fish farmers she contracts to raise fish for Rio Fish.
“We want to organize them into cooperatives so that they can access the services we are offering and then complete the e-commerce platform,” she says.
From the training, Odero says that her biggest takeaway was succession planning because often times many businesspeople do not think of their businesses’ lives after they are dead or are not around to run them.
“I was initially skeptical because it was about financial training and given that I am a financial manager by training, I did not feel the need to go in for training. But after a few days, I was very impressed and informed; I started looking at the company from a different perspective and even hired someone to oversee the company operations when I am away.”