She defied odds to lead the first all-female fishing cooperative on the Zambezi River. Now they risk losing it all

Along the route of the Zambezi to the Indian Ocean, where it feeds the man-made Lake Kariba, is Zimbabwe’s Binga district, formed to house the Tongans who were forcibly evicted when their lands were flooded to build Lake. In Sebungwe Mouth, one of Binga’s villages, Brandina Mundimba uses a reed known locally as malala to weave a basket which, when finished, will be taken to market with the rest and sold for 1,500 Zimbabwean dollars (Z$ ) ($4).

This is how Mundimba, 40, and the other members of his fishing cooperative have been making a living since their fishing rig broke down last October. Other teams resumed fishing “but we couldn’t because the engine on our fishing rig needed attention,” she says.

Mundimba and the other members of the all-women Bbindauko Banakazi Kapenta fishing cooperative have given so much and risked so much to get here. They have worked hard to abandon the “woman’s job” of weaving malala reeds in the hot sun and instead fish for kapenta – a type of anchovy – but now they face multiple challenges.

In addition to the stress of a faulty rig, the women are seeing declining fish stocks due to the effects of climate change and overfishing.

“Our husbands thought that the cooperative would lead us to infidelity”

The story of the Bbindauko Banakazi cooperative began as the opportunity of a lifetime.

In 2011, a local charity, Zubo Trust, used a grant from UN Women to build a fishing platform with a cylindrical metal base that allows it to float, an aluminum leaf shade and a light bulb exposed attached to metal posts that hold the black. nets, which attract kapenta at night when the nets are lowered underwater.

Above all, the platform also comes with its own toilet, bathtub and built-in sleeping area. Fishermen usually relieve themselves in the open and bathe on the banks of the Zambezi, and it is these practices that contribute to the feeling that fishing is not a viable job for women.

Once the platform was ready, the trust selected 10 women out of approximately 80 who were selling fish in the market but expressed an interest in learning how to catch the fish instead, and provided them with the necessary training. Zubo also set out to convince the husbands of newly trained fisherwomen that letting their wives leave their homes at night to fish was not as bad as it seemed.

“It took Zubo Trust to organize a series of workshops with our husbands to raise their awareness…to enable us to go out at night,” explains Sinikiwe Mwinde, one of the founding members of the Bbindauko Banakazi cooperative.

“Our husbands thought the co-op would lead us to infidelity,” adds the mother-of-three, rubbing her head with the palm of her left hand, a little embarrassed.

Besides the platform, Zubo helped the women set up a harbor on the river near Simatelele, where they moored their boat, and created a raised platform made of wooden poles and black nets where the women dried off. their catch before packing them. bags for sale.

The formation of the first all-female fishing cooperative in Binga has attracted a lot of attention. The Ministry of Women’s Affairs came for the official launch of International Women’s Day in March 2012 and the tradition-defying project received local and international media coverage. But no one was more excited than the co-op members and their husbands.

“With the times changing, I thought as a family we should avoid such archaic practices. Women should be empowered. I am proud that my wife is a fisherman.”

Laurent Mukuli

“In my father’s time, women weren’t allowed to play roles like fishing that were reserved for men,” said Lawrence Mukuli, Mundimba’s husband. “With the times changing, I thought as a family we should avoid such archaic practices. Women should be empowered. I am proud that my wife is a fisherman.”

“The money we were getting from the fish market was less than the money we could get if we became fishers with our own rig,” says founding member Mwinde, speaking of the hope they all had that the fishing business would change their lives. and their communities.

The cooperative has evolved over the years and has seen members leave and new ones join, including Mundimba who joined in 2015.

Selling fish wholesale can earn more than selling baskets, but artisanal kapenta fishing is just as difficult and demanding on families.

Four women go out at a time, leaving their children in the care of their husbands for 22 days a month. The other four women leave the following month.

Once the fish are sold, the four-person team splits its profits after paying the annual license fee, equipment maintenance and the three men who work for them: two to operate their rig, and one third to work as a security guard, making sure their catch isn’t stolen as it’s dried out.

Life got better for a while. Until 2017, Mundimba and the team began to acquire property and livestock, which gave them greater economic power where previously all assets were owned by men.

“[Every month] we were fishing between 28 and 30 bags of kapenta,” says Mundimba. At its height, each bag of fish weighing 30 kg could fetch prices as high as Z$45,000 ($124), or an income of Z$1,350,000 ($3,730) per month — divided by 4. This monthly income is a lot of money for most people in a country where civil servants like teachers earn an average salary of Z$28.00 ($80) per month.

“In 2015, I built a store to sell groceries and clothes. I was also able to meet my children’s educational needs through this fishing business,” Mwinde says of what she made from his income.

But the prosperous times did not last.

“Climate change strongly affects freshwater ecosystems”

When CNN visited the cooperative’s permanent port at Simatelele, the once-busy center where women dried and packed kapenta is a shadow of its former self. Some of the buildings and drying platforms have fallen into disrepair from lack of use. The whole place looks desolate.

Women can no longer fish on this part of the river because the waters have become too shallow, forcing them to moor their rig further along the banks, more than 50 kilometers away.

Zimbabwe has a long history of droughts, the worst in recent years being the 2015-2016 El Niño which had devastating effects across much of southern Africa. There have also been many extreme weather events – floods and droughts – in recent years, says Selusiwe Sibanda, public relations and communications manager at the Zambezi River Authority, whose mandate is to maintain Lake Kariba and its tank.

“There was a period of below average flows recorded during the 2015-2016 rainy season…[and] during the 2018-2019 rainy season,” says Sibanda who is based in Lusaka, Zambia.

“Before, the water was plentiful. These days, I can even see that the water levels are low. This makes it difficult for us to have a lucrative fishery,” Mundimba says in a dark voice.

Andrew Chamisa, Deputy Director of Zimbabwe’s Department of Livestock Research and Fisheries at the Ministry of Lands, says warmer waters due to climate change are also strongly affecting fish stocks due to changes in physical processes, chemical and biological effects of these freshwater ecosystems.

“Studies in Lake Kariba over the years have shown how rising water temperatures [lead to] a reduction in fish catches,” he says.

As water temperature rises, the solubility of oxygen in water decreases, leading to lower dissolved oxygen levels in water bodies like the Zambezi River and Lake Kariba. “Less dissolved oxygen will affect fish production,” says Chamisa. “High temperatures also promote the growth of harmful algae that compete with fish for oxygen and also release harmful chemicals that affect fish growth,” he explains.

Zimparks spokesman Tinashe Farawo told CNN that while investigations to determine the causes of the low fish catches are still ongoing, it’s clear that climate change is a contributing factor, as is overfishing.

“We have seen a decrease in catches. We have had years of drought. Water levels have gone down. This has resulted in low catches,” says Farawo. “But we can’t rule out overfishing either. We have a full moon calendar [where fishing is prohibited for the last 7 to 10 days of every month to help fish stocks replenish] but in most cases, fishermen defy this. They also encroach on breeding areas.”

The shallow parts of the Zambezi River have now been declared a protected kapenta breeding area by the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority (ZimParks), a state agency responsible for wildlife conservation in the country. , which means that it is no longer legal to fish in these areas.

Farawo adds that Zimparks has also stopped issuing fishing licenses as a measure to control overfishing. “Lake Kariba is supposed to have 500 fishing rigs. But we almost doubled that maximum number,” he says.

Another concern is poaching. “We once had an encounter with these poachers,” says Mundimba. “They stole about $600 from our team after selling kapenta. We reported the matter to the police, but we never got that money back,” she recalls.

All of these factors have driven up the cost of running a fishing business and the co-op is struggling to pay its fees, especially the Z$360,000 ($995) annual license fee to Zimparks needed to operate. their platform on the river.

“The licensing fee is beyond our reach given the low amount of kapenta we are catching these days,” says Mundimba.

At the time of publication, the women had used co-op savings and some money from home to repair their rig, but a less profitable business meant less support on the home front: some of the husbands of the women feel that fishing is now draining the money from the house instead of increasing it.

When asked what she thinks would improve her situation and that of her crew, Mundimba said she counted on other fishermen to play fair and on the government, water management authorities and multinational organizations to accelerate their efforts to combat climate change.

“I hope that the responsible authorities will tackle this climate change problem. It is us women who are most affected. I also implore our male counterparts to respect the fishing regulations,” says- she.

“I will continue to lead the cooperative, praying that the kapenta fishing business will become lucrative again.”


Senior Video Producer/Editor: Ladan Anoushfar

Videographer: Zinyange Auntony

Editors: Eliza Anyangwe and Meera Senthilingam

Virginia S. Braud