Markets and localisation: empowering Turkana fisherfolk in Kenya

March 18, 2021
Lucia Epur Lebasha and Xaver Wegler
Fish catch drying in the sun

Like other large-scale crises, the Covid-19 pandemic has demonstrated increased needs for locally led responses where global stakeholders support local innovative solutions and market designs. In Kenya, SAPCONE, SAPCONE is a Kenyan civil society organisation established in 2006. Its main activities revolve around good governance and human rights, education and child protection initiatives, and natural resource management. a local civil society organisation, is partnering with DanChurch Aid (DCA), DCA works in 18 countries providing emergency relief in disaster-stricken areas and long-term development assistance in poor regions to create a more equitable and sustainable world. an international non-governmental organisation (INGO), to help fishermen associations around Lake Turkana gain access to surrounding markets. Through this work, fisherfolk acquired the capacity to become confident market actors and linked with traders in the Kakuma refugee camp and Kalobeyei settlement to sell their produce. Working with local value chains, while benefiting from local knowledge, has helped to improve resilient livelihoods and empower communities to become self-reliant and drive economic change.

Turkana fisherfolk community

The Turkana community lives in the North-Western part of Kenya and their way of life is based on nomadism. While pastoralism has been the principal livelihood of the Turkana over the past decades, land demarcations and the establishment of national borders have compromised the long-distance movements of livestock and people. Restricted movement and climate change mean that droughts have affected members of nomadic communities with small livestock most severely, as they now rely on a single source of pasture and water for their animals. Only a few malnourished animals survive these droughts and communities struggle to replace lost livestock; pastoralists are then forced to sell their remaining animals at very low prices to survive. Due to growth of towns, pastoralists are continuously pushed further into inhospitable terrain that does not support their way of life. Furthermore, increased competition has created misunderstandings between clans and neighbouring communities. Conflicts and livestock raiding have become common and force nomadic groups to move on in search of better pasture.

As conditions continue to worsen, the need to diversify livelihoods has become unavoidable. For many communities, this has brought a transition from nomadism to a sedentary or semi-sedentary lifestyle, which has meant having to invest in activities such as fishing, agriculture and small-scale businesses. Fishing activities along Lake Turkana now support the livelihoods of 12% of the entire Turkana population. An example of this livelihood transformation is the Naterea Fisher Folk Group, an association of 20 members that was formed in 2018 with the support of SAPCONE. This group is located in the Kangatotha ward in Turkana Central and previously relied on pastoralism as their main livelihood source. Droughts and famine resulted in the loss of their livestock, forcing them to focus on fishing and fish marketing as an alternative.

This transition from pastoralism to fishing as a key livelihood source has sparked territorial conflict at Lake Turkana over fishing areas, especially because the use of poor fishing vessels limits the distance fishermen can venture into the lake. Boats that row to other fishing sites on the lake in search of a better catch clash with fisherfolk from Marsabit county that claim the right to fish in these waters. These conflicts are exacerbated by decreasing fish catch due to declining water levels caused by climate change and the building of the Gibe Dam in Ethiopia on the upper stream of the Omo River feeding into Lake Turkana.

Since its formation, the Naterea Fisher Folk group have been supported through training on fish production, entrepreneurship skills, and market linkages by SAPCONE in collaboration with the County department of fisheries. Over time, the group has invested in intensive fishing activities which have enabled them to afford their basic needs as well as leverage their group strengths.

Value-chain support

The fish trade is fairly well developed around Lake Turkana where Tilapia and Nile Perch are plentiful. The largest nearby fish market is in Lodwar, the capital of Turkana County, although most fish are sold in other parts of the country, such as Eldoret, Nakuru, and Nairobi. While fishing offers an alternative source of livelihood for communities, producers are often exploited by middlemen who have better access to main markets and can resell fish at prices up to four times higher than they pay the Turkana communities. This leaves only a fraction of the profit with the fisherfolk who do not have a direct link to consumers. Moreover, fisherfolk face high post-harvest losses because fish rot easily and they do not have the means to refrigerate and transport their catches quickly and hygienically to distant markets.  For these reasons and as well as constraints due to conflict, Turkana fishing communities struggle to achieve their full potential.

SAPCONE began supporting Turkana fisherfolks in their capacity as market actors after a request from the county government to support livelihoods in the area. They identified the needs of the community through their close ties with its members and, after assessing their capacity through participatory learning appraisals, started mentoring and training them. Together with DCA, they helped fish producers optimise fishing boats, equipment and fishing processes to increase their fish catch. As one of the Naterea group members expressed, ‘SAPCONE has an impact on our livelihoods through this fishing group. So far, we have our own boat, and we are planning to add another one to increase our catch’. The organisations also supported the fisherfolk to find potential vendors for their products and developed their skills in negotiating directly with traders.

Especially in the beginning, SAPCONE played an important role in facilitating the links between fisherfolk and traders and acted as an intermediary in business meetings to discuss matters of mutual interest. As a result, fisherfolk were able to bypass the middlemen and gain direct access to traders, giving them a higher share of the profit from selling their catch. Despite this progress, the groups still face challenges in marketing their fish.  To help to address this, SAPCONE successfully advocated for the county government to plan for the establishment a fish market in the area (the project is under development) to enable local fisherfolk to access large numbers of customers more easily.

Several fishing groups in the Turkana community have gained direct access to fish traders from Kakuma Refugee camp and Kalobeyei settlement, where over 197,000 refugees and asylum seekers live. SAPCONE and DCA are in the process of supporting the organisation of retail traders from the Kakuma refugee camp and Kalobeyei settlement to form business groups so that they can pool their financial resources and enjoy economies of scale when buying fish stocks. They continue to strengthen capacity across the entirety of the value chain, but as most traders in the refugee camp are women, SAPCONE and DCA place a significant focus on gender-inclusive value chains. This is fostered through gender-sensitive programming targeting women traders in the camps and  supporting women-owned enterprises in their growth and capacity.

Benefiting from local civil society

SAPCONE’s participation has been essential to the creation of a sustainable value chain.  As a community organisation, SAPCONE draws its membership from across the Turkana district and has both internal and donor funding.  Community focal people are recruited through barazas (public assemblies of local communities). Because of their community-driven approach, SAPCOME were able to benefit from local perspectives, mobilise local actors and make innovation work in the local context. SAPCONE continues to support community groups to define their constitutions, facilitate meetings, access funding from the government and work with the private sector.

This approach means that communities are actively engaged in the establishment of value chains. Throughout the process, they gained access to a broader network and increased capacity to negotiate independently with vendors. An initial challenge for the community was to understand market processes.   Strong support from SAPCONE was required in the early stages to foster and maintain value chains.    For instance, SAPCONE initially accompanied communities to meetings with vendors to ensure decisions were made in the local interest.

Now the process is owned by community groups and SAPCONE is present only in a mentoring role. Community groups have made financial gains through trading which enable them to buy boats and repair equipment without having to rely on donors. The Naterea group, for example, used income from fish trading to purchase a new boat which in turn has led to an increase in fish catches and sales. The group also invested in more fishing gear, such as nets and material for gillnets and floaters, and they plan to use group savings to purchase a motorbike which will allow them to transport fish to other potential markets.

Connecting the dots between local and global actors

Through its international partnership, DCA has supported SAPCONE and the Turkana communities, combining its own experience of working with value chains with local expertise. Helping communities to understand the core concepts of market dynamics has strengthened their self-reliance and empowered marginalised groups.

Meanwhile, SAPCONE has adapted global tools and approaches to working with value chains to local needs and contexts. As a result, Turkana communities have strengthened their independence to freely move around the market and sell fish from the lake. The communities’ self-driven approach remains important, as commercial activities are influenced by the market. Communities are in constant competition with sellers from Uganda and Congo and therefore need to adapt to ensure they can compete effectively in the market.

In addition, the partnership with DCA and SAPCONE, which started in 2017, has re-established the fisherfolk’s self-confidence and trust in themselves to contribute to change. The partnership has also contributed to the growth and transformation of SAPCONE to become an internationally recognised organisation. At the start of the partnership, the organisation only consisted of three volunteers – they now have 47 paid staff. SAPCONE’s capacity and organisational structure have developed and they now attract increased amounts of funding through a wider international network.


The collaboration between DCA, SAPCONE, and the Turkana community has increased the economic resilience of the fisherfolk, enhanced their self-confidence and empowered them to overcome exploitation in the market. The Turkana communities continue to engage very successfully with traders in the Kakuma refugee camp and Kalobeyei settlement. The project has supported 21 fisherfolk groups, made up of 420 individuals and 180 fish traders, mostly women, to engage in the fish trade. The Naterea group story demonstrates the determination and genuine team spirt of people willing to work together to diversify their livelihoods under difficult circumstances. Ultimately, the project has contributed to reducing conflict between neighbouring fisherfolk and facilitated the exploration of new fishing areas as an alternative to continued intensive fishing at a few common sites.

In summary, this case highlights that:

  • Strengthening local value chains helps people to take ownership of development processes and reap the benefits that come from being linked with key actors and being connected to the market.
  • Supporting the market agency of fisherfolk groups contributes to reducing exploitation by middlemen. This enables fishing communities to be recognised locally and empowers them to work with business models, market their produce and have bigger profit margins.
  • Working through local partners can reinforce communities’ ownership of project activities and enhance their potential to become confident market actors. Trust plays an important role in market relationships, which can be facilitated through local civil society.
  • International organisations can provide valuable capacity, transfer knowledge and connect local organisations and communities to international actors. Local civil society has an important role to play in mediating external concepts to make them applicable in the local context.

Lucia Epur Lebasha is an Agriculture Project Officer with SAPCONE

Xaver Wegler is an independent consultant to DanChurchAid

The article was supported by Amfrey Amoni  from SAPCONE, Mark Mukhaga Abaha from DCA Kenya, and Fie Lauritzen from DCA HQ in Denmark and informed by discussions with local communities around Lake Tukana in Northern Kenya.


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