How COVID has affected markets and livelihoods in Kenya’s fisheries sector

Fisheries support the livelihoods and well-being of millions of people around the world. Before the COVID pandemic, world fish production has reached a record level. Fast forward to 2021, and the pandemic has dramatically altered the fisheries sector – increasing vulnerability and exposing weaknesses in fisheries food systems locally and internationally.

Kenyan coastal fisheries support more than 23,000 fishermen catching more than 16,000 tons of fish per year. Fishing is considered a key sector, providing cash income and animal protein to around 70% of coastal communities.

In our recent to study, we set out to assess the impact of COVID-19 on Kenyan fisheries and hear what fishermen and traders have been doing to deal with it. We interviewed residents of five coastal communities to learn about the impacts of COVID-19 on markets, livelihoods, food security and wellbeing, and what they did in response.

We found that fishermen, fish traders and coastal communities were facing serious livelihood and food security challenges due to the pandemic. The biggest impact came from movement restrictions imposed by the Kenyan government. Our findings highlight the severe effects of pandemic measures on households and communities, and offer lessons as the pandemic continues to unfold.

Restrictions imposed

The Kenyan government has introduced over 120 policies to contain COVID-19. These included curfews and bans on travel and public gatherings. Restrictions were imposed between March 2020 and November 2021.

Across the five study sites, communities were subject to various social distancing rules, movement restrictions, and curfews. A limited number of people were allowed in boats and vehicles and people were asked to minimize non-essential interactions. There were social distancing requirements in markets and shops, and reduced market and shop opening hours. Community gatherings have been banned. Traders and transporters, in particular, have faced challenges such as market access and long waits for East African cross-border trade.

We found that COVID-19 severely affected food security in all communities, although some people fared worse than others. All households told us that they ate less (by reducing meal size or skipping meals) and ate less well (by consuming less meat and vegetables and consuming mainly basic carbohydrates such as ‘ugali (cornmeal).

Although food was available in stores, their loss of income meant they could not afford to buy. Before the pandemic, the average daily income of fishermen was around US$9. This amount dropped significantly to about US$4 during the pandemic as fishermen spent less time fishing. Several people had lost their jobs or knew people who had lost jobs.

Overall demand for fish has fallen sharply by more than 50% and prices have fallen for many species, especially those important to hotels, restaurants and catering. Falling demand and, in some cases, sharp declines in the price of fish and fish products, have halted or reduced the activity of many fishing fleets; their work has become unprofitable. Fishermen were also squeezed when suppliers of industrial inputs like ice, gear and bait closed or stopped providing credit.

COVID has also disrupted communication and relationships with other fishers, traders and customers. This has greatly disrupted local market dynamics at landing sites, within communities, and connections to more distant markets.

In some communities, people who had lost their informal jobs – for example in the COVID-affected tourism sector – turned to fishing. With changing numbers and abnormal markets, fishing and the fish trade have become very uncertain.

The duration and severity of the pandemic remain uncertain, but a prolonged market downturn can be expected even after the lifting or easing of current restrictions.

Government interventions and coping strategies

To protect vulnerable communities, such as those involved in fishing and fish processing, the Government of Kenya has provided direct financial aid including cash grants via mobile cash transfer, food relief and tax relief. However, many people we spoke to in the five communities had very different experiences of help and support.

Some traders received a small part of the aid in the form of food. Some community leaders have been involved in arranging donations from other community organizations to deliver a one-time food aid package to the fishermen including maize flour, beans, sugar and soap. For others, there have been delays, confusion or a lack of support. Several people said that although they had heard of government or other support, they had not received any help even after registering.

Most households coped with the shocks of COVID-19 by decreasing the variety and quality of foods they ate to save money. People stopped buying in bulk, depleted their existing savings, borrowed money (when there was still enough money in the community for people to lend), or directly traded fish for goods. None of these strategies could be sustained over the long term.

Next steps for decision makers

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the fishing sector was considered one of the fastest growing sectors. During COVID-19, the Kenyan economy lost an estimated GDP contribution of $1.6 million (down 28.6%) and lost up to seven thousand jobs in industry compared to levels of 2019. The COVID-19 pandemic and efforts to contain it have been devastating to the fishing industry.

Our study highlights how every step of the fisheries supply chain – from catching, to trading, to consumption – is likely to be disrupted by COVID-19. Only by protecting every step of the supply chain can human consumption of fish and fish products be achieved. Rules that disrupt fishing livelihoods should be combined with community support measures (such as food aid). And they need to reach people in a timely manner and be easy to access.

Treating small-scale fisheries as essential services (such as exempting them from curfews) and facilitating means of communication and commerce that do not involve large gatherings will help support fishing livelihoods.

Kenya‘s national fisheries sector, like the global fishing industry, faces a multi-faceted challenge. Multiple stakeholders need to be involved in the fisheries recovery process, including national governments. There is a need to mobilize financial, human and technical resources to support fisheries recovery and, at the same time, to effectively deploy vaccination programs and responsibly reopening the economy to domestic and international markets.

Dr. Nyawira Muthiga contributed to the research and writing of this article.

About Bradley J. Bridges

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