Frequent droughts over the years causing partial or total loss of livestock caused the community to take up fishing in Lake Turkana as an alternative activity for survival. The objective of the study was to get baseline information on the socio-economic situation in Lake Turkana area. Survey revealed that in recent years there have been increased incidences of insecurity and cattle rustling, which has driven more pastoralists into fishing. Most respondents indicated they were primarily fishers, followed by pastoralists. Most fished in the shallow inshore areas using mainly gillnets and purse seine nets. The greatest concern of the fishers is the conflict with the tribesmen of southern Ethiopia. The fishing offers an opportunity for the pastoral communities to settle down to a sedentary lifestyle, making it easier to access health, educational and other essential services. Women are also involved, though in low numbers, some of whom own boats and gears. Currently, fishery resources in offshore areas are unexploited, but there is a need to control pressure in inshore shallow areas.


Lake Turkana is unique as Kenya's only fisheries resource currently thought to be under-exploited. Even though data trends are lacking, available information on the lake's status indicates that the resident fishing population is small and relatively unexposed to external influence, largely because of the remote and hostile environment which has so far inhibited a large scale immigration of fishers from other lakes. Most recent statistics put the number of fishers in Lake Turkana at about 8,160, which is 20% less than in the Kenyan part of Lake Victoria, despite the larger size of the former. Similarly, there are fewer beaches and fishing crafts than in Lake Victoria.

Turkana District is one of the extremely arid areas of Kenya, 85% of which experiences an average rainfall of less than 500 mm per year (Government of Kenya, 2005). Although the Turkana are well adopted to live in this harsh environment, recurrent droughts have led to widespread losses of livestock, starvation and death. Despite these problems, the Turkana community has developed a unique relationship with their natural resources and the ecosystem in general. In doing so the environment provides for the livelihoods of the people and their livestock. In turn the people ensure that they continue enjoying environmental goods: natural springs Aminit (this is a peak of a hill that is rich in biodiversity for both flora and fauna), Ekwar (a traditional system where pasture is protected for use during dry season) and Emekwi, and other plants that support the livestock and fisheries (Emekwi is used as medicine for both human and livestock).

Current status of Lake Turkana Fisheries

Lake Turkana is the least researched of all Great Lakes of Africa. For instance, existing information is from explorations carried out more than two decades ago; first by the Overseas Development Administration of Britain in 1972–1975 (Hopson, 1982) and then by NORAD of Norway in 1982–1985. Current fish landings have been estimated at 8000 tons annually (KMFRI, 2007).

Study objective

The objective of the study was to understand the socio-economic aspects of the fishery of Lake Turkana and how the communities living around the lake are affected by the dynamic resource status. An important focus is to understand how the pastoral community is adopting a fisheries-based livelihood.

Specific objectives

The study's specific objectives were:

  • i.

    To provide a deeper understanding of the broader socio-economic characteristics of Lake Turkana

  • ii.

    Generate baseline information on marketing, pricing and fish quality parameters to enable sound management of Lake Turkana fisheries

  • iii.

    Provide understanding on how the local communities are affected by the fishery

The study area

The study covered most parts of the western shoreline of Lake Turkana. The landing beaches sampled in this area included: Todonyang, Lowarengak, Nachukui, Kataboi, Namadak, Kalokol, Ferguson's Gulf, Eliye Springs and Kerio. A few beaches on the Eastern shoreline were also studied including: Moite, Nakwangolia, Loyangalani, and El-Molo bay as shown in Figure 1.

Research methodology

Surveys were conducted using structured and semi-structured questionnaires, and personal interviews of fishers (boat owners and fishing crew), traders and key informants. The selection of respondents was done by purposive sampling where fishers were chosen as they came to the beach or as they were introduced by the Beach Management Unit (BMU) officials: These officials are local fishers that have been elected by fishers themselves to form building blocks for co-management partnership with the fisheries department. A total of 217 boat owners, 100 crews and 58 traders were interviewed during the study period divided into two phases, February and April 2007. Data was entered in SPSS and analyzed. Valuable information on conflicts and environmental issues was also obtained through personal interviews and key informants.


Development of the artisanal fishery on Lake Turkana

The commercial development of Lake Turkana's fisheries is not well documented. A respondent fisher born in 1939 said that fishers used reed fences to fish in the lake. People would fence off some parts of the lake in the morning and check in the afternoon to see if some fish had been caught. Usually only a few fish got trapped, which was just enough for household consumption. Around 1944, cast nets made from the Engol (Doum palm) tree were introduced by local people. Fishing with this gear was difficult since it required fishers to be in the water for a long time, exposing them to crocodiles. Around 1955–1960, a colonial Fisheries Officer known as MacKinnon brought some fishing nets and taught people how to use them. This changed the way people fished in the lake.

Active fishing started around 1972–1973 when some fishers moved from Lake Victoria to Lake Turkana. It was reported that fish was abundant then and the locals traded with people from as far away as Kisumu (the Luos). Some people claim that Luos taught the local community how to fish, but this may not be true according to respondents. However, according to some, the Luo fishermen could have taught Turkanas how to use sails for propulsion of boats in the 1970s.

There were high catches, particularly of Labeo horie, Citharinus citharus and Oreochromis niloticus (Chubule, Gech and Kokine, respectively, in Turkana language). Some traders bought fish and took it all the way to Congo and Zambia. The price of fish was around 1 Ksh for 10 fish pieces, which by then was a lot of money. In 1977 there was such an increase in fish catches, that by 1978 there were over 84 lorries taking fish from Kalokol to Nairobi, Western and Nyanza provinces. The number of people entering the fishery has increased since then. Most people interviewed in this study joined in the period 1994–2004.

Family dynamics

A typical Turkana household is a large family unit, headed by a man with one or more wives and several children. Table 1 shows that of the married male respondents, 53.1% had one wife, 39.3% two wives while 7.6% had three or more wives.

To suit this lifestyle, sometimes a part of the family may remain behind while the other part moves to a new area. In some cases large herds of cattle are split up to allow movement in different directions as a means of minimizing risks; hence the need for large families to take care of each herd. Large families mean a greater dependency on the household head. In times of serious drought, the men are forced to enter the fishery in order to provide food for the family, thus contributing to an increased fishing pressure.

Education levels

Members of the Turkana community generally have attained low levels of education or none at all. According to Table 2, over half of respondents (Boat owners and crew) in this study had not attended any school at all. Most of those who had primary education (30%) had left before completing formal education. They said that their migratory nature as pastoralists, implying frequent moves with their children away from established school areas, did not allow them to complete formal education. This represents a great challenge towards improving their skills for alternative livelihoods.

Occupational choices

Most of the respondents indicated that keeping livestock was their main occupation and that they had not fished before. Out of 98 respondents who said that they had not been fishers before but were now, and had lost livestock through drought or cattle rustling, 65% had never had any relation to fishing activity, nor had relatives who had been fishermen.

Asked about their main occupation, 78% of the respondents said that their main occupation is fishing, followed by pastoralism (19%) (Figure 2). Agriculture is partially practiced by less than 1% of the respondents. The fact that so many people from this region perceive themselves as full-time fishers is indicative of the important change in their attitude toward this activity.

Livestock ownership

Because of the central position of livestock in the culture of the Turkana community, respondents indicated they still owned some livestock. Respondents were asked to state the number of livestock they owned. The main types of livestock that people depend on are goats and sheep with a mean ownership of 42 and 27, respectively (Figure 3). Most households did not own camels; those who did possessed 8 camels on average. In this area there are few choices of economic activities and livestock is regarded as the most realistic alternative livelihood to fishing. However, the cycle of droughts over the years and the recent spate of insecurity have made more pastoralists join the fishery. It should be noted, however, that the figures given were very conservative and most of the time the quoted animal numbers were very low. It is traditionally wrong to give the exact number of animals an individual owns for fear of losing them.

Gear types

Most of the respondents who fished the shallow inshore areas use gillnet and purse seine nets (50% and 34% respectively. Those who used hooks represented 12% and those using beach seines, 4%. It was further observed that the common mesh sizes of beach seines and purse seines used were 2 inches.

Gender roles and participation in the fishery

The participation of women in fisheries is a matter of much interest, particularly in Turkana where women are tied to traditional chores and responsibilities. In this study, it was found that women are important stakeholders in the fisheries, with well identified roles particularly in the post-harvest sector. Out of the 58 women traders interviewed, 44% were in monogamous marriages, 34% were in polygamous marriages and 22% were widowed. Women are engaged in very diverse activities. Of the women interviewed 19% were fish processors, 21% were fish traders and processors, 2% were boats owners, 2% owned gears only, 6% were fish traders and 9% were petty traders selling tobacco, and charcoal. The remaining 41% had no specific trade and could be categorized as housewives. Most women participate in active fishing by associating with particular fishing boats where they remove fish, split and sun-dry them for the fishermen, who compensate them with fish. Sometimes they end up with lots of fish which they sell to other women who may not have had luck on the boats on which they are working.

Perceptions about sustainability

The study also aimed at finding out the perceptions of respondents on key issues of management and sustainability. Respondents were asked if there were more people now fishing in the lake than 5 years ago. About 80% of the respondents agreed that there are more people fishing now than five years ago, 18% disagreed and 2% were not sure.

Fishers were also asked to state whether they would not catch bigger fish if other fishers were catching small fish: 53% of the respondents disagreed that catching small fish can prevent others from catching big fish; while 43% of them thought that catching small fish reduces the ability to get big fish.

Conflicts and fisheries

Cultural practices of the inhabitants of this region include the forceful acquisition of livestock from each other, this being a cause for continued conflicts among communities. As a result many people have been displaced, causing loss of basic livelihoods. When respondents were asked to say which factor out of the three, cattle rustling, the receding lake level, or the increase in fishing effort, was more of a threat to them, 75% said that cattle rustling was the major threat to their livelihood, 8% thought that receding lake was the threat, while 2% said that increase in effort was a threat to their livelihoods (n = 107).

Synopsis of the conflicts

The Turkana and the Merile are said to be sub-tribesmen but they stride across the Kenyan and Ethiopian border on the western side of Lake Turkana to the uppermost reaches of the Lake to the north. They share the pasture and water along the common border. The respondents near Todonyang argue that the water in this part of the lake is very suitable to their livestock since it is less saline because of the inflowing Omo River. The pastoralists also say this as the availability of grass and good water leads to a much better quality livestock here than in the central parts of the district. Moreover the area can carry a larger number of cows, camels and donkeys than other arid areas.

Until 1983, the two communities had lived together and shared pastures on the north-western tip of the lake. Later in the same year, the peace ended, and the young warriors started killing each other, and continuing until 1984. Because of the unrest, the pastoralists of the Lapur hills, lying to the north-west of the lake could not reach the lake to water their animals. By 1992 there was mass movement of people from Lapur and Todonyang areas to Lowarengak, a distance of 30km, for safety, but most livestock had been lost. About 30,000 people who were displaced settled at Lowarengak, most of who have turned to fishing as an alternative livelihood.

On the north-eastern side of Lake Turkana there are the Shangila tribesmen who transverse the Kenyan and Ethiopian boundary and also attack the Turkana, though the source of their anger or problem is not understood as they are not fishermen. They attack and kill fishermen and remove their fishing equipment from the lake. On the eastern side of the lake there are large National parks that prohibit fishing, particularly the Koobi-fora and the Sibiloi game parks.

On the south-eastern side of the lake there are Borana tribesmen who have constantly harassed the Turkana fishermen by repeated raids and forceful taking of their livestock, leaving them in abject poverty, and making a community that was once dependent on pastoralism turn to fishing as the main source of livelihood.

Conflict resolution efforts

In the last quarter of 1992 there was a peace accord between the two communities through the Catholic Mission based in Todonyang which lies about one kilometer from the shores of Lake Turkana and about four kilometers from the Ethiopian border. The Mission has programs that assist people who lost their livestock to turn to fishing by providing them with boats and nets. As a result it is now possible for people to travel to and from Ethiopia to do business and even the Merile children are schooling in Kenya. The problem is that the Ethiopians would like to be instructed in Amharic, which is their official language. The Mission also provides medical services to both sides.

Other organizations in the region operating under “Riam-Riam” (an umbrella organization for all peace building actors in Turkana District for both Community-based and Non-governmental Organizations) have also been active in assisting the displaced. About 50% of respondents said that they were sponsored to get into the fishery. NORAD and World Vision sponsored the majority of the respondents. Other Organizations that have provided boats to the Lake Turkana fishermen, among others, are the Catholic Church operating in the district, the Constituency Development Fund (CDF), Arid Lands Development Program and Turkana Fisheries Cooperative Society (FCS) (Figure 4).

Environmental concerns raised by fisher community

Several issues were raised by the respondents outside the semi-structured interviews, which are pertinent to understanding and improving the livelihood opportunities of the people of the district. Sustainable fishing is dependent on the healthy inflow of water into the lake. Abstraction of waters from key rivers draining into the lake is impacting negatively. This includes the damming of the Omo River on the Ethiopian side.

Since its introduction, Prosopis juliflora has spread across the floodplains including areas where it is not needed (Government of Kenya, 2005). It has spread in major “hot spots” such as the Ferguson Bay and Longech beach areas near Kalokol, and the Todonyang grasslands. Besides claiming rich areas, it is competing with forage and browse tree species of economic importance within the wetlands such as Acacia tortilis, Balanites aegyptiaca, and Hyperhenia compresa, which is a multi-purpose plant of great economic significance (Government of Kenya, 2005). Apart from threat posed by Prosopis to other plants, the Hyperhenia compresa seeds are being burnt for fish smoking by processors.

Conclusions and recommendations

Turkana is a food deficient area where fisheries can readily augment the protein demand; however, fish has not been a choice food of the local population traditionally. Frequent droughts over the years have caused partial or total loss of livestock, making the majority of the people take up fishing as an alternative activity for survival. It is not known whether this will change the attitude of the community to accept fishing as a long term and permanent economic livelihood. The fishery has the potential of contributing significantly to the livelihood of people living in the area. It offers an opportunity for the community to settle down to a sedentary lifestyle, making it easier to access health, educational and other essential services. Fish resources have not been fully exploited particularly in offshore waters but the pressure needs to be controlled in inshore shallow areas.

Conflict resolution mechanism among warring parties across the border should be undertaken through the governments of Ethiopia and Kenya by strengthening the plans that have already been put into place by the church and the non-governmental institutions in order to allow the residents of this region to maximize the benefits of the resources that exist here.

As a completely rural-based fishery, Lake Turkana is expected to contribute substantially to the economy of the region. At the moment, there is scanty information on the quantity and value of the lake's fishery and the role of the fishery at the household level. Studies on socio-economic characteristics of the fisher communities, including other stakeholders, will provide a good entry point for monitoring the benefits of the lake to the local community.

Challenges encountered during the study

One of the challenges was language for conducting interviews. Most of the respondents were illiterate. Respondents regarded the team with a lot of suspicion, avoiding close interaction. To minimize the effect of this, the socio-economic research team used local people as enumerators. Secondly, the roads were dusty and sandy. Many times the team got stuck. The heat was also unbearable for team members who were in the region for the first time. Crossing the lake by boat was risky due to northerly winds from Mount Kulal which posed the greatest threat.

Last but not least, the fear of attack at the Omo delta/wetland did not give us enough time to conduct individual interviews to get the data from this important hot-spot region.


We wish to acknowledge the Government of Kenya and Kenya Marine and Fisheries Institute for providing the funds for the study under Lake Turkana Research Project. We also acknowledge Martin Van Der Knaap and Dr. Munawar who invited and assisted us to attend GLOW V in Sodere, Ethiopia. We thank the Delta Research and Global Observation Network (DRAGON) and all organizations who sponsored us to go to The GLOW V Conference, especially The Aquatic Ecosystem Health and Management Society who has accepted this paper for publication.

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