Mama Karanga- the Life of a Kenyan Small Scale Fish Processor and Seller

A typical small scale fish processor is a person who lives a difficult and eventful life. The term fish processor is a little grandiloquent if not ambiguous given the simple and common fish processing methods these women employ. Most of them are simply referred to as mama karanga which comes from their characteristic fried fish that is common on the streets of coastal towns especially in the evening hours.

Before the fish reaches the markets in the afternoons or evenings, an arduous journey begins with a trip to the nearby fish landing sites – this can at times be as early as 4.00 am. The trip has one objective – to buy as much fish as they can possibly fry and sell. On reaching the landing sites, the wait for the fish can get very long – sometimes over six hours! The wait offers no guarantee since it depends on how the small scale fishermen will fare. On the bad days of the year, especially during the months of May, June, July, August and September, they oftentimes have to walk away with empty basins. On such a bad day, the women have to go to the butchery for fish – their second best option. Here the fish is sold a little too expensively which narrows their profit margins.

After finally making a purchase from either the butchers or the landing sites, they move on to the next phase of their hustle. This phase takes place mostly in their homes where they do the fish frying. Fish frying is not for the faint hearted either. It is a lengthy exposure to heat and a juggle with hot cooking oil that will oftentimes find an excuse to spill on the hardworking Kenyan. Sometimes, the woman might realize only too late that the fish she paid for hurriedly is completely spoilt or just not too good for anything at all. In this case she sun dries the fish and sells it as such.  A process they call kufanya ng’onda.

Most of the mama karanga prefer a good mix of species of fish for selling. Their clientele are price -sensitive slum dwellers that are selective and quite unpredictable with the fish type they want to buy every day. The mama karanga would therefore mostly package her fish in pieces of fish – mostly a fish cut into three pieces. Only the very small fishes are sold whole. That way their typical customer can afford them. These products are packaged in wooden boxes lined with newspapers and sold at the roadsides. The mama karanga can do the selling upto as late as 11.00 PM.

On a good day, she will probably make a thousand shillings or less as profits. These good days are ironically during the days she experiences difficulty in buying fish as opposed to the high season when fish is in plenty. The high season reduces her sales drastically because of too much supply of fish.

The intrigues of the business are many and I will be sharing bits of these in the coming days. Not just for the fun of it but to reveal the many programming opportunities that development actors can take on to better this part of the fisheries value chain especially in coastal Kenya.

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