LAKE VICTORIA, Kenya — It’s a calm, breezy morning at Dunga beach on the shores of Lake Victoria, and the scene is typical for an area that runs on its fishing industry. The men are either repairing their nets or setting off for their next catch, while the women cook meals for their customers, mainly hungry fishermen, or clean dishes to get ready for the next meal.
At one workshop, under a eucalyptus tree, just like in workshops all over the area, a group of men are building a new boat. But there’s an unfamiliar element to this scenario: the bosses carefully inspecting the work are two women.
Unlike most women working on the shores of Lake Victoria, who make their money through supplementary services like cleaning fish or cooking, Violet Babu, 30, and Eunice Awino, 26, manage a set of fishing boats, carving a niche for themselves in the male-dominated sector.
The idea came to Babu six years ago, as she was working for another businesswoman descaling and washing fish to sell at market. She was looking for ways to earn more money, but didn’t want to start cooking like the other women on the beach. “When I saw how much she could get from selling fish, I thought of getting capital to start a business and earn for myself,” she says.
She asked Awino, who also had a job cleaning fish, to join her, and together they started saving to buy a boat. It wasn’t an easy decision: The women knew the challenges they would face trying to make a living in a job traditionally reserved for men.
“I wasn’t so sure if we could make it, because other women here were doing well in the cooking business and not fishing,” Babu says. “At first, I was uncertain.”
Slow Path to Acceptance
When they decided to set up their fishing business, Babu and Awino didn’t have enough money to buy even one boat. They considered borrowing from a bank, but worried about losing their homes and assets if they defaulted on the loan. Instead, Babu and Awino started putting aside money from their day jobs, like many other women do daily across the region. A survey published in March 2017 by the Graça Machel Trust, an advocacy organization, shows 71 percent of women entrepreneurs in East Africa use their own savings to start their businesses.
“I pay school fees, buy uniforms for my children, and meet other family expenses. I don’t ask for any money from my husband nowadays.”
“We agreed to put away a daily savings of 200 Kenyan shilling ($2) and we managed to raise Ksh 60,000 (around $600) in five months,” Babu says. Eventually, they saved enough to buy two boats, at Ksh 70,000 ($700) each.
But finding men who were willing to take a job on those boats proved difficult at first.
“When we started with our first boat, most men were hesitant to work for us,” Babu says. “But after some time, young men agreed.”
Now the two women have five men fishing for them.
Micheal Obilo, one of the men whose job is to make boats for Babu and Awino, remembers that when he started fishing 24 years ago, women were not allowed to go anywhere near the industry.
“Now this vessel we are making belongs to these women, and we have accepted [it]. If my wife wants to own a boat, I will support her because I know that is an additional revenue into my family.”
During low season, Babu and Awino’s fishing business brings in around Ksh 5,000 ($50) per month; in more lucrative months, it can make up to Ksh 15,000 ($150) per month.
Awino says her husband is glad about her business. The income she brings in helps take some of the stress out of daily family life.
“We are living happily in our family,” she says. “I pay school fees, buy uniforms for my children, and meet other family expenses. I don’t ask for any money from my husband nowadays.”
‘No One Is Trying to Control Them’
To address the challenges women face when trying to start their own businesses, the Kenyan government has introduced various programs over the past decade to provide more opportunities based on gender mainstreaming, affirmative action and gender responsive budgeting.
In 2007, the government declared that 30 percent of all public procurement tenders would be reserved for special interest groups, which include women, people with disabilities and young people. That same year, it launched the semi-autonomous Women Enterprise Fund (WEF), which provides women with affordable credit and other financial support. Unlike traditional lending institutions, the fund doesn’t require collateral, making loans more accessible to women in a country where only a fraction of them own land or property.
“We are not like banks and not profit making,” Judith Odero Wanyonyi, regional credit officer at the WEF, says. “We have a human face.”
Since launching in 2014, Babu and Awino have found that, at times, limited access to financing has held back their business’s growth, even when they hit obstacles that have nothing to do with their gender. Like many other fishing business owners, they have had their nets and fish stolen, sometimes while they were still at sea. But without access to credit, it’s harder for the women to bounce back from those financial losses. “We have to start all over again. It is difficult for us to follow up or stay on the lake, like the men do,” Babu says.
So far, they have always managed to recover, and business is going well enough that the women are thinking of expanding. “We are planning to buy a motorboat engine and increase our number of fishing nets,” Babu says.
Finding men to work on the boats should be easier this time.
“Once men see other men working on our boat, they feel like they [feel better], they realize no one is trying to control them,” Babu says. “Now we are going for another boat, and many men have already come and signed up to work for us.”
This article has been updated to correct the spelling of Judith Odero Wanyonyi’s name.