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Economic solution to something fishy in Uganda

This story is supplemented with two short videos created by students at Uganda Christian University. The lead developer is final-year journalism student Jimmy Siyasa. The videos on cage fish farming and voices of farmers about fishing challenges around Lake Victoria are on the Uganda Partners YouTube page.)

By Patty Huston-Holm
John Livingstone Mutyaba is not a fisherman. He’s never baited a hook on a line, cast a net or set up a cage.

But he knows a lot about fishing.  So much so that the lecturer in the Faculty of Agricultural Sciences at Uganda Christian University (UCU) is increasingly being acknowledged for his research on the topic – specifically about “the economic analysis of raising fish in cages in Uganda,” a case study in Lake Victoria waters.

Livingstone’s explanation for his lack of practical experience is simple.

He doesn’t have the time. He has all the knowledge required for cage fish farming business but a schedule packed with family, with teaching and with his own learning and research towards a doctoral degree. Plus, he has no desire to die. He worries about the careless capture fishermen who use very tiny boats and with no swimming skills and no life jackets in Lake Victoria waters that can be up to 276 feet deep.

“This is a very serious risk; no wonder there are many drowning cases these days,” he said. “To make matters worse, the majority go into waters when they are drunk.”

Capture fishing (with a net) is the most practiced activity in the fishery dependent communities in Uganda. Current statistics show that almost 99% of the people living in the fishing communities derive their livelihoods capture fishing and also use heavy alcoholic beverages and small non-motorized handmade boats.

Livingstone’s growing expertise is likewise easy to explain.

He has subject matter knowledge in agriculture, the economy, education, research and planning.  Livingstone, who is the only agricultural economist at UCU, is a testament to understanding how various academic disciplines intersect.  He uses information from multiple specialties in his Egerton University (Kenya) doctoral research focused on cage fish farming technologies.

The research, entitled “Effect of Information Links and Flow through Social Networks on Smallholder Farmers’ Awareness and Adoption of Cage Fish Technologies in Uganda,” involves new institutional economics, resource economics, social science and aquaculture.  While still working on chapter four (discussing results) for what will be a minimum 200-page thesis, Livingstone spoke via Zoom in late May, giving a sneak peak of his findings.

John Livingstone Mutyaba with his wife and daughter
John Livingstone Mutyaba with his wife and daughter. Courtesy.

Regarding economics, Uganda could make more money in its fishing industry if the country took a lesson from the playbook of China, which is the world’s biggest fish producer. Uganda is geographically only 2.5% the size of China so the volume would never be as great, but water from such lakes as Victoria, Albert, Edward and George covers 18% of the country’s surface. With better planning and implementing cage fish farming technologies, Ugandans would improve their economic standing and reputation for quality fish.

“Are you sure you want to eat fish that comes from China?” Livingstone queried with a chuckle. He referenced China’s seafood that has been under repeated scrutiny for chemical additions that violate safety regulations. He added that with cleaner water and neutral pH levels of Lake Victoria waters, “Our fish tastes better, is better for you and is very unique in the world.”

Regarding societal relationships, Livingstone has found that most women and younger people in Uganda quickly embrace new ways of doing things, namely raising fish in cage technologies instead of capture fishing, while older men are reluctant to give up their traditional capture fishing lifestyle.

“Wives have a better understanding of what is needed to support their families,” Livingstone said. “The men come in during the selling process but often take the money for themselves. . . or destroy or steal from somebody’s cage.” Fortunately, he added, the Ugandan enforcement of laws for theft and destruction is more frequent to deter these incidences.

Livingstone is building expertise in aquaculture, which refers to raising fish in either earthen ponds or cage units submersed in natural water bodies. His father, who initially nudged him to follow in his coffee farm footsteps in Zirobwe Sub-county, Luwero District, now understands his son’s chosen career path. The father of nine children saw his son, John, going another direction when witnessing years ago the young boy’s excitement and curiosity after visiting Uganda’s first hydro power generation station at River Nile, Jinja.

Curiosity, Livingstone has found, can be a stronger driver to success than prior knowledge or expectations. One early suggestion for his research was indigenous vegetables, which, he said, “held no interest.” Dr. Richard Ogutu-Ohwayo of the National Fisheries Institute gave perhaps the best advice – to research something never researched.

“I recalled first seeing cage fishing promoted in 2010,” Livingstone said. “What I didn’t know then fascinated me as much as what I now know.”   

Once learned, catching fish in a mesh enclosure is a more reliable method than net casting. Tilapia, which is Livingstone’s favorite to eat followed by catfish, is the most common in Uganda. (Nile perch, according to Livingstone, is equally tasty but the smell lingers on your body for hours.)

As with all good researchers, the more he knows, the more Livingstone wants to know. Among his many mentors and influencers is Thomas Gurley, a former UCU Fulbright Scholar and a research and development director at Aerop Development. With Gurley, now living in South Carolina, the project was on land, focusing on tomatoes. Other projects have involved cassava and livestock, namely cows. 

Since completing Bishop Senior School (Mukono) and through studies at Bukalasa National Agricultural College, Martyrs University and now Egerton, Livingstone has found learning fascinating. 

While Livingstone’s thirst for knowledge will delightfully continue throughout his lifetime, his wife, Sarah, a teacher, pastor and UCU graduate; and teenage daughter, Katrina, hope his PhD part of learning will be realized by the end of this year. With his time doing research and four classes to teach, he has little time for family. 

Virtual teaching, expanded due to Covid lockdown regulations, has been a challenge for teachers and students. For his undergraduate and post-graduate students in environmental economics, macroeconomics, microeconomics, resource economics, project planning/management and environmental analysis, there is the issue of paying for their own Internet data, which is costly. As a lecturer, I also feel the hardship in buying Internet bundles, and even though his classes number half of what the, pre-covid-lockdown, in-person enrollment was, content understanding is difficult to discern without the face-to-face feedback.  

At that, Livingstone says that learning and research should be more than about grades and degree attainment. 

“I hope what I have informs policymakers, maybe even to provide incentives for the more economical cage fishing,” he said. “I hope that my engagement changes the traditional fishing mindset of some locals…that they can see the added market value not just locally but for loading onto trucks to Kenya, the Congo, South Sudan and even exported to the UK.”

Within Livingstone’s hectic schedule and ambitions, God is ever present, he said, quoting his favorite scripture from Joshua 1, verse 5: No one will be able to stand up against you, all the days of your life…I will never leave you not forsake you.

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