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It is a bright morning at Kyaliwajjala market on the outskirts of Uganda’s capital city, Kampala. Dorothy Nakimbugwe, co-principal investigator of the ‘NutriFish’ project, is introducing food kiosk vendors to a new sauce made from a small pelagic fish called ‘Mukene’, or silver fish. 

Uganda has three main small pelagic fish species: Ratrineobola argentea (Mukene), Brycinus nurse (Ragoogi) and Engraulicypris bredoi (Muziri). They all contain important micronutrients, including iron, zinc and calcium, and vitamins such as A and D that are essential for human health. Nakimbugwe is promoting her team’s new silver-fish-based powdered sauce as an accompaniment with chapati (a flat bread made from wheat). She provides instructions on how to cook the sauce and, within minutes, the crowd is scrambling to taste this unique recipe for the first time. “No fish smell at all and it tastes good!” shouts a crowd participant. “The fish-enriched sauce cooks in 10 minutes. This is very important because in East Africa we consume a lot of beans, up to 60 kg per person per capita, but they take so long to cook, requiring a lot of time and fuel. So this sauce is very important because on top of being nutritious, it is also convenient and tasty,” enthused Nakimbugwe. 

A chapati vendor at Kyaliwajjala Market distributes the Mukene sauce to crowd participants
Pius Sawa
A chapati vendor at Kyaliwajjala Market distributes the Mukene sauce to crowd participants

Making the most of fish 

In 2019, the NutriFish project began with funding from IDRC and the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research, through their joint program, Cultivate Africa’s Future Fund (CultiAF). The partnership involves the Department of Zoology, Entomology and Fisheries Sciences at the College of Natural Sciences at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda’s National Fisheries Resources Research Institute, Nutreal Uganda Limited and McGill University in Canada. The aim was to discover ways to reduce Mukene post-harvest losses, as well as increase product quality, safety and accessibility. Another key objective was to improve distribution of this nutritionally important small pelagic fish to vulnerable groups who cannot afford expensive commercial fish, but who are in critical need of high-quality nutritious diets. 

More than 300 roadside food sellers and 60 shop owners from various busy markets neighbouring Kampala have been introduced to the fish-based products. “We have a flour of maize enriched with fish and amaranth grain that can be used as porridge or for meals like posho or Ugali,” Nakimbugwe explained. A seasoning enriched with silver fish, which is free from any preservatives, has already been certified by the Uganda National Bureau of Standards. “We also have a baby food that contains millet, a bit of maize and amaranth, and fish,” she added. “The baby food is prepared in less than a minute, using warm water.” This is packed in 50 g sachets for hygiene and affordability, with one sachet costing 1,000 Ugandan shillings (approximately 35 Canadian cents). The team has also developed a ‘baghia’ snack (crunchy, spaghetti-shaped sticks, made from gram and wheat flour) that is enriched with fish. 

The small nutritious fish have been processed into products including flour, seasoning and a spaghetti-shaped snack.
Pius Sawa
The small nutritious fish have been processed into products including flour, seasoning and a spaghetti-shaped snack.

Getting the message out 

A radio campaign to promote the value addition and consumption of small fish has been held across four radio stations to broadcast 29 radio ‘spot messages’ – short adverts as opposed to longer features – from September 2021 to March 2022. The messages, broadcast in local languages, reach a population of more than 12 million people in communities around Lake Albert, Lake Nabugabo and Lake Victoria. 

Emily Arayo, the development communications officer of the National Agricultural Research Organization said many people have now started eating the small fish following the radio campaign. “When people started suffering from food scarcity due to COVID-19 lockdowns, they realized that fish are essential to build immunity, and small fish are available,” she explained. 

Anthony Otunga, a senior fisheries officer from Amolatar District local government and a NutriFish champion, has visited the project’s partner radio stations and community meetings to spread the project messages to fish value-chain actors. “We have embarked on initiatives to organize silver-fish producers into groups so that they can be supported to improve quality. Already, two enterprise groups have been established at Bangaladesh and Kayogo fishing villages, with over 70 boats coming together with an average monthly production of 3.7 tons,” Otunga said. He explained that group fishing has helped to ensure the required quality standard is maintained and supply is consistent.  

Trained NutriFish champions are also garnering positive results in promoting consumption of the small pelagic fish. Mary Betty Tembe from Ntoroko fish landing site, who owns her own boat and sells her catch to fish traders, has started selling deep-fried small fish to her clients. “I now sell fried Mukene to my customers almost every day. I earn between 10,000-20,000 shillings [USD3-6] just from the fried Mukene,” she said. In total, Tembe earns around 20,000-40,000 Ugandan shillings (USD6-12) per day from her various fish-trading activities.  

Fish for the future 

For the future, the project plans to engage schools, hospitals and refugee camps to enhance the understanding and consumption of small fishes and Nile Perch by-products as cheap and alternative sources of protein and micronutrients.  

The project also wants to focus on e-commerce options for small fish value-chain actors to help overcome challenges related to unforeseen pandemics, such as COVID-19. Jackson Efitre, a NutriFish co-principal investigator, said the current pandemic actually helped to open up the minds of the project researchers when the fish products were failing to reach consumers. “I am happy to report that one of the NutriFish team members has received an independent grant to develop an electronic fish marketing platform to address the e-commerce challenge, and very soon the platform will be launched,” Efitre said.

Top image: Pius Sawa