Handshakes, Not Handouts Help Remba Island Women Overcome ‘Sex For Fish’

Food & Drink

Very few languages have a direct translation for the phenomenon known as Jaboya or “sex-for-fish,” but for the women of Remba Island— a small fishing village located amidst a rocky archipelago in Lake Victoria, situated between Kenya and Uganda— this form of prostitution has become so common that it has its own word.

Despite Remba’s status as Kenya’s largest producer of Nile Perch or Mbuta, a fish of substantial economic and food-security importance to the region— with 70% of all production originating in Lake Victoria, and total catches amounting to 151,002 metric tons per year with an annual value of $297 million— Remba’s fisheries are a depiction of social inequality.

Most local fishers are men between the ages of 12 and 35 years, and while they do all of the fishing— up to 12 hours a day of fishing expeditions or tembea— they take home only 20-30% of profits, with the remainder going to boat owners, most of whom live elsewhere. On-island, tradeswomen have been known to resort to sex as a means of compensating fishermen for fish, which they then resell or feed to their families. Women have typically not had a voice in the island’s primary industry.

“Before we met them, the women of Remba Island were not short of aspirations, determination and perseverance but they were lacking empowerment,” says Janine Edwards, CEO of Power for the People (PFP) a UK-based charity that has been committed to transforming the lives of Remba’s women and improving the community’s food and nutrition security for the past four years.

In 2018, PFP partnered with a solar energy pay-as-you-go mini-grid power provider, DREAM EP Global Energy Kenya Limited (DREAM) to springboard a renewable-energy powered agricultural enterprise, under the leadership of a 15-member women’s self-help group called the Remba Women’s Group.

A poultry farm and kitchen garden, which was seed funded by PFP has provided the women and the community with jobs, food, education, and training through a sustainable project that has been led, scaled, and maintained by the women themselves.

“What we are doing is giving people the opportunity to generate income to pay for things that they need, essentially ensuring we don’t create a cycle of dependence, but rather, kick start further development,” says Edwards.

PFP refers to this model of “powering self-sufficiency” as “handshakes not handouts.”

Photographer, Frederick “Dharshie” Wissah has travelled 333 kilometers from Nairobi to Remba to serve as my eyes and ears in this joint storytelling project. He forwards clips of pollution floating in the surrounding waters, of single-room iron sheet houses and garbage-lined streets and waterfronts. A lack of toilet facilities and inadequate sanitation has meant that human waste ends up in the same waters where local people bathe, do their laundry— and fish.

Limited security in the vast Lake Victoria region has made Remba a gateway for drugs, and a well-known criminal hideout. Theft and gender-based violence are also common in the densely populated village of predominantly transient inhabitants.

But over the past four years, there have been many stories of triumph and resilience.

Ping… Ping… ping… Dharshie sends me colorful photos of solar-panel-capped roofs, smiling children at school, agricultural plots and a poultry farm, managed by local women, who have found a way to defy the odds that have been largely stacked against them for many years.

Caren Okombo, an Environmental Consultant and PFP’s Project Manager in Remba, is a resident of nearby Mfangano Island and has a strong sense of familiarity with Remba, its people and its problems. Okombo spearheaded the women’s empowerment project, after making the acquaintance of several women in the community, when she was an employee of DREAM in 2017.

Prior to the arrival of DREAM, and later PFP, about 10% of Remba’s houses and businesses depended on power from petrol and diesel generators, while the remainder depended on candlelight, kerosene lamps and charcoal.

An over dependence on Nile Perch meant that the community was largely malnourished, and women’s dis-empowerment contributed to Jaboya and gender-based violence and crime. The two leading causes of mortality in the area at the time were HIV/AIDS and diarrheal diseases. Unsafe sex and malnutrition were the primary risk factors driving the most death and disability combined.

“When I first came to Remba Island, I got know the women at a household level and found that they were really warm and lovely people,” says Okombo. “The problem that most of them complained about was malnutrition. Most of the food that they received, outside of Nile Perch, was processed food as well as vegetables that were of inferior quality from the mainland. The women explained to me that they were unable to grow their own crops because of limited availability of land.”

In 2018, PFP was invited to the island to consult with the community on potential solutions, as part of a Corporate Social Responsibility project for DREAM. Initiatives put forward by the Island’s community included education, food security and nutrition, and a school program.

With the assistance of the Remba Beach Management Unit (BMU), fifteen women— some of whom had previously been commercial sex workers— were hand-selected as the original members of the Remba Women’s Group, that would serve as “pioneers” in the community.

The BMU would provide land to the Remba Women’s Group on a 20-year lease, for a nominal rent of $1 per year, on which to conduct their farming. Given that the ground was rocky, soil was brought in from the mainland and within three months, residents were queuing for fresh vegetables such as kale, spinach, spring onions and green maize.

After achieving success with vegetable farming, the women would voice a desire to supplement their income via poultry farming and would negotiate for another piece of land.

In early 2021, the women established a fenced poultry farm complete with feeders, drinkers and laying boxes, an office, storage space, and two solar powered egg incubators with the ability to incubate up to eighty eggs per month, with a hatch rate of 95%.

Prior to the inception of the farming projects, PFP delivered a series of foundation workshops with trainers from the mainland that included functional training in vegetable farming, poultry keeping and business management; and with solar energy provided by DREAM, the women were able to put in extended hours, which had not previously been possible due to a lack of power.

“We’ve really gained a lot. We get people buying our vegetables, we get people buying our eggs and now we sell chicken,” says Jackline Utuoma, who carries the dual role of Head of the Remba Women’s Group and a teacher at Remba Primary School.

“This has economically empowered us as women and our diets have improved. We eat nutritious foods, depending not only on fish but on locally produced vegetables and eggs that are accessed cheaply by the entire community— which has helped our families. We don’t have the deficiency diseases that we used to have… We want to make this bigger so that it can sustain us further and cater to most of our needs.”

The vegetable farm and the poultry farm currently operate in a closed loop whereby any waste generated from vegetable production is fed to the chickens and waste from the chickens is used as fertilizer for the vegetables.

“They are one group that has not contributed to the waste problem in Remba,” says Okombo.

Prior to the onset of the farming project, Prisca, an elderly member of the community, reported a frequent struggle with food insecurity due to an inability to compete with younger women in the fish trade. Since joining the Remba Women’s Group, she has been able to work, eat, and provide for her three grandchildren who are in her care.

“She is one of our lead women who take care of the chickens,” laughs Okombo. “The chickens know her.”

The ability to make a little out of a lot is driven by a strong educational and infrastructural foundation, coupled with sustainable values and local partnerships that provide the women with the knowledge and resources to succeed. This success has had the multiplier effect of fueling further development in Remba.

The partnership’s work with Remba Women’s Group has expanded to Remba Primary School, improving security for 1000 children by fencing the school perimeter and installing solar electricity, establishing a vegetable garden, building a football pitch with support from the UEFA Fund for Children, and improving discipline and attendance through a sporting program.

“Empower a woman, empower a community,” says the motto of the Remba Women’s Group. The project has indeed achieved this – from enabling the women’s voice and advocacy skills, investing in their ambitions for scaling and developing their enterprise and acting as a learning hub for neighboring islands. Registration as a Community-Based Organization in Kenya has also enabled the Remba Women’s Group to benefit from County grants and loans to support their aspirations.

Unlike larger NGOs and international organizations that are overburdened by bureaucracy and size, PFP is able to make a large and scalable community impact on a very small budget. PFP’s initial investment of $5000 towards food security and livelihoods on Remba Island has covered all direct expenses for the enterprise, including the purchase of the chicks and eggs, incubators, initial feed and vaccinations, soil, sacks and seeds as well as the poultry farm.

And these small investments have paid back dividends.

In one year, the women have managed to double their poultry flock from 125 to 250 (despite the outbreak of a poultry virus that resulted in their losing 10 of their birds) and they have established a profitable vegetable farm.

The business has become so successful that Wednesdays have been designated as “Sale Days”— first come, first served.

Revenues earned have been used to set up table-banking— a savings and investment scheme— that has helped the women to achieve financial independence, empowerment and— further development.

In addition to sustainable livelihoods, the partnership between DREAM, PFP and the BMU has powered healthcare, security lighting and education, leading to less absenteeism, enhanced student performance, improved health and nutrition and less crime within the community.

“This speaks to the value of handshakes not handouts and how, by combining our resources with business and local government agencies, we can achieve transformational change at speed. We are so much more than the sum of our parts,” says Edwards.

A shared ethos of sustainable design drives the symbiotic relationship between DREAM and PFP. Both organizations believe in giving people the infrastructure to support entrepreneurship and self-sufficiency, so that they are not dependent on external support.

“Sustainable design is about building a future and not just a structure or product. It is as much about the process as it is about the final product,” says the team at DREAM.

The women are currently planning to set up a caged fish farm, paid for and managed by the Remba Women’s Group. This will make them the first female fish cage owners on Remba Island, which will give them a voice in local fisheries and shift the power dynamic.

“I am delighted with the positive impact we jointly deliver on Remba,” says Dr. Tara Lindstedt of DREAM. “Currently we are jointly trying to raise funds to install fish cooling and ice making for Remba fisher people, so that two-thirds of their catch does not routinely end up rotten and dumped into the lake. The ecosystem is groaning with pollution, and we need to make urgent changes to stop the fish catch wastage. There are 550 such inland communities in and around lakes in Kenya.”

PFP is also working with the Remba Primary School to provide literacy training to the women and will soon be providing them with sexual health education. As part of this program, PFP will seed fund a business for the women to sell affordable, hygienic, reuseable sanitary towels.

“We have bigger plans to have more members come in and make this a learning center. People come from different places to see what we are doing,” says Jackline Utuoma of the Remba Women’s Group.

“Over here, people are used to donations,” says Okombo. “When they see the arrival of people from organizations like PFP, they know that they are here to give. But this is very different. When PFP stretches their hand to give, they expect to be met halfway— in a handshake, not a handout.”

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