Omena traders along Lake Victoria in Kenya are reaping the rewards of innovative fast-drying and cooling techniques. This groundbreaking concept, developed by researchers from Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT) under the leadership of Prof. Nelson Ojijo from the Food Science Department, aims to enhance the sector that sustains millions of livelihoods.
This project, funded by the European Union through the Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa (FARA), is part of a groundbreaking initiative, the Agricultural Knowledge and Innovation Ecosystem for Inclusive Rural Transformation and Livelihoods in Eastern Africa (AIRTEA), and is already having a positive impact midway through its cycle.
Omena, a vital source of livelihood in the Lake region, faces significant wastage during the long intervals between fishing and drying, thus prompting overfishing to compensate for losses.
Prof. Ojijo’s project, initiated in March 2022, has introduced two groundbreaking machines. The first, a portable charcoal-powered cooling device, enables immediate preservation of the fish while the second, a solar-powered drying machine, accelerates the drying process to two hours, preventing microbial growth and significantly improving the quality of the dried Omena.
Implemented at Dunga Beach in Kisumu and Marenga Beach in Busia, the project engages with local beach management units, establishing a crucial link between the project and the fishing communities.
During a recent tour on November 29, 2023, Mr. Nicholas Ouma, Secretary-General of Dunga Beach Management Unit, highlighted the positive changes brought about by the project, notably the improved quality of the dried omena. He also emphasized its contribution to women’s empowerment and efficient resource utilization especially in the rainy season.
“The project’s impact extends beyond preservation, providing practical training sessions for local students. Additionally, these innovations have proven particularly beneficial for the women here at Dunga Beach, reducing loss and freeing up time previously spent chasing birds away from the open-air layouts,” explains Mr. Ouma
The project, coordinated by a consortium of partners comprising FARA, Kenya Marine & Fisheries Research Institute (KEMFRI), the Association for Strengthening Agricultural Research in Eastern and Central Africa (ASARECA), and the Eastern Africa Farmers Federation (EAFF) facilitated training workshops for beach unit members, before the project installation.
This training provided insights on business management skills such as developing business plans to attract private investors in the future and hygienic fish handling which is strategic to mitigate post-harvest loss.
At Marenga Beach, where locals have allocated a section of their land to accommodate the facility, the demand for additional dryers and coolers is high, given that they handle an average of 8,000 kilograms of omena, reflecting the success and need for expansion.
Dr Kwaku Antwi, Project Lead from FARA, was pleased with the progress, including the training, noting that while the dryers are insufficient for the biomass, it shows that there is a better way to dry the omena.
He also advised the Beach Management Units to incorporate a cooperative framework, which will provide them with numerous benefits and allow them to take control of their economic future.
Looking ahead, the project aims to add value to Omena through novel products, including snacks and noodles, developed by JKUAT’s Food Science and Technology postgraduate students, promoting fish consumption, especially among the youth with high nutritional demands.
For Prof. Ojijo the AIRTEA project is not just transforming the Omena industry; it’s creating a sustainable and thriving future for Lake Victoria’s fishing communities because it generates the bulk of the catch in the Lake region.
He believes that these innovations will catalyze the much-needed change in the sector.