Powering the ‘Ghost Town’ of Rusinga Island: Fishermen in Lake Victoria, Kenya take action on climate change (PHOTO STORY)
Odongo Eric, a fisherman from Rusinga Island, Lake Victoria in Kenya, uses a solar-powered light to capture silver cyprinid fish one night in May. Odongo has been fishing for five years. He recently switched to fishing with solar lamps instead of kerosene in an attempt to reduce his carbon footprint and be part of the global climate change mitigation movement.

By Anthony Ochieng / TonyWild

Growing up in Rusinga Island, Kenya, my family and I enjoyed the majestic views of the enormous Lake Victoria, called “Nam Lolwe” in our language, Luo. When the sun set, the lake came to life in a whole new form, with small yellow lights popping up across the water. 

The glowing bulbs appear to represent a town in the distance for a first-time visitor to the island – but in the morning, this town is nowhere to be seen. This is why we call it the ‘Ghost Town.’

Rusinga Island is one of the many scattered islands along the Kenyan shores of Lake Victoria, Africa’s largest lake which is shared by Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania in East Africa. The fishing sector is hugely important for people’s livelihoods on the island. Most households in the communities depend on fishing for their income.  

In the night, this sea of lights – the so-called ‘Ghost Town’ – appears as a result of fishing the delicious Silver cyprinid (Rastrineobola argentea), locally known as ‘Omena’ by my brothers, uncles, and neighbours. 

This fish, also called the Lake Victoria sardine, grows only to about 3.5 inches long. They stay close to the bottom in the daytime and rise up toward the surface at night. They are caught at night using lights, then sun-dried, sold, and distributed through the southern East African region for human consumption and as chicken feed. The fish is attracted to light and only fished during the darkest nights of the month.  

A kerosene lamp floating on a fishing stand, Lake Victoria. The lamp produces yellow light from burnt kerosene, which is derived from petroleum, a fossil fuel. When the fishermen relied on kerosene, the light would last only for a few hours, and they had to check and refill the lamps when they were in the water. Now, the solar lamps can last the whole night.

Michael Kepha, the former Beach Management Unit Chair, fixing a kerosene lamp to show me the effort it used to take the fishermen to light their lamps. It took him 30 minutes to light just one kerosene lamp. Now with solar, all the fishermen have to do is switch a button to turn on the light. Kepha was very cautious that the fire did not burn him in the process of lighting the lamp.

As I grew into an adult, I gradually saw the yellow lights turn to white, but I never took note of this seriously. But two years ago, when going for a walk on the shores, I met one of the fishermen tying a light on one of the floating frames. I noticed the light being used was different from the kerosene-powered lamps. He was using a solar-powered lamp to fish. Being a conservation storyteller, this hit a light bulb in my mind. Clearly, my community was mitigating climate change in its own way. This was very humbling and inspiring.  

The solar lights are powered by a battery that is charged during the day for use at night. The fishermen buy these solar lamps from energy stations or hubs, sometimes through a loan program. The lamps cost USD $20, as compared to USD $30 for a kerosene lamp. Not all of the fishermen can afford solar panels, so they recharge from the energy stations at a cost of about 70-100 Kenya Shillings (USD $1) per lamp. This is much cheaper than when they used kerosene. The amount of kerosene consumed in 12 hours costs approximately USD $10. 

Once fully charged, the solar light can run for the whole night, which is convenient as the fishermen can spend up to 12 hours on their boats.

Besides serving fishermen, the solar lamps are also being adopted for use in island homes, seeing that many households do not have access to electricity. The solar lamps started to be introduced on the island about six years ago, and today, almost all of the fishermen use them.

A solar-powered light floating on a fishing stand, Lake Victoria. The solar-powered lamp can be delineated by its white light, as opposed to yellow light, which is produced by kerosene lamps. 

An aerial view of fishermen fixing the lamps on the stands before getting ready to go fishing. The stands float alone out in the water to attract the small silver fish, which the fishermen then come and collect using nets. After leaving the lights out in the water, the fishermen circle back and check on them every hour to retrieve the fish.
At around 5-6 pm in the evening, Odongo the fisherman puts together all the solar lamps before heading out fishing. It takes the fishermen about 20 minutes to prepare the boats and mount the lights. Then, they will stay out on the lake all night until morning, only coming back to shore at dawn. There are about 300 fishermen who live and work on Rusinga Island. All are now using solar lamps.
(Left) A traditional kerosene lamp, which took more than 30 minutes to light before the fishermen switched to solar. (Right) A solar lamp being fixed by fisherman Odongo Eric at the lake shores on Rusinga Island. The fishermen make the stands using a light tree branch. Each squad of fishermen will handle about 10 light stands each night.
The floating solar-powered lamp in position to attract the silver fish. The lamps are placed just after sunset to provide light that attracts the silver fish to the surface. Later, the fishermen spread their nets below the light to catch the fish.

Fish Stocks Under Threat

A fishing squad sets off to the lake, the boat powered by petrol. However, the fishermen are moving to use electric-powered engines to go completely green. In May, a group of fishermen was testing out a set of electric engines for the first time.

An increase in global temperatures, rising sea levels, changing precipitation patterns, and a rise in extreme weather conditions are threatening human health, safety, food security, water security, and socioeconomic development in Africa, according to the World Meteorological Association

The fishing sector in Kenya has undergone a tremendous transformation, from a local-based subsistence fishery to a commercialized sector today. But this sector is especially impacted by climate change.

A local fisherman poses with an electric engine that was being tested during the photographer’s visit to the village.

Kenya is highly vulnerable to the climatic changes, with projections suggesting that its temperature will rise up to 2.5ºC between 2000 and 2050. Even the slightest increase in droughts and floods will present major challenges to food security and water availability.

Christian Aid REPORT, MAY 2021

The communities living in Rusinga Island on the Kenyan side of Lake Victoria have always depended on fishing and will continue to depend on it into the future. But impacts of climate change, such as increased water levels of the lake, increases in temperature, and changes in rainfall patterns – combined with overfishing and ongoing pollution of the lake – significantly affect the fish species. Most of the freshwater fish species native to the Lake Victoria basin are endangered, critically endangered, or extinct, according to the IUCN.

Climate change also impacts the health of the communities, as warmer temperatures and higher rainfall increase habitat suitability for biting insects and the transmission of vector-borne diseases such as malaria. The fishermen on this island are taking climate action and being part of the greater efforts in driving the global climate agenda in Africa. More than 90 percent of African countries have ratified the global Paris Agreement on climate, with many committing to transitioning to green energy within a relatively short time frame. 

Fishing livelihoods are also under threat because of unsustainable fishing practices such as overfishing, destructive fishing methods, pollution from fish farms and use of non-renewable energy in the industry. Climate-smart practices can help reverse this. One of the objectives of climate-smart fisheries and aquaculture in the FAO Climate Smart Agriculture sourcebook is to enable the sector, where possible, to contribute to the mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions during the harvest and production stages and throughout the entire value chain.

“Before, we used to take hours to just light one kerosene lamp, but now we only switch a button and we are ready to go. It has saved us a lot of time and [we are] now able to do other business such as tomato farming,” said Michael Kepha, Former Beach Management Unit Chair and a fisherman on the island.

The Beauty of Being Climate Smart

Otieno Ngare, a member of the same fishing quad with Odongo, views the lake shore as the fishermen set off for a whole night on the water. Four to five fishermen generally share each boat. About 10 teams go out at a time, mostly on the darkest nights of the moon cycle.

Safety: Solar lamps are comparatively safer than their counterparts, kerosene and pressure lights, which have been reported to explode if mishandled. Solar is also a safer alternative for fishermen’s health due to the exposure to toxic fumes produced from kerosene.

Two solar-powered lights floating on the lake, as the fishermen cast their nets to catch the silver fish. The catch was small this May evening and sold mainly to locals as a source of household food. During the high catch periods, some fish is also sold to animal feed companies in Nairobi.

Ecological benefits: Kerosene lamps, which have been the common sources of lights used for night fishing, contribute to Lake Victoria’s ecosystem degradation from oil spillages into the water. Solar, on the other hand, is a clean source of energy.

Cost-effectiveness: According to a 2004 study conducted by the World Bank on small-scale fisheries in Yemen, using solar can save fishermen about 35-50 percent of their income that they would have otherwise spent on fuel costs and maintaining the lamps. In general, the use of solar lights helps improve the fishermen’s livelihoods, as they can save more money for other services. Several of the fishermen on Rusinga Island said they used the money saved on education and maintaining their households.

At around 11 p.m., Otieno Ngare retrieves his casted net out from the lake containing some silver fish. He will revisit the lamps every hour to check for fish.

Reliability and efficiency: Given that they are solar, they depend exclusively on a renewable energy source – the sun, and hence cannot be depleted. Besides, solar lamps are more reliable as fishermen can use them even in the rain since they have waterproof cases. They are not prone to damage, such as the glass in kerosene lanterns, and can therefore be used for a much longer period. 

Fishermen and market women meet in the morning to sell their catch to buyers at the lakeshore on Rusinga Island. In recent years, the silver fish catch has been low. Even though solar lights have improved the efficiency of the fishing process, the increased pressures on the lake from climate change, pollution, and overfishing have reduced the fish catch, according to island fishermen.

A fisherman measuring his catch to a potential buyer.

A fisherman selling his catch after a whole night fishing.

The fishermen sell the silver fish in basins. This amount would cost approximately KES 1,500  (USD $15).

Nyakandito, a fishmonger from the island, carries the wet silver fish to be dried before taking it to the market.

At around 7-8 in the morning, women from the village dry the silver fish before it is taken to the market. 

Our communities are affected the most by climate change, and seeing them adopt reliable and sustainable solutions is truly awe-inspiring. What is your community doing to mitigate climate change? Look around and you might find an answer in the most unusual of ways. 

It is the end of one night of fishing, and the fishermen go home to rest as they wait for the evening to fall again.

This EverydayNile story was supported by InfoNile with funding from IHE-Delft Global Partnership for Water and Development.