Alidi Omari is not distracted by wild cheers from swimmers at the Reef in Nyali Beach. His eyes are firmly fixed on a nail he is hammering as he fixes a wooden boat.
Mr Omari, 50 has plied this trade for about three decades, and he says the business has been booming. However, the prospects are not as rosy as they used to be. Reason? Declining fish stock as well as hard wood for building boats.
“Fishing has been the major source of food for local communities along the coast, yet declining wood for building the boats and reducing fish stock worries fishermen,” says Mr Omari.
Dr David Obura, a marine expert and director of the Coastal Oceans Research and Development in the Indian Ocean (CORDIO), says the country is at risk of losing its fish resources as there is a decline in the numbers of coral reef in the Indian Ocean.
He says global warming, pollution, over-fishing and greenhouse gas emissions are the causes of the depletion of corals in the ocean.
“Declining health in Kenya’s marine resources is evident in traditional small-scale fisheries, the growth in commercial fisheries, conflicts among fisher groups and in the increased use of gears such as ring nets,” he notes.
He adds that the economic pressures on the country’s coastline are threatening the ecosystem and putting in jeopardy marine economy and livelihood of the people that depend on them. Urgent action, he says, must be taken to reverse the potentially dire situation.
Mr Omari says the livelihood of the fishing community is now endangered with dwindling hard wood for building boats because many indigenous forests have been destroyed.
Mr Omari, just like other boat builders along the coast specialises in building both big and small fishing boasts. He uses hard wood, especially from the cedar tree in his trade. “We prefer hard wood because saline water of the ocean eats into soft wood and destroys any wood-related fishing equipment,” explains Mr Omari who charges between Sh250,000 and Sh80,000 to build a boat depending on its size, and the materials used.
Like many canoe makers, Mr Omari inherited the art from his parents.
“Canoe building is unique because it is mostly inherited. If your father or grandfather built boats, it is likely that you would also be good in it,” notes Mr Omari.
The natural shape of cedar trees makes them perfect for cutting into planks or for splitting into two long sections. Cedar trees can grow over 80 feet tall, about 50 feet long and eight feet wide. Each boat can hold up to ten fishermen and about 10,000 pounds of cargo, such as fish and nets.
Because it is now hard to get hard wood, the number of boats Mr Omar builds has been going down in the last five years.
“I could build up to 30 boats in a year, yet nowadays I can build just about three,” says Mr Omar.
However this trade which has been his main source of livelihood for decades is under a great strain due to the lack of raw material, especially hard wood.
According to marine scientists, Kenya earns around $2.5 billion yearly from its ocean, which is less than 4 percent of its GDP. However, the sector has huge potential, which can only be attained if practices that damage the environment and hurt marine ecosystem are dealt with.