It is half past six in the morning. But activities at one of the Lake Victoria beaches in Homa Bay County have reached fever point.
Women wait eagerly with basins, looking forward to buy fish or fingerlings from fishermen rowing their boats ashore, after a long night in the lake.
Other middlemen and traders are also roaming around, hoping to get sufficient fish for the market at competitive prices.
Their anxious, eager and expectant faces are visible in the orange hue of the rising sun that has cast its glow in the area.
But this is not their lucky day. Most of the nets are largely empty, save for a few fish trapped in them.
The anglers, who spent yet another night in the lake with no success, appear disillusioned and downcast. And their gloom slowly spreads to all people ashore that had banked their hopes on them.
"Things have not been right for a long time. Before, we used to get a lot of fish from the lake. But now you can go for days without having a good catch, " says one of the fishermen, John Otieno.
He states: "This lake is our source of survival. It is what kept our ancestors alive. It has given us fish to sell and take care of our families for many years. How will we survive if they are no longer there?"
These dwindling fish quantities are a major concern to communities in Western Kenya that rely solely on fishing to earn their livelihood or make ends meet.
The decline has been pegged on various factors. Key among them is overfishing brought about by the population increase in the area.
"We have many people relying on just fishing for a living. This puts so much pressure on the lake; the fish don't even get enough time to reproduce, " said Michael Akoko, a fish expert from the Fisheries Department at Mbita Sub-County in Homa Bay.
To tackle these challenges, the government in collaboration with organisations such as the World Vision and the Federal Ministry for Economic Co-operation and Development (BMZ) have been training communities on aquaculture or fish farming.
The training focuses on innovative production techniques that can enable people to rear fish in ponds and enjoy bumper harvest, despite the area's arid and semi-arid environmental conditions. "We used to think that fish ponds are for areas with good climate. But now we know that the business can also do well here, where it's dry and we don't always get so much rain," says Mary Adhiambo, one of the many beneficiaries of the training.
Since starting the business in 2016, Mary has established seven fishponds that help her to make a profit of approximately Sh700,000 each year.
This has enabled her to take good care of her children, feed them well and pay their school fees.
"The market is there because people can't get enough from the lake. In fact, now fishermen come to buy from me," says the mother of six who is using her experience to inspire other women to take up aquaculture.
This has helped to reduce cases of “sex-for-fish” trade that was previously common in the area, hence increasing cases of HIV among the population. "Desperate to get cash, women sometimes had to sell their bodies to fishermen so as to get fish to sell. But now they don't have to do that as they can rear their own fish."
James Oyare, a father of eight children has also seen the “light” with fish farming. Once a renowned fisherman, he has since sold his fishing boats and embraced aquaculture, which he finds more profitable.
From the lake, he would make about Sh60,000 annually. But through aquaculture, the revenue has shot to Sh200,000 from his two fishponds.
"Lake fishing is difficult and time consuming. It's all I used to do. But now I have time to tend to my ponds and also engage in other income generating activities like poultry and vegetable farming," he says.
Philemon Bwanawoy, the Manager for the Integrated Fish Farming and Horticulture Project in World Vision notes that with proper knowledge and production tips, fish farming can offer a lucrative venture for communities.
He notes that in aquaculture, just as other types of farming, the harvest is as good as the seed planted. As such, farmers need to ensure that they get quality fingerlings from certified breeders. "If you get it right with the fingerlings, then you can count on having good quality fish for the market in the end," he says.
According to Mr Bwanawoy, the type of fish that farmers choose to rear in their ponds is also very important. "You need species that have high market value and are also suitable for the environment where they will be reared," he notes.
In Homa Bay for instance, tilapia is in high demand among residents. These species are typically found in fresh water lakes where they take a much longer period to produce and mature.
But through breeding, the Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute enables farmers to get special tilapia species that take a shorter time to reach maturity.
They can also withstand harsh conditions in dry areas such as water with certain levels of turbidity and salinity. "We are advising farmers to use male tilapia which grow much faster than the females. This will make them get fish to sell much earlier," notes Mr Akoko.
Fish rely on water to thrive and grow. But this may be a challenge in arid and semi-arid areas with scarce water resources and poor soil structure like Homa Bay.
To tackle this challenge, farmers in affected regions are encouraged to purchase pond liners that help in water retention. "This has really helped in areas where the water holding capacity of soil is poor. Farmers are able to have sufficient water during the period required for fish production to take place," states Bwanawoy.
In soils with high salinity levels, the liners minimise the accumulation of salts in the pond during dry seasons. This boosts the production of fish species. Even with the right kind of fish and pond water, Mr Akoko notes that farmers still need to ensure that the fish are fed well. "This is extremely important because to get quality fish with desired sizes, you must use feeds with the right nutrients," he says.
Yet, due to high poverty levels, small-scale fish farmers in rural areas like Homa Bay may lack sufficient resources for purchasing feeds.
To overcome this challenge, fish farmers in Homa Bay have been empowered and supported to establish feed processing plants in Pala and Magunga.
This has brought down the cost of feeds, making them affordable and accessible to communities.
"In Homa Bay, the basic ingredients for making feeds such as rice, wheat bran and the fish meal found along the lake are readily available. This is of great benefit to fish farmers," says Akoko.
The communities have also been sensitised on cost-effective innovative techniques for enhancing the quality of feeds given to fish. One such approach is the integration of aquaculture with poultry farming which provides “free” organic manure for fertilising ponds. "This saves the farmer from having to purchase conventional fertilisers that may be unaffordable to them," explains Bwanawoy.
The chicken droppings from poultry houses provide free manure that aid in fertilising fishponds.
This encourages the growth of a type of algae known as phytoplankton that feed small animals, which fish eat.
Algae also make the water turn green. This helps to shade the pond bottom, thus preventing the growth of aquatic weeds that can “take over” the water and inhibit fish production.
Studies show that fertilisation greatly increases fish production, resulting in bumper harvests of healthy and 'big' fish that are of high value.
During the water recycling period, the fertilised pond water does not go to waste. It is used to fertilise horticultural plants like vegetables and tomatoes that farmers have in their gardens. This increases their yields.
Another innovative technique for increasing access to protein rich food for fish entails placing solar lumps at strategic locations around the fishpond at night. The light attracts insects that hover around the pond, and can be eaten by fish. Mr Akoko notes that periodically, farmers should monitor the wellbeing of their fish to ensure that they are healthy and progressing as required. "You can take a sample of about 30 fish and weigh them. This helps you to determine if they are of the right size and if they are maturing well. In case there's a problem, you will have ample time to fix it before the harvesting time is due."
To guard against predators such as birds that prey on fish, he notes that farmers can use some form of netting such as wire mesh that acts as a top blanket cover for the fishpond.
While harvesting, Mr Bwanawoy urges farmers to use the right kind of fishing nets, designed specifically for aquaculture so as to avoid harming the fish or losing them altogether.
The harvested fish should then be stored and preserved well in refrigerators or coolers so they can reach the market while still fresh. "Aquaculture is worth trying. The demand for fish in Kenya has been growing yet the supply is still low. So this is an area that can provide good revenue to interested farmers," states Bwanawoy.