Uganda scientists design fish kiln that is saving marriages

Victoria Mbigidde

March 6, 2024

Pioneers of a fish smoking kiln designed to reduce the risk of cancer and other health problems say it is improving the lives and livelihoods of hundreds of women in Uganda.

The women, who dominate the country’s fish processing industry, have for decades suffered the effects of smoking fish using locally made ovens. They spend sleepless nights watching over their fish to prevent them from getting burnt or stolen. The new kiln was developed by scientists at Uganda’s National Agricultural Research Organization.

John Yawe, a scientist at the organization, said it was developed to reduce cancer risks as well as the burdens women face while smoking fish. “In addition to reducing the cancer-causing agents, it was largely designed with women at the center because it is mostly women involved in the fish smoking industry,” Yawe said.

Removes all impurities

He added that the kiln reduces impurities and cancer-causing elements, such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons from the locally smoked fish, from up to 40,000 parts per billion to two parts per billion.

Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons are produced by burning wood, garbage, plastic, and they are associated with increased cancer cases in addition to reduced lung functionality, asthma, lung and heart diseases,” he said, adding that the kiln has a smoke filter that removes all impurities.

Women of Hope Katosi Fish Processing Association members are among those benefiting from the kiln, which they say is improving women’s livelihoods by making the process more efficient.

Priscilla Nakato, the association’s co-chair, said the innovation could significantly transform fish processing operations. “The women used to smoke fish for two to three days, and it would go bad within two days. With the new fish kiln, they smoke for 12 hours, and the fish will last for a month.”

Marriages were suffering

Nakato added that the women take pride in being part of the association because it enables them to earn a living, look after their families, and educate their children.

Fatuma Nassiwa, an association member, said that the new kiln has improved the women’s quality of life. “Since we started using the new kiln, we are more peaceful and less worried about the safety and quality of our fish,” said Nassiwa.

“I can load the fish, do other house chores, or even go to the market—unlike before, when I would sit there throughout, monitoring the fish so it did not get burnt.”

Because of the fish stench, Nassiwa said marriages were in turmoil before they had the new kiln. “However much we bathed and soaked our clothes in detergent, the fish stench would stay,” she said, adding: “This caused our husbands to abandon us for ‘cleaner’ women.”

Benefitted from the kiln

According to Kamya Simon, fish kiln cluster coordinator at the National Agricultural Research Organization, 165 women fish processors from the Kaliro fish farmers cluster have also benefitted from the kiln.

Simon says it has made fish processing easy for the women and helped expand their market beyond Uganda to include the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, and Rwanda.

“This is because they can meet the required standard for the export market of less than two parts per billion, as recommended by the World Health Organization and the European Union,” Simon said. “Their capital has grown from $US84 in 2019 to $US1,100 in 2023. The market value of their fish has also increased from $US1.4 to $US6 per 500g fish.”

Beatrice Bitulikumyoyo, treasurer of the Kaliro cluster, said that she started the fish business in 2015 with one pond of fish. Still, the kiln has helped to increase her earnings enough to get a second pond and venture into other enterprises such as cattle and pig rearing.

“Before we started using the kiln, we would use heaps and heaps of firewood in addition to plastics and polyethylene bags,” Bitulikumyoyo said. “Now, we only use between half and one sack of charcoal for the same quantity of fish.”

A version of this article first appeared on SciDev.Net.


Victoria Mbigidde is an Alliance for Science Fellow.