September 18, 2023

Modernising the fishing sector around Lake Tanganyika, Burundi

Fishing happens at night on Lake Tanganyika, which is accessible by four countries and a lifeline for around 10 million people. Fishing is a fully collaborative process that relies on trust. Two locally made wooden canoes, each carrying about 5 young men – and it is almost always men – drive out to the deep waters and secure their boats parallel together with long trunks of felled trees and hang nets between them.

This article was first published by Innovation Origins (in Dutch).


Bright lights, powered by batteries, are switched on and directed at the gentle waters between the nets. These lights attract the fish. The fishermen, who are used to the gentle rocking of the waves, promptly fall asleep after laying the nets. Wrapping themselves in plastic bags to protect against the cold, they remain dreaming until five or six in the morning, when they haul up their catch from the waters.

Lake Tanganyika has been threatened by overfishing, climate change and biodiversity loss in recent years. At this time of year, May to August, the overfishing of the lake is apparent. Rather than bulging nets, the fishermens’ haul is scarcely a handful.


Fishermen returning from a night of fishing in the dark. © SPARK, 2023

Back at shore, it is mostly women that wait for them. Fish sellers, who are often widows, veterans and young, single mothers, gather on the beaches to buy what they can to sell in the local markets or transport to larger settlements along the coastal road towards Bujumbura. Their trade provides Burundi’s population, of whom 87% live below the World Bank’s poverty line, with vital protein. 

Time is of the essence – the fresh fish can spoil in a matter of hours. Some of the catch is dried in the newly built drying trays that line the 17 landing sites along Tanganyika’s shores in Burundi. However, drying only extends the fish’s longevity by 90 days.

Overfishing of Tanganyika is largely due to the illegal use of monofilament nets, explains Gabriel Butoyi, President of Burundi’s National Fish Federation. “These nets are extremely harmful because of their minute mesh size. They don’t allow juvenile fish to pass through, so the population can’t reproduce. In a short period of time, the entire fish population can be decimated.”

According to Vincent Bihimvyumuderi, Project Officer at SPARK, a Dutch international non-governmental organisation (NGO), there are around 20,000 fishermen operating in Burundi, and the number is increasing. “On the [Democratic Republic of] Congo side of the lake, they don’t have a lot of infrastructure like drying trays and freezing systems, so the Congolese fishermen prefer to come to Burundi. They come and fish in Burundian waters to access the Bujumbura market and the infrastructure. This is partly why we have overfishing here.”

A race against time: a fish seller attempts to sell her fish before it spoils. © SPARK, 2023

In an attempt to replenish the dwindling fish population, a recent initiative proposed to close Lake Tanganyika for three months each year. The LATAFIMA project (or Lake Tanganyika Fisheries Management project) would allow the fish population to replenish, in the long-term benefitting communities dependent on the industry. However, the scheme has drawn widespread criticism due to its haste and lack of alternative income generating activities for the fishers, the fish sellers and their families.

The closure, due to start on 15th May this year, has been ineffective as the waters from Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo in the north, to Tanzania and Zambia in the south, remain full of boats. The fishers have no other choice.

“Instead of closing the lake for three months, we see other solutions,” says Vincent, who knows these waters well. With financing from the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, SPARK has built the Samaki Centre close to Rumonge, with facilities for cleaning, drying, smoking and freezing excess catch. In a country of 11.7 million people, only 3% have access to electricity, so the freezing facilities in particular are a first-of-its-kind in Burundi.

The walk-in freezer can hold 800 kg of fish and an adjoining cold room has capacity of 2000 kg, which can keep the fish fresh for longer periods. The centre also produces ice, up to 264 kg of it per day, and has 22 solar energy panels that can charge up to 80 of the fishermens’ light batteries per day, reducing their reliance on the turbulent electricity grid. 

These facilities are currently used by the COPEDECOBU (Cooperative pour la Pêche et le Développement du Commerce du Poisson au Burundi) fishing cooperative, which includes fishers and fish sellers. “I’ve been in the cooperative for about four months,” says one member. “I didn’t know how to deal with fridges before, but now I have some skills.” 

The introduction of the freezer has helped to stabilise the fluctuating supply in the market, which lowers the price when there is oversupply in between February and March, and August to October. “It’s better to be in the group, I don’t lose so much now as we share the risk and we share the reward.”

Straight from the lake in to the Samaki Centre's freezers. © SPARK, 2023

After training, the maintenance and management of the centre is being handed over to Burundi’s National Fish Federation. Gabriel Butoyi, the Federation’s President, says going forward more investment is needed to enforce the ban on illegal fishing nets and rather than a blanket closure of the whole lake, they are working on pre-planned partial closures of areas where the fish are spawning and where the juvenile populations are growing.

The Federation has also introduced a system of one week per month obligatory closing of the lake. “Everyone must go back to their families living in the rural areas at the same time each month for one week. This is important to ensure that the fishermen take care of their children.”

Jesper de Wit, Burundi Country Manager at SPARK, says: “Implementing programmes with key partners and stakeholders brings more sustainable solutions, which can continue long after the programme is finished. In this case, SPARK essentially operates as a facilitator – bringing together international donors, central government and local government, the Burundi Fish Federation, entrepreneurs and business people at all levels of the fish value chain and connecting to technical experts.” 

Solutions are plentiful along Tanganiyka’s shores, but the involvement of local organisations and institutions is essential for a green transition that lasts and includes everyone, especially those living on the breadline.