Meet Kapenta, the Alien Saviour

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Maria Mutola’s short ponytail was still, her head bent low as she waited for the big race to commence. It was in the finals of the 800 metres at the Barcelona ’92 Olympics Games. Although she was only nineteen years old, Mozambique’s Olympic hopes rested on her young shoulders.

She sped off from the starting blocks with characteristic vigour and by the time the first lap was over, she was ahead of Ellen van Langen, the Dutch runner who ended up winning gold in the event. But in the final one hundred metres, Maria fell behind and finished fifth. Despite the poor finish, she had won the hearts of millions across the world and it was no surprise when she finally won an Olympic gold eight years later in Sydney, Australia.

In the same year of 1992, when Maria stormed the world stage, tiny, popular fish invaded the waters of her home country Mozambique. Known in the southern Africa region as kapenta, the tiny fish are natives of Lake Tanganyika, hence their official name – Tanganyika sardine. Although they were introduced into Lake Kariba in 1967 it took more than two decades for them to finally invade Cahora Bassa, Africa's fourth-largest man-made lake.

They population of the little fish exploded and within no time, they were being harvested through semi-industrial means. They became, together with the Cahora Bassa hydro-electric scheme, leading revenue generators for Tete province in particular and Mozambique as a whole.

Who would have thought that such tiny fish that are not even native to the lower Zambezi, could play such an important economic role for the region?

One of the beneficiaries of kapenta was Pedro, a young man from Tete. In 2004 when Pedro, was a big-eyed ten-year old boy, fishermen from Tete harvested 19,000 tonnes of kapenta. Among them was Pedro’s father who was one of the 800 weather-beaten men working on the 200 Kapenta rigs on the lake. Every night, Pedro’s old man would set out with three other men on a rugged rig that was armed with sufficient lights that they used to attract the tiny fish and sturdy nets to capture them.

The nights are dark and peaceful for Pedro’s dad. They are a million times better than those years before 1992, when the civil war raged across Mozambique. Back then, life was fragile and there was nothing peaceful about the darkness of the night. But now, peace mostly reigns, not just in the country but in his heart, especially out there on Lake Cahora Bassa at night.

Every time their rig dances gently or roughly, depending on the winds of any given night, Pedro’s father – whose nickname is O Rei (the King) – rubs his calloused hands together to keep warm and calm. He looks like Eusébio, great Mozambican born Portuguese footballer hence his inheritance of Eusebio’s own nickname – the king.

Between 2005 and 2008, when his son Pedro first accompanied him to the night-time fishing, O Rei and his colleagues in the semi-industrial rigs plus the artisanal fishermen helped Mozambique to export US$14.6 million worth of kapenta fish. Because of their diligent efforts every freezing dark night and humid hot days, this South African nation earned a handsome amount from its little fishes.

The US$14.6 million export revenue it generated earned kapenta fish a bronze medal, behind only shallow water shrimp and deep water shrimp. However, the little fish took gold when it came to production volumes from commercial vessels, accounting for 55 percent of production.

Indeed, the little fish has given O Rei a livelihood for many years and provided Mozambique with much needed foreign exchange revenue. For a tiny fish that arrived in Mozambique in the early nineties as an alien immigrant, this is quite a fete. It is now a naturalized citizen that is playing its role in nation-building.

The big question is whether the nation is replenishing and giving back to the very ecosystems that are building it. Even more important is whether O Rei is a king by nickname and a slave in reality – a slave in the sense that the money accruing from the kapenta will never really make a definitive and lasting difference in his life. Most of Africa’s artisanal fishermen and fishing vessels workers never quite strike the gold that Africa’s fishery deposits into the wallets and accounts of...

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Published in Freshwater

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