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She defied the odds to lead the first all-women fishing cooperative. Now they stand to lose it all

The Zambezi River is one of the largest bodies of water in Africa. It rises in Zambia, then it curves, snake-like on its 2,500km journey…

The Zambezi River is one of the largest bodies of water in Africa. It rises in Zambia, then it curves, snake-like on its 2,500km journey first to the west through Angola, skimming Namibia and Botswana, then flowing south along the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe, before finally running eastward through Mozambique, heading for the ocean.  

Along the Zambezi’s route to the Indian Ocean, where it feeds the man-made Lake Kariba, is Binga district, Zimbabwe, formed to house the Tonga people who were forcefully removed when their land was flooded to build the Lake. In Sebungwe Mouth, one of the villages in Binga, Brandina Mundimba is using a reed known locally as malala to weave a basket which, when complete, will be transported to the market along with the rest and sold for 1500 Zimbabwean dollars (Z$) ($4).

This is how 40-year-old Mundimba and the other members of her fishing cooperative have been scraping together a living since their fishing rig broke down last October. Other teams resumed fishing “but we could not because our fishing rig’s engine needed attention,” she says.

Mundimba and the other members of the all-women Bbindauko Banakazi Kapenta Fishing Cooperative have given so much, risked so much to get this far. They have worked hard to leave behind the “woman’s work” of weaving malala reeds under the scorching sun and instead fish for kapenta — a type of anchovy — but they now face multiple challenges.

On top of the stress of a defective rig, the women are seeing fish stocks dwindle due to the effects of climate change and overfishing.

‘Our husbands thought the cooperative would lead us into infidelity’

The story of the Bbindauko Banakazi cooperative started off as the opportunity of a lifetime.

In 2011 a local charity, Zubo Trust, used a grant from UN Women to build a fishing rig with a cylindrical metal base that allows it to float, a shade made of aluminum sheets, and an exposed bulb fixed to some metal poles that hold black nets, which attracts the kapenta during the night when the nets are lowered under the water.

Importantly, the rig also comes with its own toilet, bath and built-in sleeping area. Fishermen typically relieve themselves in the open and bathe on the banks of the Zambezi, and it’s these practices that contribute to the sense that fishing isn’t viable work for women.

Once the rig was ready, the trust selected 10 women from about 80 who sold fish in the market but expressed interest in learning to catch the fish instead, and provided them with the necessary training. Zubo also set out to convince the husbands of the newly trained fisherwomen that letting their wives leave their homes at night to fish was not as bad as it sounded.

“It took Zubo Trust to hold a series of workshops with our husbands to sensitize them…to allow us to go out at night,” says Sinikiwe Mwinde, one of the founding members of the Bbindauko Banakazi cooperative.

“Our husbands thought the cooperative would lead us into infidelity,” the mother of three adds as she rubs her head using the palm of her left hand, a little embarrassed.

Other than the rig, Zubo helped the women set up a harbor on the river in nearby Simatelele, where they would dock their boat, and created an elevated platform made from wooden poles and black nets where the women would dry their catch before packing it into bags for sale.

The formation of the first all-women fishing co-operative in Binga drew much attention. The Ministry of Women Affairs came down for the official launch on International Women’s Day in March 2012 and the tradition-defying project has received both local and international media coverage. But no one was more excited than the cooperative’s members and their husbands.

“During my father’s time, women were not allowed to play roles such as fishing which were reserved for men,” says Lawrence Mukuli, Mundimba’s husband. “With time changing I felt as a family we should shun such archaic practices. Women should be empowered. I am proud that my wife is a fisher.”

“The money we were getting from the fish market was less compared to the money that we could get if we become fishers with our own rig,” says founding member Mwinde, speaking of the hopes they all had that the fishing business would change their lives and their communities.

The cooperative has evolved over the years and seen members leave and new ones join, including Mundimba who joined in 2015.

Selling fish wholesale may pay more than selling baskets, but artisanal kapenta fishing is equally hard work and demanding on families.

Four women go out at a time, leaving their children in the care of their husbands for 22 days each month. The other four women go the following month.

Once the fish are sold, the team of four divide up their profits after paying for annual licensing fees, equipment maintenance and the three men who work for them: two to operate their rig, and a third to work as a security guard, ensuring that their catch isn’t stolen as it is being dried.

Life improved for a while. Up until 2017, Mundimba and the team began to acquire property and livestock, which in turn gave them greater economic power where previously all assets had been owned by men.

“[Every month] we would catch between 28 to 30 bags of kapenta,” Mundimba says. At its peak, each bag of fish weighing 30kg could fetch prices as high as Z$45,000 ($124) resulting in an income of Z$1,350,000 ($3,730) a month — to be divided by four. This monthly income is a lot of money for most people in a nation where civil servants such as teachers earn an average salary of Z$28,00 ($80) a month.

“In 2015, I built a shop to sell groceries and clothing. I have also been able to meet the educational needs of my children because of this fishing business,” says Mwinde of what she did with her earnings.


But the prosperous times didn’t last.

‘Climate change is heavily affecting freshwater ecosystems’

When CNN visited the cooperative’s permanent harbor at Simatelele, the once busy hub where the women dried and packaged kapenta is now a shadow of its former self. Some of the buildings and the drying platforms have fallen into disrepair from lack of use. The whole place looks desolate.

The women can no longer fish on this part of the river as the waters have become too shallow, forcing them to dock their rig further along the banks, more than 50 kilometers away.

Zimbabwe has long experienced droughts, the worst being in recent years being the 2015-2016 El Niño which had devastating effects across most of Southern Africa. There have also been many extreme weather events — both floods and droughts — in recent years, says Selusiwe Sibanda, public relations and communications manager at the Zambezi River Authority, whose mandate is to maintain Lake Kariba and its reservoir.

“There was a period of below-average flows recorded during the 2015-2016 rainfall season…[and] during the 2018-2019 rainfall season,” says Sibanda who is based in Lusaka, Zambia.

“Before, water was abundant. These days I can even see that the water levels are low. This makes it difficult for us to have a lucrative catch,” Mundimba says in a somber voice.

Andrew Chamisa, a deputy director in the Zimbabwe Department of Livestock Research and Fisheries in the Ministry of Lands, says warmer waters due to climate change are also heavily affecting fish stocks due to changes in physical, chemical and biological processes in these freshwater ecosystems.

“Studies in Lake Kariba over the years have shown how increased water temperatures [lead to] a reduction in fish catches,” he says.

As water temperatures increase, the solubility of oxygen in the water decreases, resulting in lower dissolved oxygen levels in water bodies like the Zambezi River and Lake Kariba. “Less dissolved oxygen will affect fish production,” says Chamisa. “High temperatures also promote harmful algal blooms that compete with fish for oxygen and also release harmful chemicals that affect fish growth,” he explains.

Zimparks spokesperson, Tinashe Farawo, told CNN that while investigations to determine the causes of low fish catches were still ongoing, it is apparent that climate change is a contributing factor — as is overfishing.

“We have recorded a decrease in the number of catches. We have had years of droughts. Water levels have been going down. This has resulted in low catches,” says Farawo. “But we also cannot rule out overfishing. We have a full moon calendar [where fishing is prohibited for the last 7 to 10 days of every month to help fish stocks replenish] but in most cases, fishermen defy this. They also encroach on breeding areas.”

Shallow parts of the Zambezi River have now been declared as protected kapenta breeding ground by the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority (ZimParks), a state agency responsible for wildlife conservation in the country, meaning it is no longer legal to fish in these areas.

Farawo adds that Zimparks has also stopped issuing fishing permits as an overfishing control measure. “Lake Kariba is supposed to have 500 fishing rigs. But we have almost doubled that maximum number,” he says.

A further concern is poaching. “We once had an encounter with these poachers,” says Mundimba. “They robbed our team of about $600 they had after selling kapenta. We reported the matter to the police but we never recovered that money,” she recalls.

All these factors have driven up the cost of running a fishing business and the cooperative is struggling to pay its fees, particularly the Z$360,000 ($995) annual license fee to Zimparks needed to operate their rig on the River.

“The license fee is beyond our reach considering the low quantity of kapenta we are catching these days,” says Mundimba.

At the time of publishing, the women had used the co-op’s savings and some money from home to fix their rig, but a less profitable business has meant less support on the home front: some of the women’s husbands feel that fishing is now draining money from the home instead of boosting them.

When asked what she thinks will improve the circumstances for her and her crew, Mundimba says she’s looking to other fishermen to play fair and to the government, water management authorities and multi-national organizations to speed up their efforts to tackle climate change.

“I am hoping that responsible authorities address this climate change issue. It affects us women the most. I also plead with our male counterparts to adhere to fishing regulations,” she says.

“I will keep on steering the cooperative, praying the kapenta fishing business will become lucrative once more.”

This story is part of As Equals, CNN’s ongoing series on gender inequality. It was published on CNN’s website on April 22

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