Uganda serves scarce fish maw to Asia and the world

By Ugandan journalist Christopher Bendana, first published in The New Vision.

In 2021, the chairperson of Uganda Fish Processors and Exporter Association, Sujal Goswami, interfaced with legislators over issues within the fish industry. He told the Members of Parliament (MPs) that Ugandans should eat tilapia and leave the Nile Perch for export.

To the elite Ugandans, that was ridiculous to selfishly want the owners of the lake to keep off certain fish. But to ordinary Ugandans, it wasn’t such a bad suggestion because, according to them, tilapia tastes better. However, for Hajji Musa Muliika, a fisherman at Katosi, and Kampala based businessman, the matter had nothing to do with ownership or taste.

“It is all about the control of who gets the maws,” he told the New Vision.

The fish maw is also called a swim bladder, gas bladder, or air bladder. It is an internal gas-filled organ that contributes to the ability of many bony fish to control their buoyancy, and thus to stay at their current water depth without having to expend energy in swimming.

The gold in the maw

The maw from the Nile Perch sells like gold in Hong Kong and Mainland China. In Uganda however, over time, fishermen didn’t know and threw it away. In Asian cultures, fish maws of certain large fishes are a food delicacy and the reason behind the imminent extinction of the vaquita; the world’s smallest dolphin species found only in Mexico’s Gulf of California.

The world’s largest drum fish, Totoaba’s maw sells for as much US$10,000 per kilogram.

Fish maws are also used in the food industry as a source of collagen. They can be made into a strong, water-resistant glue, or used to make isinglass for the clarification of beer. With advances in technology, more uses were found for maws. They are now used for medicinal and nutritional benefits.

Maws are also used in the manufacture of plane and space shuttle body parts, car parts, surgical stitching threads and anesthetic drugs. Furthermore, they are used in the preparation of isinglass seen in the clarification of beers and wines

Uganda wakes up

Muliika is not your ordinary young man. His site near Mulago Catholic Church has both a vehicle repair garage and a fish storage facility though construction is still ongoing.

“Fishing is my main activity,” he opens up. “Everything I have is from fishing. Even this plot we are in”.

He recalls events without a diary, giving the history of the lucrative maw business. His entry in fishing was in 1998 at 16 years, he reveals.

This was a time when the prices of fish and beef were still at par. It was also the time the country was seeing its first fish processing factories. The factories, like other lucrative businesses, were dominated by Indian people and a few Chinese people. According to Muliika, Ugandans used to cut the fish and remove the insides for disposal.

“I remember a time when the Indians were not taking fish that had been cut and the maw removed. Then we discovered that they would remove the maws and sell the perch to the local market.

They would sell the fillet to the Europeans and maws to the Chinese,” he recalls. Muliika narrates that Indian people were not getting enough stock of maws for the Chinese who decided to look for the maws themselves. “We did not know what they were doing with the maw,” he reveals.

“We just sold the fish, it did not matter whether the maws were there or not.”

 As more factories came on board, the stock of the Nile perch and maws reduced. Muliika says that in the year 2008, processors experienced a shortage of fish. The locals had discovered the trick. They would cut out the maws and sell the fish to the locals as leftovers, instead of the other way round.

Chinese people also started using local middlemen to get the maws away from the Indian businessman.

The maw conquers

In history, the maw was removed and the fish was sold for income. Today, it is the fish that is removed, and the maw that is sold for income. According to the East African Community Lake Victoria Fisheries Organization report, the East African region earned $157 million in 2019 from 1,640 tons of maw exports.

The report provides further that the East African region earned $157 million in 2019 from 1,640 tons of maw exports. The report adds that international prices for dry maws are in the range of $80-1,000 a ton.

Tanzania earned the lion’s share of $77.9 million, followed by Uganda with $76.3, while Kenya got a partly $3.7 million. Statistics from the Agriculture ministry indicate an increase in export earnings.

The country earned $27 million in 2015, $31 million in 2016, $48 million in 2017 and $52 million in 2018.

Sarah Ddungu, the third generation of fisherwoman on the Bugongo landing site in Entebbe City, says fishing began earning them some good money.

Formerly a public health servant, she had retired to a hard life and therefore decided to venture into her father’s profession. She initially started with one boat and had progressed to five boats.

“My father was a fisherman, and he bought land and buildings. My brothers are fishermen, they also bought land and buildings by selling fish. I also have a building because of the fish business,” she says.

She adds that maws business has helped them live a good life though she acknowledges some challenges.

She reveals that stocks are dwindling in Lake Victoria and fishermen are racing to Lake Kyoga. According to Sarah, business is better at Lake Victoria because maws picked from fish harvested from Lake Victoria is better than one from Lake Kyoya.

Sarah Ddungu holding a fish maw. Picture: Christopher Bendana

According to Sarah, the maw from Kyoga is light. She says for a 10 kg fish from Lake Kyoga, one might get 10 grams of the maw, while for the same fish weight from Lake Victoria will give you 15 grams.

“We call the one from Lake Kyoga paper because it is light,” she explains. She operates four boats and can earn sh200,000 ($55) a day.

She sells the maws separately to local middlemen who then sell them to the Chinese. The bigger the maw, the better the prices.

A few months ago, she would sell at sh230,000 ($65) for one weighing between 20-25 grams, and sh266,000 ($70) for one weighing 200 g. She now sells the whole Nile Perch to the traders as prices of the maws have significantly reduced.

Way forward

James Balintuma, a Kampala veteran fish maw trader says the maw business is being politicised which is not good for the business. “What we need is financial support, just like the white business people get support from their government.

Yes, business would be good. However, as of now, if I am given order of a ton I will fail because I don’t have the capacity to supply,” he explained.

Herbert Nakiyende, a fish stock assessment research scientist at the National Fisheries Resources Research Institute, the National Agricultural Research Organization fisheries’ institute, says they have worked with the government to establish regulations and guidelines on sustainability.

He says the future is to develop the maws industry here since we have now established its top usefulness. “The maw should be from the right fish size, a Nile Perch of 52cm and above,” he says.

He says the institute intends to look at maw size variation among Lake Victoria, Kyoga and Albert. They would also explore seasonal variation between wet and hot conditions.

The EAC Lake Victoria Fisheries Organization, Guidelines on Extraction, Processing and Trading of Nile Perch Maws from Lake Victoria, 2021, provide a roadmap on what needs to be done if the region is to benefit from the maws extraction.

The guidelines call for controls; including inspection, sampling, testing and certification so that the maw ready for export is of good quality. They provide for processing and handling to ensure no contamination of the maws.

They also provide avenues for benefits sharing among all stakeholders including providing artisan extractors with training on maws extraction. The study says the sector employs 4,124 people about 90% of them women like Ddungu.

There are an estimated 1,473 maw businesses. The challenge of the quality of maws from small-scale collectors and the lack of access to the markets in China is also revealed.

Joyce Ikwaput, the director of fisheries at the Agriculture ministry reveals that, they lack the finances to support maw traders, but that they are working on multiple proposals for financing.

Hellen Adoa, the state minister for fisheries, advises maw traders and other fisheries value chains to register their  Savings and Credit Cooperative Organisation (SACCO) and benefit from the Parish Development Model money.

Fish exports are one of Uganda’s leading exports.