On a stool on a fishing rig floating near the shore of Lake Kariba, a woman is furiously scraping off the scales from a fish. Eyes bloodshot after a night on the lake, created when the Zambezi River was dammed in the 1950s, Esnath Munkuli is not happy.
More than a dozen of the pontoon boats have docked at the village of Simatelele, the crews warming themselves in the morning sun while others paddle wooden canoes perilously close to a hippo herd.
“I always get on to the waters with hope for a good catch, but sometimes it is disappointing. There is no kapenta these days,” Munkuli says, referring to the tiny Tanganyika sardine (Limnothrissa miodon) introduced to Lake Kariba decades ago as a food source.
The 52-year-old from Binga, about 250 miles (400km) west of Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare, is one of the 10 pioneering members of a women’s fishing co-operative, which had seen them all put children through school and invest in their families. But that success is now in danger of being reversed.
Munkuli has a crate of about 20kg (45lb) of fish to show for her night’s work. The merchants want a 90kg bag for which they pay US$150 (£124). As poor rainfall affects water levels on the Zambezi, one of the continent’s longest rivers, kapenta are scarce, and with winter setting in, those who rely on fishing are worried.
“We let down our nets five times every night. Last night we only managed one crate after four lifts,” says Munkuli.
Sometimes the Bbindauko Banakazi Kapenta Co-operative crew sail north across the border running through the middle of the lake into Zambian waters but a better catch is never guaranteed.
In 2011 Zimbabwe charity, the Zubo Trust, with help from the agency UN Women, built the pontoon boat – a platform resting on cylindrical metal floats, a metal sunshade and a sleeping hut. A light, which is fixed to the rods holding the nets, attracts fish.
Munkuli and two crew, including the rig’s captain, Talent Siyakanyowa, 28, are waiting for the kapenta merchants to come.
Ten women signed up to form the co-operative and take it in turns every month to live on the boat, where there is a toilet, a makeshift bed, and a fireplace.
“I don’t go back home until the 24 days have elapsed. After that, we call it a full moon, so we won’t be allowed to fish any more. Fishing will be open after seven days; the authorities will be guarding against overfishing,” Munkuli says, adding that there were now too many boats on the lake.
The Zimbabwe National Parks and Wildlife Management Authority (Zimparks) charges $300 for fishing licences lasting three months and the fees for Munkuli’s co-operative are overdue.
“The authorities are always breathing down our necks for licence fees. If we don’t pay, they will chase us out of the water. Right now, we haven’t paid, and I fear they will stop us from fishing,” she says.
Most women in the co-operative say fishing has improved their lives but they face challenges, such as the boat breaking down. Nevertheless, Munkuli, a divorcee, has been able to send her children to school and has built herself a home.
“It is very important to work for yourself. I put my three children through school. I am very proud of what I have achieved. Some women my age ask me how I have done it. There are younger women who want to help.” She says there is another threat: “outsiders”.
“There are other people from Harare and other areas who are also into this business,” Munkuli says. “They are undercharging for the kapenta, which makes theirs cheaper, driving us out of business.”
Co-operative member Sinikiwe Mwinde, 45, says: “Everyone now has their own rig, and we fear that one day we will wake up and there will be no kapenta left for us.
“When we started the co-operative, we used to catch about three tonnes of kapenta every month, but due to the poor rains and climate change, these days you would be lucky to catch a tonne,” Mwinde says.
“Between 2011 and 2018, the business was lucrative. but not any more.”
A spokesman for Zimparks, Tinashe Farawo, confirmed that studies showed depleted fish populations in Lake Kariba, with a lack of rainfall reducing the algae that is at the base of the lake’s food chain.
Zambia and Zimbabwe have agreed to reduce the number of boats fishing their shared waters, but poaching is rife.
“Research shows that we are experiencing overfishing,” he said. “Fish catches have been on the decline since 1989, when a peak of 30,000 tonnes between Zambia and Zimbabwe was realised.”
“Zimbabwe has reduced its fishing rigs from a peak of 560 to the current 445 [and] is also implementing the seven-day, ‘full-moon’ period, reducing fishing by 23% as well as increasing law enforcement to curb unregulated fishing.
“Water temperature has increased over the years, exceeding the 28C [82F] threshold for certain algae to thrive. This algae is food for zooplankton, which is in turn food for kapenta,” Farawo said.
Fish farming is a lucrative venture in some parts of Zimbabwe but a project by the co-operative to build fish ponds failed.
“Our project was not successful because we failed to get enough funds to pump water from the river into the tanks,” says Mwinde.
“We were also getting the fish [food] pellets from Harare and Victoria Falls, which are very far, so the project suffered.”
In 2015, Mwinde built a small shop with the money she had earned from fishing, and now, when she is not on the lake, she sells groceries.
“When we started this co-operative in 2011, I never thought my life would change like this. All my children have gone through school; the eldest, who is 22, is about to go to college,” Mwinde says.
Her cousin, Sophia Mwinde, 49, adds: “I have taken my orphaned grandchildren to school and built a home for my family through this project. I am proud of myself.”
But the future is uncertain for both of them. “If it does not rain, our business will be ruined,” she says. “It must rain.”