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Meeting Two Crises—Hunger and Climate Change—With Lake Turkana Fish

The promise of ice broke the ice with semi-nomadic pastoralists living in the harsh, arid desert around Kenya’s Lake Turkana.

Traditionally, the pastoralists relocate their homes two or three times a year, chasing the short rains in November and the long rains from April to June with their cattle, sheep, goats, and camels.

But recurring drought has left their pasturelands hardened and bare. By mid-2022, the current drought, which began in 2020, had killed an estimated 439,400 livestock in Turkana, and triggered a hunger crisis that has led to conflicts over scarce resources.

Some 60 percent of the region’s population is acutely food insecure. Many live on the shores of the world’s largest desert lake.

When a team from Nairobi arrived with an offer to help, though, “they were skeptical—actually, hostile,” said Francis Nderitu, Managing Director and co-founder of the business Keep IT Cool. “And they have a right to be suspicious. First urbanization displaced them. Now, climate change. And we are outsiders.”

Nderitu and his team persevered.

“When we offered to give them cooling services like ice and solar-powered freezers, that’s when they were convinced,” Nderitu said. “Only then could we sign an MOU.”

Pastoralist lodging on shores of Lake Turkana. (Photo courtesy of Francis Nderitu)

And so, spurred by the changing climate, livestock-raising pastoralists are slowly embracing commercial fishing.

Entrepreneurs Transforming the Food System

Keep IT Cool is an answer to two challenges at both ends of the food chain.

  • It supports climate resilience by helping drought-impacted pastoralists develop a new source of income.
  • And it fights hunger in sub-Saharan Africa with its refrigerated trucks and freezers by expanding access to nutritious and affordable food.

Founded in 2019, Keep IT Cool is one of the seven awardees from the first round of the Good Food Innovation Fund, developed with a grant from The Rockefeller Foundation to Intellecorp for Protective Foods SME Innovation Accelerator.

The fund’s goal is to support the small and medium-sized businesses that are helping transform the food system, making it sustainable and equitable.

Keep IT Cool started out by filling supply chain gaps in the fish market between Lake Victoria and Nairobi. The grant allowed their work to expand to Lake Turkana, an often-underserved area.

Fish As One Answer to Rising Hunger

Up to 828 million people – more than one in ten of the world’s population – still go to bed hungry each night. Acute food insecurity has reached unprecedented highs, affecting a record 349 million people – up from 135 million in 2019.

What sparked the soaring global numbers? A deadly combination of climate extremes, conflict, economic shocks including the Covid-19 pandemic, and skyrocketing fertilizer prices.

  • Fish, as a source of nutrients, minerals, and essential fatty acids, provide a significant complement to the largely carbohydrate-based diet of many vulnerable consumers.
    Kagwiria Koome
    Manager, Food Initiative, The Rockefeller Foundation, Africa Regional Office

“With the support of Keep IT Cool, we want to demonstrate that you can incentivize local fisherfolk to develop the productive potential of African inland waters.”

Lake Turkana in the Rift Valley boasts 52 species of edible fish, with Nile perch and tilapia being the most valued.

But fisherfolk face spoilage and low prices without a reliable way to transport the fish to waiting markets in Nairobi, where 5.325 million people live.

Keep IT Cool began working with 500 Lake Turkana pastoralists in February. The company pays them 20 or 30 Kenyan shillings more per kilogram of fish than the local asking price.

“Because we pay a little more and we pay quickly, they are able to support themselves and their families, and that makes them more productive,” Nderitu said.

Fish Scales Go Flying

Drivers then transport the fish, packed in ice in cooler trucks, 425 miles (685 kilometers) to Nairobi.

In a tin-roofed factory in the capital city, the fish are unpacked from the ice and dumped onto a steel table.

A team of workers – donned in rubber boots and gloves, masks and hairnets – cleans, guts and processes the fish at a furious pace.

Lake Turkana fish arrive at the Keep IT Cool factory in Nairobi and are prepped for delivery to consumers around Nairobi, from five-star restaurants to low-income wholesalers. Keep IT Cool fills a food chain gap with its refrigerated trucks.

Once they are prepped, drivers deliver the fish to a wide range of customers – from luxury hotels and five-star restaurants to neighborhood cafes and wholesalers in low-income areas. The customers lease coolers from the company to keep the fish fresh.

“We have raised the bar on how food is handled and delivered with our cold chain solution and market access in the region,” Nderitu said.

Going Green by Using Solar and Eliminating Waste

They also are increasing sustainability. The market typically had a waste rate of about 25 percent, largely due to high ambient temperatures that lead to spoiled fish.

But Keep IT Cool effectively has no waste. Fresh fish goes out to hotels and restaurants, offcuts to lower-income markets, and guts to pig farmers, Nderitu said.

The company seeks to be green in other ways too: some leased coolers are solar-powered, and Keep IT Cool uses hybrid trucks for its long-haul travel, allowing the business to save about 25 percent on gasoline while emitting less carbon.

Keep IT Cool freezers arrive at Lake Turkana as promised. (Photo credit Keep IT Cool)

Expanding on Lake Turkana

True to its word, Keep IT Cool has invested in an ice manufacturing plant at Lake Turkana. The plant can produce five tons of ice per day – both to supply the local population and for packing fish to transport.

Pastoralists will use the ice to keep food and drink cool, and perhaps to sell cold drinks to others to expand their livelihoods. “The cost to them will be affordable, about 10 to 15 shillings per kilogram,” Nderitu said.

Keep IT Cool also is renovating a factory on Lake Turkana so that the fish can be processed on site and transported to Nairobi ready for delivery. This will allow the drivers to carry about twice as many fish per truck in each trip, and also provide local jobs.

Though all earnings to date have been invested back into the company, growth has been steady.

“We’ve seen our operations grow from a single sink in a warehouse to where we are today, with 30 fulltime employees and 15 to 25 parttime, in just two and a half years,” Christopher Thuku, Operations Lead, said as he checked for quality control as 3.5 tons of fish were being unloaded in Nairobi.

In fact, at times, everyone has worked every job. Nderitu has served as a driver, and his co-founder, Operations Director Abigail Gachigi, has worked on the fish cleaning and production line, as has Thuku. “It’s not easy work,” Thuku, who trained as a biochemist, said with a laugh. “The first time I did it, scales were flying into my eyes, and I couldn’t hold on to the slippery fish.”

  • Scaling fish at the Keep IT Cool factory in Nairobi. (Photo credit Masha Hamilton)

Supplying a Range of Nairobi Customers

The Lake Turkana expansion presented some challenges, key among them security. The area is known for bandits and fights over water and pasture rights. The drivers travel in a convoy and don’t want to travel at night.

They travel the first day from Nairobi to Kitale, an agricultural town in the Rift Valley. They next day, they make the last leg of the trip to Lodwar, the largest town in Lake Turkana with about 82,000 people. They spend a day or two collecting fish and packing it into the refrigerated trucks along with ice, and then make the trip back.

Lake Turkana’s new commercial fisherfolk also are benefitting from capacity building. The pastoralists work with spears or nets. The Keep IT Cool team hopes to give them some motorboats in time, as well as more training on how to handle the fish.

But meanwhile, with the business tracking quality control, customers in Nairobi are happy.

Beatrice Akinyi Odhiambo, owner of Orieko’s Fish Supplies, has four employees and supplies affordable food to her low-income neighborhood. (Photo credit Masha Hamilton)

Beatrice Akinyi Odhiambo, who owns Orieko’s Fish Supplies in a low-income neighborhood and has four employees, is one of those grateful for solar-powered coolers.

“I cannot pay to run an electric cooler. Especially if I sell at a price that people here can afford,” said Odhiambo, who mainly sells offcuts.

Beatrice Akinyi Odhiambo owns Orieko’s Fish Supplies in a low-income neighborhood. Her solar-powered cooler from Keep IT Cool helps her provide Lake Turkana fish to her customers at an affordable price.

Although Nderitu notes that the Nairobi customers at the end of the supply chain “are really my bosses, because they pay the bills,” he returns again and again to the fisherfolk along Lakes Turkana and Victoria.

“We pay insurance for our partners,” he said, referring to those who aggregate the fish from a number of sources. He mentioned a widow whose insurance covered a $4,000 cost for treating kidney stones. “The level of appreciation from her—it’s hard to put it into words. It made us feel great about our overall impact as a business.”