Millennium Engineer Enterprises

Millennium Engineer Enterprises (MEE) uses sustainable energy to help women earn a better income by drying and selling sardines ('dagaa') on Lake Victoria in Tanzania. With solar fishing lamps, fishermen can fish without kerosene lamps and by building drying machines on solar energy, the drying time of the fish can be significantly shortened. Their approach uses less diesel, reduces food waste due to fish spoilage and increases women's income in a shorter amount of time. We spoke with founder Diana S. Mbogo.

Challenges of the fishing industry in Lake Victoria

Lake Victoria in Tanzania is the world's second-largest freshwater lake, providing food and jobs for millions of people in Africa. Over half of the lake’s total yearly catch is a type of sardine (Dagaa) which is caught at night by fishermen. To draw the sardines to the surface, the fishermen use kerosene lanterns. 40% of the monthly profits of the fishermen is spend on kerosene while at the same time they risk their health using, repairing and pressurizing these lamps.

Once caught, the sardines need to be preserved. The picking, drying, sorting, and sale of the fish is mostly done by women. The fish are dried in the sun on the sandy beaches of the fishing islands. Animals and insects have free access to the drying sardines to eat and contaminate them. During the rainy season heavy rains wash the sardine away and causes what is left over to rot. The remaining catch ends up having low nutritional value, leading to huge unnecessary food waste and lack of food security.

Enlighting the fishing industry

Petroleum fishing is harmful to the environment as the conventional kerosene lanterns release tons of CO2 and can leak into the water, endangering the ecosystem and even releasing toxins on the sardines, thus making them inedible. As well, the fishers often suffer from health issues as the kerosene lamps cause lung damage when used frequently. Not to mention the kerosene lanterns are pressurized and therefore risk the danger of explosion. To make this a more healthy, sustainable and profitable industry, MEE developed special solar lanterns for the fishermen as a safe and more efficient alternative for the kerosene lanterns. The fishers can rent these lanterns from MEE.

Innovation for a change in perspective

For the preservation of the fish, MEE has established five solar-powered sardine drying facilities. The drying solution dries faster than the sun, improves the quality of the sardines, and protects it from rain, making it possible to dry at all times in any weather condition. Next to this, MEE organizes empowerment training for women that include technical topics, business initiative skills, methods for sardine drying and best quality assurance practices. Diana: “Women are the backbone of any food chain, even when their contribution is recognized as informal and is often unpaid.” The education of women is important to Diana: “Women are often put in a vulnerable environment when undervalued. We plan to address this by increasing their value. We train and empower many but can only hire a few. The idea is that the rest will still continue to innovate the industry, improve the quality and value of sardines in the market and hence drive their own income up as well.”

Encouraging people to change the world

Diana is driven by the opportunities she sees. Her ambitions are sky-high and contageous. Diana: “The challenges MEE is focused on tackling include: gender inequality, food insecurity, affordable and clean energy, economic growth, climate action and forming partnerships to tackle these goals. Not only that, I want the company to represent that any young, strong-willed individual is capable of achieving a lot with discipline and persistence. Our company should be a source of encouragement for world-changers.”

Opportunity to grow

One specific challenge MEE faces right now is the communication with manufacturers abroad. All of the equipment must be imported because Tanzania lacks the manufacturing industry for renewable energy products. Diana: “It’s not easy to design and buy something when you are not present to guide the process.” The support of DOEN gave MEE the confidence to move forward and accomplish the project. Diana: “The co-financing gave us the credit to reach out and successfully access further financial opportunities and networks.” One of those opportunities is the present collaboration with the Tanzanian government institution REA. Diana: “It is empowering to have the support of your own government behind you. It’s as if they know we are the best ones to deliver for the nation and that is an honor.”

Learning to swim in a pool full of sharks

One of her biggest highlights so far is to be able to thrive in a male dominated sector at a very young age. “When I started off, most of my “peers” were older men, usually not younger than 45 years old. So, I felt like a baby fish in a pool of sharks.” But Diana’s enthusiasm, energy and persistence in the sector made many of her mentors and peers welcome her and want to assist her where they could. “Because of that,” Diana explains, “I can say I am a product of a lot of minds, a lot of ideas, and advice that I received from them. It’s like I am able to represent all of these great minds because I made it my mission to learn as much as I could from them in that time.”

Educate yourself

“I would advise young entrepreneurs to educate yourself and not to set limits on what you can achieve. There’s no need for you to stay at home waiting for the perfect job opportunity when you hold the solution to a problem in your community. Get out and tackle it, I would say.”

Millennium Engineers Enterprises is supported by the Sustainable Energy programme of The DOEN Foundation.