How one fisherwoman built a small empire

Unloading boats at Nakatiba landing site

Gertrude Nabukeera, or Mama Sylvia as she is usually known, stands with her arms resting on her hips as she supervises a handful of men unloading the catch from a fishing boat.

It's early in the morning and the boats are bringing their night's catch in at the Nakatiba landing site, on the island of Bugala in Lake Victoria, Africa's largest expanse of fresh water. More than 400m long and lined with motor-driven boats, this landing site is owned and run by Mama Sylvia.

There are concrete stalls from which she sells the catch of the day, and to the right an icebox the size of a freight container in which she stores the fish.

It's unusual for a woman to be the boss of a fishing business in Uganda, or anywhere else for that matter, but even more surprising is the fact that she herself was once a fisherwoman - one fisherwoman among many, many fishermen.

"I was born right by the lakeside," she says remembering her early years on the mainland. "Throughout my childhood all I saw around me was fishermen and the business of fishing. I also noticed that it was the fishermen that were the most well off in the community. So I decided I was going to give it a go."

At the age of 25, in 1989, she started going out on the lake at night to fish.

Later she moved over to Bugala, the largest of the 84 Ssese islands, because the waters there were teeming with fish. But it was a jungle at the time. "This entire place only had four houses," she says. "We were sharing this place with snakes and there was no electricity. Now the entire island is powered by solar, we've started getting piped water and roads are being constructed."

How come she was the only fisherwoman, I ask her.

"It is a tough and dangerous job" she replies. "When the weather is bad, the lake is a scary place to be with the raging wind and frighteningly high waves."

When Mama Sylvia started fishing 27 years ago, all she had was a small canoe, which she paddled with an oar. But in 1994 she had saved up enough to buy an engine, and four years later she bought three more. She paid part of the money up front and promised to pay the rest in four months, but cleared the debt in half the time.

Today she presides over an empire of 22 fishing boats each of which costs about £5,000 ($7,500) to buy and equip with the necessary fishing gear.

She got permission to set up a landing site 15 years ago. It's used by more than a dozen other boat owners, including Mama Sylvia's husband, who has his own boats - but it's she who is in charge.

There is no aspect of the business she can't handle, from going out in the boats and fixing the engines, to keeping good count of the money.

Success in business has enabled her to build a house on the island and another in Kampala, the Ugandan capital. Her children have all attended good schools and she has been able to provide care for her aged parents.

So what is her advice to women who want to get into the fishing business?

"If you want to join this profession it's not going to find you on land," she says. "You've got to pluck up the courage, step out into the boats. Go out to where the work is and get on with it."

With that, Mama Sylvia turns and heads back to her high back swivel chair in the shade of the fish stalls. She watches the fishermen who have brought in their catch. It's weighed under her watchful eye, she makes the entry into her records and pays each fisherman from the wad of cash on her desk.

There's no mistaking who's boss here.

The lure of Bugala

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An island that is a byword for remoteness has become the home of palm plantations, boat makers and Mama Sylvia's fishing empire. Alex Jakana met some of the people who live on Bugala.

This is part of the Island Stories series.

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