Pact’s REFRESH project uses data, new collection app to help restore Lake Malawi

January 25, 2022
A Lake Malawi sunset. Credit: David Bonnardeaux/Pact.

It’s hard to overstate the importance of Lake Malawi. It is the most biologically diverse lake in the world, with more than 1,000 fish species and about 15 percent of global freshwater fish biodiversity. For the people of Malawi, it offers both critical livelihoods and nutrition. About 500,000 people make their living from Lake Malawi, and it provides about 70 percent of the animal protein consumed by Malawians.

But the lake is in trouble, mostly because of environmental degradation and overfishing. For years, fishers have experienced reduced catches for big species, increased catches of small species, diminished species variety and decreasing income.

Pact and our partners – namely local communities – have been working to change this. Through the USAID-funded FISH project, Pact fostered responsible fisheries co-management in Malawi. Now, through the REFRESH project, also funded by USAID, we are focusing on Lake Malawi, working to restore the lake’s natural fisheries productivity and ensure that its aquatic habitats are healthy and well-managed, that endemic fish populations are self-sustaining, and that Lake Malawi fisheries are sustainable by 2024.

But how do we know if we are making progress? And what information are REFRESH and local communities and officials using to guide decision-making about the lake’s management?

“Quality data is critical for policy makers and managers to make sound choices about Lake Malawi and its future,” says Daniel Jamu, REFRESH’s deputy chief of party. “This has been a focus for us from the beginning.”

In 2020, REFRESH began developing an android application for electronic fish data collection. After rounds of testing and refinement, successful development of the app recently finished, and it is now being used by extension workers with Malawi’s Department of Fisheries on lakeshores all around Lake Malawi. It’s one of several ways REFRESH is putting data and evidence at the center of its efforts and building the capacity of Malawian fishery managers to do the same.

“Quality data is critical for policy makers and managers to make sound choices about Lake Malawi and its future.”

A REFRESH field team member tests the app in the community. Credit: REFRESH.

The app was built using open source Kobotoolbox software and piloted in four lakeshore districts, Salima, Nkhotakota, Likoma and Karonga. During piloting, REFRESH worked with extension workers, fish scouts and a range of experts to refine the app, troubleshoot field problems and develop a data collection process and utilization flowchart as well as a detailed manual. The app is now being scaled to four additional districts, Dedza, Mangochi, Nkhata Bay and Rumphi.

The app uses the catch assessment survey method to collect data on fish catch, the effort that went into the catch and other important details. In practice, the app works like this: After training, with their mobile phones in hand, data collectors head to fishing “landing” sites – beach locations where fishers unload and take stock of their catches. Data collectors approach fishers, look at their catches and ask them questions in order to fill out a survey form. The data gathered includes the location, the type of boat, gear and crew size used to catch the fish, whether the fisher worked during the day or at night, how many hours the fisher spent fishing, his or her gender, and several details about the amount, species and value of the fish caught.

Forms are saved to data collectors’ phones when they are offline in the field, and then the data is automatically uploaded to a central server the next time they are online. Data is then processed and validated and shared across stakeholder agencies including the Department of Fisheries, the Ministry of Economic Planning, and the National Agriculture Management Information System (NAMIS).

The data will be used by policy makers and lake resource managers to make decisions about the use, management and conservation of Lake Malawi, as well as about investments into the lake, Jamu says.

“The Department of Fisheries was already using evidence-based decision-making,” he says. “What is new is the improvement in the timeliness, accuracy and accessibility of the data. Now, decisions are not being made based on data collected four or five years ago.”

Screen shots from the app.

The app is also reducing the cost of data collection, as there is no longer a need to physically transport data from remote reporting stations to a central data processing station in Monkey Bay, Jamu says. And with data that is presented in clear charts and graphs, fishers will have access to practical feedback on the performance of fisheries in their jurisdictions for making effective adjustments to local fishery management plans.

Perhaps most important, REFRESH is ensuring that the app and the electronic fish data collection system will continue long after the project ends.

“We have trained Department of Fisheries staff on the development of the app and its use in the field,” Jamu says, “and we’ve integrated the app into NAMIS as a way of institutionalizing the app and the system.”