Across Africa, women working in aquatic food value chains are banding together to support their livelihoods and ensure the continued flow of fish despite COVID-19 lockdowns and disruptions.
African women make up at least 60 percent of those handling fish once landed, buying wholesale to sell at local, regional, and international markets or to process through smoking, deep frying, and drying.
When the COVID-19 lockdowns first took hold, the daily routines of the millions of women collecting aquatic foods from river, lake, and sea shores were brought to a sudden halt. The persistent impacts of the pandemic mean they have to battle increased fish prices, disruptions to trade, and reductions in demand. This has limited the economic opportunities available to women in retail and processing activities.
For Beyene Ateba, a fishmonger in Cameroon, the challenges have been a test of resilience. Through her work as the vice president of the African Network of Women in Fisheries (RAFEP) and president of the Cameroonian Network of Women in Fishing (RECAFEP), Beyene and her fellow members are working together to ensure access to reliable information to understand COVID-19 challenges and safe ways to market and sell aquatic foods.
Since lockdowns were lifted, women who dominate the work on processing lines and mix with the public in busy markets and landing sites have been particularly exposed to the virus. Many lack access to face masks and the ability to perform proper hygiene and social distancing, Ateba explained.
“When I realized the challenges traders were facing, I organized training to ensure women know how to properly wash their hands and maintain an appropriate distance while in markets so we can continue selling fish safely,” Ateba said.
The training courses are just one part of efforts Ateba and others are accomplishing as part of the African Women Fish Processors and Traders Network (AWFishNet). AWFishNet is a non-profit continental network with members from 28 African nations working to improve the full participation of women in aquatic food systems.
COVID-19 has intensified many of the disproportionate burdens that women already face, including barriers to accessing credit and innovations, as well as visibility in food system policies, said Editrudith Lukanga, AWFishNet’s secretary general.
Women face additional effects of the pandemic because of the underlying gender inequalities that already existed in food systems. Women’s income, health and wellbeing are affected by increased unpaid workloads and care burdens, a rise in gender-based violence, and potential shifts of care systems from women’s health to virus management, she explained.
“Disruptions to women’s livelihoods have had direct implications for family well-being, notably food and nutrition security. It is essential women’s experiences dealing with COVID-19 disruptions are seen and heard especially by national policymakers,” she added.
In an ongoing transdisciplinary study, AWFishNet partnered with WorldFish to investigate the impacts of COVID-19 on women fish processors and traders and detail coping efforts. Through WhatsApp-based interviews and Zoom focus groups, Molly Atkins, a WorldFish research consultant, is gathering insights about individual and collective responses to COVID-19 and working with AWFishNet bureau members to identify recommendations that inform policy to ‘build forward better.’
“Women have shown great leadership, innovation, and drive in their efforts to shape a more equal future in the fisheries sector. Solidarity and unity, fundamental to these growing networks of women, have been vital to the ways in which individuals have coped with and are recovering from the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Atkins explained.
“Together women have used skills, knowledge, and networks to lead response and recovery efforts, collectively storing and marketing their products and providing each other much-needed financial support.”
Savings groups keep women in business
Through the AwFishNet community, women reported pooling money to help others stay afloat through savings groups, providing an important safety net for those facing financial difficulties, said Atkins, a gender specialist in small-scale fisheries.
“COVID-19 disruptions have forced many women traders to use their savings and business capital to pay for basic family needs and in turn have less money to buy fish. They have had to take out loans or access fish on credit from fishermen, contributing to their over-indebtedness and reducing their bargaining power over fishermen,” she explained.
Together women are helping each other rebuild capital through a shared institutional fund that all members contribute to, said Julia Pembe Mountsoueke, a fish wholesaler and processor in the Republic of Congo and president of the Network of Women Fishmongers and Processors of Fishery Products in Congo (RFEMTC).
“Each month we lend a sum to one or two women depending on the amount available in the fund, to allow women who have lost their capital to resume activities. This sum is reimbursed without interest for one month,” said Pembe Mountsaueke, who is also AwFishNet’s deputy secretary general.
Tapping into local markets through collective and digital marketing
With international markets blocked, export-orientated fish processing activities suspended, and distribution to urban markets challenging, many women processors and traders have adapted their livelihood activities to supply more localized markets and consumers, said Atkins.
Capitalizing on the marketing opportunities such as National Fish Day, women in the Democratic Republic of Congo have promoted the local consumption of aquatic foods as a nutritional option for healthy immune systems in light of COVID-19, said Patricia Maisha the assistant treasurer of AwFishNet and a civil society worker committed to the development and empowerment of women.
“Traders are in contact with their customers by phone and have been able to organize the sale of fish, delivery to the recipient’s home, and payment using mobile transactions. This practice helps women avoid public places and the spread of the disease while selling their fish and other aquatic foods,” the mother of five said.
“Working together we use our social networks: we send flyers, send messages, we mobilize customers. We place orders, and we do marketing together, but only one woman will go to the market representing us all.”
Some traders have overcome restrictions by utilizing digital technology to adapt and innovate distribution networks, including online marketplaces for selling fish. In Tanzania, women, mostly young and educated, have reported using online social media platforms including Instagram and Facebook to advertise their products and reach consumers. However, many women still do not have access to a smartphone or reliable internet connection for online marketing, said Atkins.
Reducing waste and loss through preservation storage systems
Reduced marketing hours and disrupted access to consumers have left many fish retailers with unsold fish at the end of the day. Unable to sell these fish the next day in places where markets are only open for a few days a week, and due to limited access to storage facilities or ice for preservation, women working in the post-harvest sector have experienced decreased quality and fish losses.
In response, some women have established product storage systems that allow them to preserve and keep aquatic foods to sell at a later date. Using a chorkor oven, these women smoke fish, extending the shelf life by years, explained Aichatou Yerina, a fish trader from Togo.
“We spread the fish out on racks which are placed on the ovens. After cooking, it is stored in a tightly closed container to prevent the entry of air and any other foreign objects. The storage is done by natural methods,” said Yerina, who is AwFishNet’s representative of people with disabilities.
“The preservation of pelagic fish such as anchovies and sardinellas lasts more than two years. So we have them preserved in times of crisis and can wait until prices and demand rise again in order to sell them at their true value,” she added.
Finding markets for fish waste
The pandemic has also provided new economic opportunities to sell fish waste as animal feed. With disruptions shifting African labor markers, many people who lost their jobs in the Republic of Congo have turned to agriculture and animal husbandry, fuelling an increase in demand for livestock feed, explained Pembe Mountsaueke, AWFishNet’s deputy secretary general.
“Fish waste—meaning the parts of the fish that are not considered for human consumption—is collected after smoking or gutting fish. The waste does not undergo any treatment, it is just collected and sold. The selling prices for feed are fixed by negotiation,” said Pembe Mountsaueke.
“The income generated is an added value that can go toward costs for processing of large fish. The sale of the fish waste can cover the cost of salt and transport, which increases our profit margin,” she added.
Women in the Republic of Congo have even begun discussions with the Congo Breeders Association to develop an agreement on the supply of fish waste, representing a growing opportunity, Pembe Mountsaueke indicated.
Building forward better with women at the center
Women’s contributions to aquatic food systems are essential to the food and nutrition security of nations throughout Africa. The COVID-19 crisis is a window of opportunity to build a more inclusive, equitable, green, and resilient food system with women at the center, said Lukanga, AwFishNet’s secretary general.
“Policy responses should safeguard the fragile progress already made towards gender equality in aquatic food systems. By learning from women’s COVID-19 experiences, policymakers and program responses can build on what works for women fish workers. They can invest in strategies that reduce barriers, strengthen women fish workers’ resilience to future shocks, and harness new opportunities for women entrepreneurs,” Lukanga explained.
To build forward better, women fish workers must be valued, fully involved and enabled as key actors, knowledge holders, innovators, and leaders in the fisheries sector, said Atkins.
The investigation into women fish traders’ experiences and strategies will be detailed in an upcoming report and translated into evidence-based regional policy briefs.