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by Bernadette Trottier
Via Nicola Fabrizi 1, 00153 Rome, Italy


Throughout West Africa women are the main producers of food. Their time is usually fully taken up by a multitude of domestic and production tasks. It is therefore clearly thoughtless to envisage yet further development, in this case the farming of fish, to add to their overall burden. Furthermore, they are unlikely to take up any activity which is not already related in some way to their existing responsibilities. Attempts to develop fish farming will have an impact on all members of the household, including their fishing activities, and this impact could be negative. The participation of women in aquaculture production in Africa therefore has to have good reason.

This paper describes the position and roles of women in fish farming production in West Africa, from Chad to Zaire, and to Senegal. The literature on aquaculture is characterized by an almost total absence of references to people, not least women. The source material therefore includes many personal communications and personal experiences, and answers to a questionnaire survey (Annex III). A total of 38 people from 18 West African countries sent back the questionnaires. Some added information on East African countries. The results are patchy and have no statistical value, but they serve as a useful starting point to describe the current status of women in production in African countries, particularly in West Africa.

The questionnaire was aimed at identifying places where women are already producers of fish or other aquatic animals, such as clams and oysters, with information describing this activity in terms of environment, motivation, and techniques. It also aimed at locating places where women are already active in improving their fishing activities with such things as stocking fish in ponds and feeding.


According to much of the early anthropological literature almost everyone, whether man, woman, or child, is an occasional fisherman in the traditional economies of West Africa. Without almost any exception rural women carry on this traditional fishing activity. Therefore, a better understanding of this role may provide clues on how women might benefit (or not) from the implementation of fish farming projects.

Women dive for oysters in the coastal lagoons of Benin and Togo, and they harvest oysters in saline mangrove swamps in Senegal and the Gambia. In Guinea Bissau, shrimp fisher women make up the largest category of producers in fisheries. In practically every region women catch fin fish, with the exceptions of the Korhogo region of northern Côte d'Ivoire and in an unidentified part of Cameroon where women do not do any fishing at all. Other places of course exist but they are the exception rather than the rule. In Sierra Leone fishing is left to women as it is not worthy of a man's time. In Gabon a significant number of fishing canoes in the estuary of the River Gabon near Libreville are operated by the wives and daughters of the Yoruba owners.

The intensity of the fishing activity of women ranges widely. It may be not at all or taboo (as in Korhogo, Côte d'Ivoire), or very occasionally (Senegal River Valley), or every day (Tombali Region, Guinea Bissau); the majority of women, however, go fishing when they are free or have time during other activities. In the dry season, for example, they go fishing more often when cropping activities are minimal. Women go fishing individually but especially in groups, adding a significant social content to the activity.

The motivations for fishing range just as widely. They catch fish for an occasional family meal (Zaire), or for cash sale (Benin and Senegal); but the most common motivation is to supplement the family's protein intake and then to sell or exchange small surpluses.

The literature on fisheries development makes little or no mention of the fishing activities of women, however relevant they may be. This is due to the fact that women do not fish full-time, or do not use efficient gear, or fish only for subsistence. On the other hand, the recognized part-time fisherman may only make two or three efforts a week, and then may not even sell any fish. A woman who does the same, as in many regions of Guinea Bissau, for example, (Hochet, 1979), is said to be fishing for the family. It is recognized as one of her domestic tasks and not considered an occupation any more than any other tasks.

Most of the fishing carried out by women is through wading in shallow waters. The fishing methods of women consist mostly of managing permanently set traps or baskets, or diving, or building a weir or dam and then draining it. Hooks and lines, and nets are used but are generally pieces of commercial gear salvaged and fixed together.

It is often said that women are not real fishermen because they do not use canoes. It is true that they do not use costly equipment, mostly because paying off such investments requires a level of activity beyond what their other duties permit. Women use canoes practically everywhere, and in some places (in the Lower Volta region in Ghana) a husband's gift to his bride is a canoe (Lawson, 1972).

Fishing activities of women in West Africa suffer from the invisibility which characterized their cropping activity until a few years ago. For example, in Guinea Bissau several projects are being considered or implemented for the integrated farming of fish/shrimps and rice. The national fishing traditions in this country are ignored and the importance of the fishing activity of women in this tradition is not recognized. However, Hochet (1979) reports that among the Balante rice farmers of Tombali region a fishing tradition exists and largely in the hands of women.

The role of women in fishing in Guinea Bissau is important although their presence and efforts are still not recognized ostensibly because they do not fish full-time, and use inefficient gear. Although most reports deplore the absence of a national fishing tradition in the country, authors do not recognize the present work of women.


Women in rural areas cannot devote themselves totally to any one activity for many obvious reasons. The specialization of men in any one activity, particularly on a commercial level, results in the almost systematic abandonment of that activity by women or their specialization in support functions. Women have therefore exploited other environments for fishing and the places where women fish are generally shallow, seasonal, or limited in size and cannot sustain a capture fishery.

Pollnac (1984) discussed the division of labour by sex and its evolution with respect to fishing communities. The example of Tongu, Sierra Leone, was documented by Hendrix (1984); and in Kossou Lake in the Côte d'Ivoire it was foreseen by Dravi (1972) and later confirmed by Gnielinski (1979).

Economic development efforts aimed at women have focussed on other sectors, such as cropping or market gardening, as these are more lucrative for women than traditional fishing. Fishing by women has therefore declined into a pastime or has been abandoned altogether. Several environments, such as wetlands, are unexploited and both the land and the time could conceivably be reallocated to fish farming by women.

Lawson (1972) described some traditional practices of fishing which have been carried out by women to improve the natural productivity of fisheries. One example was the restocking of clams (called "afani") by Ewe-speaking women on the Lower Volta River in Ghana in the early '50s. Some 1000 to 2000 women collected clam seed from the saline reproduction areas and replanted them in staked-out areas of sandy river bottom along 50-60 km of freshwater reaches. The total output in 1954 was estimated to be worth twice the value of the other two (male) fisheries combined.

With the impoundment of the Akosombo Dam in the early '60s the fishery was moved but eventually became extinct as swifter currents made diving more difficult. Unfortunately, no attempt was made to inform the women about the change or to introduce them to farming. New projects were introduced to retrain men as lake fishermen, and this caused problems for the women as they were expected to carry out support functions. Possibly the clam industry could not have been helped, but it is significant that the opportunity was not seriously considered and that the only alternative activity open to women was in support of the men's fishery, where they did not have established rights to compensation.

Another example was reported in Gabon (Vincke and Wijkström, 1982) who mentioned the existence of a traditional form of fish culture where women caught fingerlings to stock in ponds owned by their husbands.

Similar efforts to develop fish farming, like that intensifying the traditional forms of ponding in the fadamas of Sokoto State in Nigeria (FAO/UN,1969), exist in a number of countries. In Liberia, for example, almost all the women of the Gio, Mano and Kpele tribes of Nimba Country stock small catfish and turtles in barrage ponds. This is a traditional activity carried out by both men and women and is distinct from formal aquaculture where women work along with men.

Many of the women have developed techniques for concentrating and holding fish for subsequent use, or when they are larger. For example, many women of the Bassa tribe in Bassa County in Liberia, as well as the women of the Gio and Mano tribes of Nimba County, build fences of bushes, reeds, or branches to keep fish in a place to grow larger. In Gabon some women in almost every tribe in the regions of Franceville, Ogooué, Ivindo, Nyanga, and Moyen Ogooué make large baskets which they keep in the water to store live fish. Women of the Lari, Lingala and MBochi tribes in La Cuvette and Pool regions in the Congo build fences, small dams, or dig holes in which to trap fish, and in the Gambia about half the women of the Jola, Manjanjo, and Mandinka tribes build fences and dams but do not wait before bailing out the water. In the Côte d'Ivoire almost all the women of the Guérés tribe in the west build fences and dams but wait about seven days before bailing out to collect the fish.

In Zaire many women build small dikes at an angle to river or stream banks and place "medicine" in the tip to attract fish; in Nigeria a few women in Bendel State tribes keep fish in pens; and in Senegal women in the Basse Casamance are involved in a traditional form of rice/fish culture. In Guinea Bissau two groups of Papel women near Bissau, about 50 in all, have taken over unused land where they raise fish in the depressions. In Senegal women collect branches covered with small oysters and replant them in more convenient locations for future harvesting.

Where women have fish they feed them with kitchen wastes. Stocking fingerlings from the wild in ponds is less common as a totally spontaneous practice. These practices can conceivably be starting points for the introduction and development of pond culture, and even cage culture as practised in Gabon, or pen culture in Nigeria and Ghana. As these practices and other related activities are carried out by women the time currently spent on them might be reallocated to fish farming.


4.1 Owners and Operators

Women who own or operate (manage) fish farms are extremely few in number. In the Côte d'Ivoire a cooperative operating fish ponds at Salomougou contains 23 women members. Also in the Côte d'Ivoire there are known two women owners; about 20 in the Central African Republic; about 30 in Congo; less than one hundred near Accra and one in the Lower Volta region of Ghana; two in the Lebemba region of Gabon, and four or five in the Kananga region of Zaire. Most of these owners have inherited their farms, but some had reportedly invested money earned from trading.

A survey (Sluijer, 1983) of the role of women in fish farming in the Central African Republic indicates that 52% of the wives of fish farmers near Bangui had accepted the gift of ponds in exchange for which they also worked on their husband's remaining ponds. This arrangement enhanced their economic security and actual ownership was not an issue. As there were 8700 fish farmers in CAR in 1984, the number of women who operate at least one pond is significantly larger than the 20 reported by the questionnaire. Another survey (Low, 1985) on the work of Peace Corps in West Kasai in Zaire suggests that up to 10% of the fish farms may be owned by women; these women are called 'secondary adopters' as development was explicitly directed towards male heads of households.

Only the women of Benin appear to be barred from the production side of fish farming, where the raising of fish in acadjas is traditionally a man's job. However, women are everywhere on the water to buy the fish from the acadja farmers. Women of the Toffin and Pedah tribes finance men to build fish holes and acadjas in the lagoons of lower Benin.

Little is known about the level of husbandry practised by women but it appears that not much is done on ponds which have been obtained through inheritance. These women did not construct the ponds and apparently felt that they only added to their work load. These women have not been the targets of training and extension, and do not comprehend the effort and time required to manage them.

Women who constructed their own ponds, hiring male labour to build them and sometimes to operate them, are more likely to seek advice. Such women, although still a minority, have recorded some of the highest yields ever obtained in West Africa, and are systematically quoted.

The great majority of female fish farmers are wives and mothers, and their primary preoccupations are their families and their crops. These have priority, a fact which can be disconcerting to extension agents. Extensive fish farming in the rural areas must be viewed within the real constraints of the life of the target populations. Fish can provide vitally needed animal protein but rural women know that the staples of food security are cereals and tubers; anything else can only be a supplement.

4.2 General Labour

The literature on fish farming in Africa rarely makes reference to people, except in terms of labour as an input to be quantified. No subdivision by sex is made. The authors evidently consider that it is the practice itself which is important. Surveys of labour input are usually performed by men, and for the most part they will expect and be expected to speak with men. Women are seldom seen at pond side meetings and their participation is therefore downplayed.

Women participate extensively and actively in all phases of work performed on fish farms throughout West Africa. This is confirmed by anthropologists and social observers, particularly women, who lived in the villages following the day by day operations of fish farms. The types of work which women do are illustrated by Table 1. Women help with practically every Cask; the exception noted (raising ducks or pigs) is because integrated fish and animal husbandry has yet to be introduced in many regions. In Tanzania. for example, women raise ducks on their husband's ponds.

The work which women do now in fish farming, a new activity to them, is a transfer of their labour from cropping. Some tasks, such as land preparation, are usually considered to be too heavy for a woman, and others are accepted to be man's work due to the use of a specific tool. This pattern is common; women do not dig, excavate, or construct ponds, and women in Zaire do not cut weeds or compost materials. In almost every country women help by carrying dirt and/or cooking meals for working parties during construction, and assist or assume total responsibility for almost all other tasks which do not require physical strength. Where ponds are not self draining, women in the family and their friends are called on to help drain and harvest the fish, much as they do when barrage fishing. Wives will also help in disposing of the harvest in the same way that they help in distributing cereals or root crops to family and kin who have helped; and they usually sell the rest. However, fish farm yields from the small ponds rarely produce a surplus exceeding local demand.

The Côte d'Ivoire is one country where women appear to have a minor role in fish farming, although this is not confirmed (Kena-Guede, 1985). In a survey of fish farmers in the Cote d'Ivoire it was reported that assistance for most tasks is provided by male kin, mainly boys and youths, or hired male labour. About 10% of the farmers were assisted by wives, mothers, or daughters and this was exclusively for feeding. At Salomougou, the female members of some working teams (10 men, 5 women) established for a cooperative project cooked meals while the men worked on the ponds.

In Zaire a survey (Low, 1985) recorded that the participation of women and children was important for success because of their work collecting and transporting materials for composting. For this same reason, older men were more successful than younger men. It was noted that men who left the ponds in charge of their wives for long periods tended to be less successful because their wives had rarely received any training or extension. In the three districts surveyed, the highest percentage of both male and female participation in pondwork occurred among the 31-49 year age group, and older. All of the men and women in this group were active in some way in Luiza, while all the women but only 50% of the men participated in Dibaya. Among the 16-30 year group, 83% of the women in Luiza and 50% of the men were involved in pond work; but in Dibaya all the men worked but only 80% of the women.

In Central African Republic 70-80% of the women interviewed in the survey said that they had participated in construction, 70% had helped with feeding (the owner also carried out feeding tasks in 60% of the cases), and over 90% emptying ponds and selling fish. These women said that they helped their husbands to have fish, or because it was one of their domestic duties as a wife. Two-thirds of the wives obtained fish once a week or once a month, and the rest only at harvest. This confirms the importance of fish for the family as motivation for helping on the farms and for fishing in general.

Most women work for their husbands and receive fish as part of the proceeds or in lieu of remuneration. Women who help with harvesting are given fish in the same way they might receive baskets of rice, grain, or tubers. This practice must be recognized as a form of remuneration. The value of the gift, quantified on the basis of comparative urban prices, is often quite out of proportion to the work performed. It is also apparent that successful fish farmers located near a market often abandon the traditional rural practice of redistribution typical of subsistence societies. Farmers in Salomougou in the Côte d'Ivoire, for example, asked extension agents to market the fish to avoid giving fish away (Lazard, 1984). This is always a possible negative effect on women if they are prevented socially from taking up paid employment.

The questionnaires, in summary, indicate that women are good fish farmers in African countries because they are patient, meticulous, and diligent. The lack of training and the opportunity for obtaining credit are the main constraints preventing more women practising farming.

There are a number of reasons which make women a good target group for fish farming development: (i) because of their children and their crops women are less likely than men to be away from home for long periods; therefore they can give continual attention to pond husbandry if the ponds are close; (ii) because they are accustomed to daily routine women are more likely to provide the constant attention required for good husbandry, and know and can use a variety of by-products (such as kitchen wastes, weeds and crop residues) for composting; (iii) because a typical rural fish pond does not provide full employment women can accommodate fish farming tasks to other duties. Tasks which require greater labour inputs can be scheduled appropriately around others as the fish are not at risk if harvesting is delayed; and (iv) because of their responsibility Cowards the family, women give priority to family needs. Benefits aimed specifically at the head of the household do not necessarily accrue to the household, and often there has been a resulting negative economic and nutritional impact on the position of the wife and family.


There is a definite need for explicit recognition of women's contributions to the development of aquaculture in West Africa. This requires better documentation of evidence of their participation, and particular attention to involving and evaluating their existing activities in further development. A number of constraints must be recognized which limit the participation of women as owners/operators.

(i) The main constraint is time to allocate to a new activity, especially one which requires substantial commitment such as fish farming. This is reinforced by women themselves, particularly those who are not familiar with fish farming. However, for the most part, only large fish farms provide full-time employment; typical extensive rural ponds of West African countries which may be only a few ares in size require little time to maintain in addition to the production of compost.

The time for pond construction, which may require some 20-30 days of effort for a 100 m pond, is less the constraint than the hiring of labour and obtaining credit. Other tasks of maintenance can be integrated with other periods in the cropping cycle.

As many women are not fully aware of the real demands of fish farming on their time their reluctance to take on another task reinforces a bias in development towards men. The time constraint is often advanced to rationalize the absence of women as producers, but it is not necessarily justified.

(ii) The constraint of land ownership is common to both men and women, but it is especially difficult for women to resolve. Land tenure in Africa is traditionally communal, and land for cultivation is an inalienable right of every adult but allocated through the village elders who are all male. In some communities, women do not have direct access to the elders but must approach a father, husband, or brother for some of the land allocated to the family. In some countries women are barred from obtaining title to land as an occupant or owner, or may not be able to buy or rent land. Even women with inherited land may only have the right to usufruct until male children are of age.

Both men and women often encounter resistance if they want land for permanent usufruct, which is required for tree crops, irrigation development, and fishponds, etc. Lack of long-term tenure is often cited for disinterest in productive investments on the land, and a handicap for credit programmes. Several governments dealing with land reforms have responded with regulations for occupancy or privatization, but these are generally reserved for men.

Villages in Africa often have traditional rights to adjacent water bodies or streams, and may even have sexual subdivisions of usufruct. In the Lower Volta Region of Ghana, for example, in the early 50s women had the prerogative on clam diving and men the prerogative on fishing in creeks and lagoons (Lawson, 1972); in Benin it is mostly the women who catch shellfish in the coastal lagoons. Such user rights are good reasons for allocating women land for fish farming.

Women who require land to establish a fish farm usually approach the village elders directly, or their husbands. Women may rent or buy land in Cameroon, Congo, Ghana, and Nigeria. They can inherit land in almost every country, and inheritance is in fact the most common way women become owners of fish ponds.

(iii) Although land is a principal requirement for aquaculture, credit and the labour to develop it are important constraints for both men and women. Again, women are more affected than men. Credit is often a continual need for seasonal inputs, such as fingerlings and other supplies; but the constraint of labour is removed almost completely once the pond is constructed.

Excavation and construction of ponds are activities considered too heavy for women. They must therefore hire male labourers, and this requires capital. Tables 2 and 3 illustrate possible sources of money for women to construct and operate a fish farm.

Women have less access than men to formal sources of credit, such as banks or credit unions. They rarely have the collateral required, usually land title. Therefore women rely mostly on family, their savings, or money lenders. Some women, such as successful traders, do not need credit or can obtain loans on good terms. This is not the case of rural woman, however, particularly the female head of a rural household who is particularly needful and vulnerable in most African societies.

(iv) A significant constraint which operates against women becoming fish farmers is the lack of access to extension and training. Women are rarely included in extension meetings, often because they are planned with reference to the schedule of the men. Unless special provisions are made by extension agents to include women in the meetings, women will not fully understand fish farming, and ponds left in their care will be left untended. More particularly, greater benefits can be gained by having more women extension agents. This would help to overcome and eliminate some of the social barriers inhibiting many women from taking up fish farming.

(v) The major external factor to the participation of women in aquaculture is the failure to make explicit provisions for them in the target group. As experiences in agriculture have demonstrated, benefits for the heads of households do not necessarily accrue to the family. Furthermore, provisions for participation are often poorly understood by the women themselves, or are unacceptable for social or cultural reasons.

There remains a propensity to overlook women in aquaculture production, even though women are recognized to be the main food crop producers in Africa. The need is to involve more women in the development process, not only in planning and administration but particularly in extension where direct communication is necessary.


The failure to recognize the contributions and constraints of women in the development of aquaculture in African countries can have significant effects on their position. This has occurred in agriculture and it is occurring in fish farming. For example, (i) introducing fish farming into some key areas may involve the introduction of new species for higher value markets, and even exports. If this were done in Benin and Togo, for example, where women already fish for oysters, they could be displaced. This should justify some compensatory alternative, such as provision to establish them in a marketing role which women dominate in the traditional acadja fishery; (ii) introducing fish farming mainly or exclusively for male beneficiaries usually adds tasks to the workload of women. This produces a predominantly negative impact on the women unless there are returns to them and they understand the work itself; (iii) access to fish ponds often liberates women from other fishing duties, and there are opportunities to obtain fish more conveniently and regularly throughout the year, and (iv) fish pond responsibilities may interfere with other activities, such as cropping, which have established rights of remuneration.


I would like to thank sincerely all the 38 colleagues, acquaintances and friends who returned the completed questionnaires around which the information in this paper has been prepared.

Many other people offered their personal communications from their present or past experiences over many years of work in Africa. I would therefore like to add my thanks to Julian Nyuiadzi in Togo, Cyrus Tiah in Liberia, the Depelchins in Côte d'Ivoire, Ambrose Asamoah in Ghana, and Jan Low in Malawi; also Vi Allread and Eileen O'Hara, two ex-PCVs in Zaire and Togo, respectively; also Christopher Nugent, Michel Vincke, Dora Blessich and Francois Vallet of FAO; Leonardo Garuglieri of the EEC, Brussels, and Alberto Caratelli of Idroconsult, Italy.

Table 1. Work performed by women

Table 2. Economics

Table 3. Loan sources

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