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FTT-Thiaroye Ovens: Clearing the air for women fish processors in Côte d'Ivoire, and beyond

A simple and relatively inexpensive technology is revolutionizing the way West Africans smoke their fish.

Women handle tasks related to fish smoking, shown here with traditional smoking ovens. (Image © FAO)
08/12/2016

Along the way, it’s also solving problems of food loss, food safety and quality, safeguarding the health of women fish processors and their children, and improving lives and livelihoods across the region’s coastal fishing communities.

In Côte d'Ivoire, as in much of West Africa, smoked fish plays a major role in the everyday diet. It is popular among locals not only for its taste and nutritional benefits, but also for its competitive pricing (especially compared to other protein options such as meat, milk and eggs) and its relatively long shelf-life (which ranges from 3–6 months).

Smoked fish is also a vital source of income. An estimated 20–30 percent of Côte d'Ivoire’s marine and freshwater catch is consumed in smoked form, while fishing in general provides direct employment to 70 000 people and indirect employment to another 400 000, over 59 percent of whom are women. Indeed, in most coastal fishing communities, it is the women who are responsible for cleaning, drying, smoking and other tasks related to post-harvest processing, production and marketing of the fish.

“The men in these communities are involved exclusively in the fishing,” explains Joseph Catanzano, a consultant from the FAO Fisheries and Aquaculture Department. “Their workday is carried out primarily on the water, in their boats and along the beach, as they fish, bring in their catch, make adjustments to their boats and mend their nets. Their lives are lived outside in the strong sunlight, and in proximity to the sea.”

According to the FAO flagship publication The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture (2014), women make up as much as 90 percent of those working in secondary seafood activities such as fish processing.

“That contrasts sharply with the women’s domain,” continues Mr Catanzano. “This is an area that is dark and poorly ventilated, used for the cleaning and post-harvesting work. This is the area where the smoking ovens are kept, and [it is] filled with thick smoke throughout the day as the women work to smoke the fish they will later sell in the markets.”

The smoke from these ovens is one of the many problems posed by the traditional methods and techniques used in preparing smoked fish. “Traditional smoking releases contaminants known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which are carcinogenic and hazardous to the human respiratory system,” says FAO Fishery Industry Officer Yvette Diei-Ouadi. This leads to respiratory, eye and other health problems, not only for the women but also for their children, who are often present while their mothers work at smoking the fish.

The traditional ovens also require massive amounts of fuelwood or charcoal, which raises environmental concerns about deforestation and greenhouse gas emissions. “An exorbitant amount of CO2 is produced,” notes Ms Diei-Ouadi. “The kilns produce more greenhouse gas pollution than they should.”

Traditional techniques also leave higher amounts of tar particles in the final product, affecting the taste and quality and therefore making it much more difficult to sell.

Gender-sensitive by design

In 2008, FAO began working with the National Training Centre for Fisheries and Aquaculture Technicians in Senegal (CNFTPA) to build on existing technologies in fish smoking, such as the popular Chorkor and the Banda ovens, and improve them further. The result of this collaboration was the FTT fish smoking technology (also known as Thiaroye or FTT-Thiaroye). The system, consisting of a dual-function oven and mechanical drier (which also acts as a storage unit), is specifically designed to help small-scale fish processors prepare and market safe, high-quality food.

By design, the FTT-Thiaroye system is a gender-sensitive technique that can be used and maintained easily by women fish processors. By reducing drying and smoking times, and producing a product that sells more readily and rapidly, the new technology increases the time available to women for other pursuits, including caring for the household and children. A more marketable product also fetches premium prices, meaning increased income for the women who produce smoked and dried fish.

Oumoul Khaïry Ndiaye, from FAO’s office in Burkina Faso, was among those who worked on the FTT design. “This is a system developed to address many aspects of fish smoking operations," she says.

“In the first place stands the safety aspect — to secure consumers' health and meet international food standards. Then there's reducing post-harvest losses, and also curbing the drudgery of fish processors who are now less exposed to the heat and smoke.”

Seeing the advantages

Côte d'Ivoire is one of the many countries in which the FTT-Thiaroye has been introduced, and in which it has met with great success. In the village of Abobo Doumé, for example, two FTT prototypes were brought in to replace the more traditional fish-smoking systems, which used mud ovens and cut-up barrels. The new ovens were not only faster and more efficient; they greatly reduced the amount of smoke and heat to which the women were exposed, while also lowering the risk of burns. Moreover, because the FTT-Thiaroye reduces food loss and improves the overall quality of the final product, the women saw their incomes improve.

“This new oven has radically transformed our working conditions, and consequently improved our livelihoods,” according to Micheline Dion Somplehi, one of the many women of Abobo Doumé who has benefited from the Thiaroye technology.

In addition to being a fish processor, Ms Dion Somplehi is president of a cooperative comprising 1 650 women fish processors and fishmongers from the Côte d'Ivoire artisanal fisheries sector, and vice-president of the National Federation of Côte d'Ivoire Fishers’ Cooperatives (FENACOPECI). She is also in charge of the Women's Programme of the African Confederation of Artisanal Fisheries Professional Organisations (CAOPA), an apex platform which, since 2010, brings together organizations from 13 African countries.

When Ms Dion Somplehi attended the Committee on Fisheries (COFI) at FAO in 2014, she was clear on the benefits that FTT had brought to her community. “We have seen the advantage of saving time in fish smoking,” she said. “And this is really important because in our communities, women are at the same time engaged in household chores – taking care of the children, working in the kitchen – while carrying out fish processing activities.”

“We are even able to smoke [fish] in bad weather conditions,” she added. Indeed, another significant benefit of FTT-Thiaroye technology is that fish can be dried or smoked regardless of the weather. The more traditional methods, which involve drying the fish in the sun, can incur post-harvest losses of 10–50 percent, especially in the rainy season or in humid weather.

Another advantage of the FTT system is its improved energy efficiency. The new kiln reduces charcoal consumption and optimizes the use of biomass: instead of just wood and charcoal, plant and organic byproducts such as coconut shells and husks, maize or millet cob, and cow dung can be used. In most countries, agriwaste is not only an affordable and environmentally-friendly alternative fuel, it is also easily available. As such, it can save women even more time and effort that would otherwise be expended in collecting or obtaining fuelwood.

The FTT-Thiaroye has also been introduced with success in Ghana, Senegal, the United Republic of Tanzania, and Togo. In addition, many national fisheries institutions, authorities, and international development organizations, such as the World Bank in Togo and Côte d’Ivoire, are scaling up projects that involve FTT. And other countries in Africa and Asia, where fish smoking is common and where women are highly involved in fish processing, have also expressed interest in the technology.

Meeting food safety standards

Gaoussou Gueye, Secretary General of CAOPA, acknowledged the positive changes that Thiaroye technology had brought to women in the riparian communities of Lake Chad and Lake Volta. “Women fish processors have become more competitive at the regional and subregional markets, with smoked and dried fish products of much better quality,” he said, adding that the products were now able to “better meet food safety requirements.”

This has indeed been the case for Côte d’Ivoire. Between 2006 and 2011, the European Union banned imports of processed fish from the country because of unacceptable PAH levels. The ban caused substantial economic losses, valued at around US$1.7 million per year. But with the introduction of the FTT-Thiaroye and its adoption by small-scale processors, Ivorian smoked products were able to meet the stringent market requirements for PAH levels.

Cascaded training strategy

Because the FTT-Thiaroye consists of components that have been designed to work with existing kilns, it is easy to upgrade traditional ovens to the FTT system. The equipment costs between US$500 and US$800, and can be built easily by metal workers using local materials.

In the FTT programs that have involved FAO, at least 80 percent of the individuals trained to build, use, and maintain the FTT are women fish processors. Experience has shown that these women are more likely than their male counterparts to inform others of the positive results of this efficient new technique for fish processing.

“What I have noticed so far is the efficiency of the cascaded training strategy,” said Mr Gueye. “That encourages women fish operators already benefiting from the use of FTT to provide training, in turn, to their peers.”

For women like Ms Dion Somplehi, the advantages to this kind of approach are clear. “The FTT-Thiaroye ensures less heat, burn and smoke exposure,” she said. “We are now working under hygienic conditions.”

 

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