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Contribution of Inland Fisheries to Rural Livelihoods in Africa: An Overview From the Lake Chad Basin Areas

Béné C.1 Neiland A.E.2

1 CEMARE Centre for the Economics and Management of Aquatic Resources, University of Portsmouth, Locksway Road, Southsea PO4 8JF, United Kingdom [email protected]
2 IDDRA Institute for Sustainable Development and Aquatic Resources, Portsmouth Technopole, Kingston Crescent Portsmouth PO2 8FA, U.K. United Kingdom [email protected]

Key-words: Artisanal fisheries; poverty; socio-economics; livelihoods analysis; Africa


Within the very arid and difficult environment of the Sahelian region, Lake Chad and its associated riverine system have always played an extremely important role in the livelihoods of the thousands of people living in the Basin. However, due to the remoteness of the region the whole Basin is suffering an important information deficit and it is currently difficult to make accurate and up-to-date assessments of the economic (in particular inland fisheries) activities taking place within the area. The objective of this paper is to improve our knowledge and understanding of the rural livelihoods of the populations of the Basin and in particular, to assess the exact contribution of the fishing activities to the livelihoods of these communities. For this purpose, a detailed socioeconomic multi-activity survey was carried out, including a participatory poverty assessment, in the three major fishing regions of the Basin (the delta of the Chari River, the Yaérés floodplain and the western shore of the Lake). The survey was completed by a series of comparative analyses of the accessibility to fishing grounds and fishing gear ownership across the different socio-economic strata of the populations. Through the detailed description of the seasonal patterns of activities, the survey shows that for the entire area, households, disregarding their wealth level, still rely to a very large extent on subsistence economy where the three major activities (fishing, farming and herding) are closely integrated. With respect to the fishing activity the survey demonstrates the central role of this activity for all wealth groups. The participatory wealth ranking exercise also reveals to what extent the communities themselves perceive ownership of fishing gears as one of the primary signs of wealth. This result is strong evidence that fishing has become a key-element of the wealth differentiation process in the area. This result is corroborated by the analysis of fishing ground accessibility which reveals that in some parts of the Basin, only the wealthiest households have access to the whole range of waterbodies available, while the poorest households are marginalized or even excluded from these water-bodies. In other parts of the Basin, in contrast, fishing activities appear to play a major role as a safety-net for the poorest households. It seems therefore that there is no one-to-one relationship between the contribution of fishing activity and the wealth (or poverty) level of the households and that the well-known adage "fishers are the poorest of the poor" does not reflect the complexity of the empirical situation observed, at least not in the Lake Chad Basin.


Lake Chad has always played an extremely important role in the livelihoods of the thousands of people living within its vicinities in the very arid and difficult environment of the Sahelian region. However due to the remoteness and recent political instability of the region, the whole Basin is now suffering an important information deficit (FAO for instance considers the national statistics for this region to be unreliable and incomplete - FAO 1995) and it is currently extremely difficult to make any accurate and up-to-date assessment of the economic activities and in particular inland fisheries, taking place within the Basin. Faced with this lack of information, national policymakers and planners as well as international development agencies are severely constrained in their ability to generate and implement rural development policies appropriate and adapted to this area.

The main objective of the research from which this paper is derived was to expand our knowledge of the livelihoods of the rural communities living in the Lake Chad Basin region and, in particular, to better assess the contribution of fishing activities to the livelihoods of these local populations. For this purpose, a detailed socio-economic survey including a participatory poverty assessment was carried out in the three major fishing regions of the Basin. The survey was completed by a series of comparative analyses of the accessibility to fishing grounds and fishing gear ownership across the different socio-economic strata of the populations. The present paper is a summary of the main findings of this livelihood assessment survey. A more detailed analysis is provided in Béné, Neiland, Jolley et al. (2002). This research was part of a more general multi-disciplinary analysis of the Lake Chad Basin fisheries (Neiland and Béné 2002)


The data collection was conducted from October 1999 to July 2000 using socio-economic multi-activity survey techniques. The areas included in the survey cover the three major zones of fishing activities within the Lake Chad Basin. These are located (1) along the south-west part of the Lake area (Nigeria), including large zones of the seasonally exposed lakebed; (2) within the Delta of the Chari River, including the Chari River itself and the south-east part the Lake shore (Chad); and (3) within the Yaéré floodplain located at the border between Cameroon and Chad, along the Logone River (Figure. 1). Within these three areas, 64 villages were selected randomly and surveyed: 15 along the Nigerian western shore, 20 in the Yaéré floodplain and 29 in the Chari River delta. In each village, the data was collected through semi-structured group interviews conducted on village key-informants.

The central element of the survey was an activity ranking exercise combined with a participatory wealth ranking exercise. The objective of the participatory wealth ranking exercise was to analyse the nature and degree of the wealth stratification (heterogeneity) within the local populations. An activity ranking exercise was then carried out for each wealth group. Two distinct criteria were used for this: (1) the allocation of households’ labour (time-effort) over the whole season in each activity and (2) the contribution of each activity to the households’ overall incomes. This distinction was introduced to attempt to embody the high degree of subsistence that characterises household livelihoods in this region. The results were then aggregated across villages of the same area.

Figure 1. Top left map: general location within the whole Lake Chad Conventional Basin of the region concerned by the study. Central map: detailed location within the study region of the three specific areas included in the survey: the western shores of the Lake, the Chari Delta and the Yaéré floodplain. The black dots on the local maps (bottom left and right hand side maps) indicate the villages surveyed in each area = 64 in total.

The activity ranking exercise was complemented by a comparative analysis of fishing ground accessibility. The objective of this last analysis was to determine whether households of different wealth levels access the same fishing ground. Additional information regarding the villages and their vicinities was also collected through participatory mapping exercises (distance chart) of selected landmarks, including seasonal and permanent ponds, rivers and their tributaries, irrigation channels, grazing and agricultural areas and seasonal calendars of the rain, river-flood cycles and associated activities performed by the villagers.


Table 1 displays the various water-bodies used by the local populations for their fishing activities. In aggregate, 8 different types of fishing grounds are exploited across the Basin. Seasonal ponds and receding channels are the most common type of water-bodies used, followed by rivers (the Logone and Chari), the open waters of the lake and the permanent ponds and oxbows. The comparison between areas shows that the Yaéré floodplain offers the largest diversity of exploitable water-bodies, followed by the Chari Delta and the western shores of the Lake.

Table 1: Types of water-bodies exploited in Lake Chad Basin. Values in brackets are %.

Type of water-body

Number of villages exploiting a particular type of water bodies

Yaéré (%)

Chari Delta (%)

Western shores (%)


Number of different water-bodies





Seas. ponds and receding channels

9 (45)

15 (52)

15 (100)


Main river (a)

8 (40)

22 (76)



Lake Chad’s open waters


8 (27)

14 (93)


Perm. ponds and oxbows

1 (05)

13 (45)

1 (06)


Tributaries (b)

9 (45)




Artificial reservoirs (c)

6 (30)




Irrigation channels

4 (20)





3 (15)




Number of villages

20 (100)

29 (100)

15 (100)

Notes: (a) Main river = Chari and/or Logone; (b) Tributaries of the Logone = Logomatya, Loromé Mazéra, Mayo Vrick and Petit Goroma; (c) Maga reservoir (see Fig. 1 for location).

The fact that the seasonal ponds and receding channels are, in aggregate, the most common type of water-bodies fished across the basin indicates that a large part of the fishing activity has developed as a temporary activity to adapt to the seasonal dynamics of the environment and, in particular, to make the most of the seasonal flooding. However, the seasonality that characterises the hydrological environment of the Lake area does not affect only fishing activity but the households’ activity portfolio as a whole. The analysis reveals indeed that the households’ livelihood relies on a strongly seasonal matrix of diversified activities the pattern of which is largely influenced by the local water-flood regime. These multiple activities are closely integrated and all households in the Basin irrespective of their wealth level, are still heavily involved in a subsistence- based economy, where fishing, farming and cattle holding represent the three pillars of the system.


In 55 out of the 64 villages (86 percent) surveyed, the respondents identified three wealth groups that they termed ‘the poorest’ (noted G3 from now on), the ‘less poor’ -or sometimes called the ‘intermediate group’- (noted G2) and the ‘rich’ (G1). In six villages (9 percent), the respondents emphasised the absence of rich households and distinguished only two groups: ‘the poorest’ and the ‘less poor’. Further analyses showed that these two groups are relatively comparable in terms of livelihood strategy with the G2 and G3 groups of the 55 other villages. Finally, in three villages (5 percent), respondents identified only ‘rich’ (G1) and ‘less rich’ (G2) households. Over the whole region, the survey indicates that the poorest group (G3) systematically embodies the largest number of households, disregarding the area. In the Yaéré floodplain and along the western shores of the Lake this group represents 51 percent of the total number of households surveyed and 40 percent in the Chari Delta.


Analysis of the activity ranking exercise shows that on a global scale the better-off households (G1) always invest a significant part of their labour (time-effort) in fishing-related activities, followed by farming and then trading and herding. Fishing also plays a major role for G2 households since it ranks first in terms of income contribution for this group in the three areas. The labour invested in fishing, however, varies between areas. The comparative summary of these activity rankings is given in Table 2 for the income contribution. In detail, the three areas can be distinguished as follows.

In the Yaéré floodplain, cattle rearing is the only activity for which the labour allocation remains more or less constant across the three groups. Trading (which includes retail and/or small trade of fish, farming and/or other housing-related products) seems to be a dominant activity for better-off households of this area but stays inaccessible to the poorest. As far as farming is concerned, the interviews suggest that G2 households invest approximately the same amount of labour and derive the same proportion of income than G1 households. Comparatively, G3 invest more labour in that activity but derive lower incomes. In contrast, the role of fishing in households increases with poverty: fishing appears to be comparatively more important for G3 households (both in terms of labour and contribution to income) than for G2 and G1 households. This result suggests that the poorer the households in the Yaéré, the more they rely on fishing.

Table 2: Comparative summary of the activity ranking exercises (in terms of contribution to household’s income) for the 3 areas surveyed. The symbols ‘>>’ ‘>’ ‘a’ hold respectively for: ‘contributes much more’, contributes more’ and ‘contributes equally’’.

Wealth Group

Activity contribution

Chari Delta
Activity contribution

Western Shore
Activity contribution


Farm > Fish > Trade (Herd. a 0)

Fish > Farm > Trade >> Herd

Fish > Farm > Trade (Herd a 0)


Fish a Farm >> Herd a Trade

Farm = Fish >> Trade >> Herd

Fish > Farm > Trade (Herd a 0)


Fish > Farm > Herd (Trade a 0)

Wood >> Fish > Farm

Labour >> Fish a Farm

(Trade a Herd a 0)

(Trade a Herd a 0)

Activity of last resort

The poorer the households, the more they rely on fishing

Woodcutting central element of the livelihood of the poor

Daily wage labour central element of the livelihood of the poor

In the Chari Delta, farming, fishing, cattle rearing, trading and woodcutting are the main activities. However, as in the Yaéré, the importance of each activity varies greatly according to wealth level. Fishing is the dominant activity for the better-off households who invest the largest part of their time and effort in this activity and derive the largest proportion of their income from the commercialisation of their catch. Trading is predominantly operated by G1 (and G2 to a much lower extent) but stays out of reach from the poorest households. Farming is the dominant activity of G2 households although fishing also contributes to a large part to their incomes. Herding is a source of minor revenues for both G1 and G2. As far as the poorest households are concerned, the survey indicates that they rely mainly on woodcutting activity, which appears to be the central element of their livelihood, both in terms of labour and income contribution.

Along the western shores of the Lake, the livelihood strategies of the G1 and G2 households are relatively comparable to those of the two equivalent groups in Chari Delat. In particular, the data shows that for both G1 and G2 groups, households invest a significant amount of labour in fishing and derive the largest part of their income from the commercialisation of their catch. They are both also highly involved in farming which is their second major activity. The distinction between G1 and G2 is in fact mainly related to the relative contribution of trading activities to their incomes. Like in the two other areas, G1 households derive a substantially higher proportion of revenues from trade than G2 households. In contrast G3 households are not involved in trading at all. They are employed mainly in wage labour through small daily jobs, e.g. farm clearing/weeding, fish processing (descaling and degutting), fish packaging and loading.

Table 3: Top part: Comparative analysis of the number of gill nets, hook-lines and goura per household for the different wealth groups (range estimated by the key-respondents in each village). Bottom part: Number of different types of fishing gear owned by households of each wealth group (average across villages of the same area).

Estimated number per household [Range] (average)


Fishing gears







Gill nets

[2-6] (4.2)

[1-5] (2.4)


[0-2] (1.2)


Hook-lines (a)

[2-15] (6)

[1-10] (4)


[1-5] (1.6)


Goura traps

[15-100] (50)

[2-50] (26)


[2-30] (12)


Western shores

Gill nets

[3-30] (11)

[3-12] (6)


[0-2] (0.5)


Hook-lines (a)

[7-40] (24)

7-20 (12)


[3-6] (4.5)


Goura traps

[100-600] (142)

[20-120] (73)


[0-20] (15)



Gill nets

[4-30] (12)

[2-10] (4)


[0-2] (1.1)


Hook-lines (a)

[3-15] (9)

[2-10] (5)


[1-5] (3)



Goura traps

[10-100] (77)

[5-100] (83)


[0-25] (9)


Average number of different types of fishing gear owned by households

Wealth groups

Chari Delta

Western shores

Yaéré floodplain













Notes: (a) standardised 1000-hooks, (b) ratio of average values.


A series of specific analyses were carried out to complete the livelihood analysis and to gain a deeper insight into the specific role of fishing activity in the households livelihood and wealth differentiation process.


First the type of fishing gears owned by the households was compared between wealth groups in each village. The data shows that apart from the seine (‘Tauraw’) which is owned almost exclusively by G1 families but operate collectively, all groups, disregarding the area, use the same set of traditional, individual fishing gears, i.e. essentially gillnets, traps (Mali traps or ‘goura’), hook-lines, cane trap (‘ndurutu’), cast nets and dip nets (‘sakama’).

A large dissimilarity, however, exists in terms of number and size of gear owned by the households, depending on their wealth level. In particular the comparison for the three most common types of gear (gillnets, goura and hook-lines) -Table 3 top part- shows that the richest households (G1) across the whole region hold systematically a larger number of units of each gear compared to the other wealth groups. For instance, along the Western shores of the Lake, the G1 households own on average 2 times more hook-lines than the G2 households and almost 10 times more goura than the G3 households.

The estimate of the number of different types of fishing gears (in other words the ‘diversity’ of fishing gear) of the households as a function of their wealth level (Table 3 bottom part) is also very informative. The data show that this number declines with poverty, indicating that the poorest have a lower diversity of fishing gears than the better off. The decline is specially marked along the western shores and in the Chari Delta where the number of gear types per household is even smaller than 1 for the G3 group, reflecting the fact that a significant number of the poorest households in these areas own no fishing gear at all.


A large number of social and/or ethnographic studies have emphasised that in Africa (but more generally in a large number of countries around the World), control to and restriction of access to fishing grounds is often a factor of wealth stratification within communities (Davies and Bailey 1996; Kremer 1994; Fay 1989; Kassibo 1994; Neiland, Jaffry and Kudaisi 1997). It was therefore anticipated that some form of access discrimination within the Lake Chad Basin’s villages would be observed in favour of the richest/more powerful groups. To evaluate the degree of this potential inequity, a comparative analysis of the access to the water-bodies exploited by the different wealth groups was undertaken within each village. The results are synthesised in Figure 2.

The different polygons reflect the types and proportions of water-bodies accessed by the different wealth groups of the villages (aggregated per area). The comparison highlights some very instructive features, which had been disguised by the (global) typology presented in Table 1. In particular, we observe that while the polygons’ shape and size are remarkably similar between the three groups in the Yaéré floodplain, indicating that all households in that area have access to the same fishing grounds disregarding their wealth level, the situation is radically different in both the Chari Delta and western shores areas. In these areas, the polygons of the poorest households are significant smaller than the polygons of the two other groups, indicating that the poorest households have reduced access to the fishing grounds in these areas.

Figure 2. Results of the comparative analysis on accessibility to fishing grounds. The accessibility ranges from 0 to 1. A value of 0 means no access to the water body considered. A value of 1 means the water-body is accessed in 100 percent of the villages surveyed (within the area considered). The analysis was performed separately for each wealth group in each village and then aggregated by area.



The comparative analysis of the activity-ranking exercise offers a good starting point to discuss the role of the fishing activities in the rural livelihoods (and wealth stratification) of the Lake Chad Basin populations. The analysis reveals that this contribution varies between wealth groups within the same area but also between areas for the ‘same’ wealth group. The first major conclusion of this study is therefore that the original question which motivated this study, i.e. ‘what is the contribution of fishing activities to rural populations’ livelihood?’ can not be correctly answered if the different wealth groups that constitute the local populations/communities are not separated and the specific role played by fishing activities analysed within each group separately.

In the present case, wealth stratification highlighted several points. It shows that G1 households across the whole Basin always invest the largest part of their labour (time-effort) in fishing activities. Furthermore, this high labour investment is usually successfully transformed into revenues. For instance, both in Chari Delta and along the western shores, fishing activity contributes to the largest share of the G1 and G2 households’ income, while in the Yaéré, fishing is ranked 2nd, after farming, for the better-off households. In fact, in the Yaéré floodplain, a more detailed analysis of the situation (Béné et al. in press) shows that the specific land tenure system associated with the relative scarcity of the non-flooding land, plays a major role in the predominance of farming over fishing activities for the better-off households. In contrast, the poorest households of the Yaéré tend to privilege fishing (both in terms of labour and contribution to income). In this respect, the analysis of the accessibility to fishing grounds suggests that the relative inter-group equity of access that characterises the water-tenure system in this part of the Basin is certainly one of the major factors that permits the poorest households of the Yaéré to rely on the fishing activity as the central element of their livelihoods.

The situation is quite different in the Chari Delta and along the western shores of the Lake. In those two areas, fishing remains relatively ‘inaccessible’ to the poorest who have to find alternative activities as a main source of income (in the Chari Delta, they rely mainly on wood cutting, while along the western shores of the Lake they hire their labour). In this respect, for these two areas (in contrast to the Yaéré floodplain area), it is interesting to notice the significant difference that exists between the poorest households and the rest of the communities in terms of access to the fishing grounds. The poorest only access a marginal part of the water-bodies available to the rest of the community. This difference reflects the ‘direct’ (financial) and ‘indirect’ (technical) restrictions that prevent the poorest households from having full access to the fishing grounds. The ‘direct’ restriction results from the various legitimised (i.e. institutionalised) and illegal taxes and/or fees that are imposed on the households for access to water-bodies. Indeed, the detailed analysis of the local institutional arrangements in these areas (Béné et al. 2003a; Bene et al. 2003a and b) shows that in 100 percent of the villages surveyed in the Chari Delta and along the western shores of the Lake, acquiring the rights of access to a restricted fishing ground involves systematically some form of fees payment, either in cash or as a proportion of the catch (or both). The local traditional authorities levy a large part of these fees, but the survey also reveals the existence of large-scale illegal taxation systems operated by soldiers of the Joint Patrol Forces or even by central government agents. These different fees (which overlap each other) represent multiple financial barriers that affect more particularly the poorest and prevent them from entering the fisheries. On the other hand, these poorest households also face ‘indirect’ (or technical) restrictions of access to certain fishing grounds resulting from their lack of adequate fishing gears and in particular lack of boats necessary to fish water bodies such as the open-waters of the Lake. The existence of these ‘technical’ restrictions was largely illustrated for instance through the analysis of the fishing gear ownership.

These various findings suggest that fishing activities determine household wealth (and represent therefore a key-element of the wealth differentiation), but also that fishing activities are, in turn, strongly determined by wealth. First, fishing determines wealth and participates to wealth differentiation in the sense that the better-off households, who can afford a larger number of fishing gears, and also more efficient and more productive gears such as the seines (Tauraw), are actually in a better position to transform their labour investment into a higher income in comparison to the poorer households who fish on marginal and usually less productive grounds with less efficient gears. Furthermore, for these better-off households, the incomes generated by the fishing activity are usually directly re-invested either in more efficient or larger fishing gears (which accentuates further the gap with the poorest) or sometimes in non-fishing activities. In this respect, numerous key-respondents emphasised during the interviews that additional investments in fishing inputs (through new fishing gears or more labour allocated to this activity) can generate instantaneous income surplus, in contrast to farming activities where several months (until the harvest time) would have to pass before eventual benefits might be returned from the investment. Given the very high (environmental and political) uncertainty that characterises these Sahelian regions, this capacity of the fishing activity to generate instantaneous gains represent (according to households’ experience) a substantial advantage over farming.

Fishing is therefore a central element of wealth differentiation. But, at the same time fishing is also strongly determined by wealth. As emphasised above through the analysis of the Chari Delta and western shores data, only the wealthiest households have access to the whole range of water-bodies (amongst those available), while the poorest are marginalized or even excluded from these water-bodies. This differential in fishing ground access is mainly determined by the households’ wealth as illustrated by the comparative analysis of access to water-bodies.

The second major conclusion of this analysis is certainly that, although the access to fishing grounds is strongly related to wealth, there is nothing like a one-to-one relationship between wealth level (or symmetrically poverty level) and the contribution of fishing activities to household livelihood. As the results of this survey have shown, fishing can represent the vital activity on which the poorest and most deprived households of a community rely to generate both income and food in the absence of equitable access to land (as in the Yaéré floodplain) and where, therefore, fishing can be seen as the "last alternative of the poorest" (cf. Table 2). But, as illustrated in the Chari Delta or along the western shores, fishing can also reveal itself a powerful lever for wealth differentiation and a central element in the livelihoods of the better-off households who use it to generate important revenues to be reinvested in various fishing or non-fishing activities. For instance, Neiland et al. (2000), using individual household income data show how the better-off households along the western shores of the Lake use a large part of the revenues generated by the fish catch to purchase farming inputs (fertilisers, seeds, etc. but also to hire farming labour).

An important lesson from the above discussion is therefore that the way fishing activity contributes to household livelihood is remarkably complex and difficult to assess and that the relation between wealth (or poverty) and fishing activities is more than ambiguous. This last point brings additional support to the few recent field studies (Kremer 1994; Neiland et al. 1997; Neiland 2000) that tend to question the long-established view that fishers are the ‘poorest of the poor’ and that fishing will always remain ‘a societal safety valve for surplus labour’ (e.g. Bailey and Jentoft 1990, p.341). In fact, as the livelihood analyses carried out in the Chari Delta and along the western shores of the Lake suggest, one can even observe situations where the poorest are too poor to be fishers! In those circumstances, the widespread perception that "fishery rhymes with poverty" (Béné 2003), still widely spread out amongst experts from international agencies and decision-makers, is far too simplistic to reflect or embody the complexity of the reality. In particular, this perception has prevented the development of adequate frameworks to assess the exact relationship, which exists between fisheries, poverty and wealth, and to identify the conditions which could make this activity a powerful tool for poverty alleviation and rural economic development. There is in that domain an urgent need of further empirical and conceptual research.


The research presented in this paper is part of the INCO-DEV project IC-18-CT98-0331 funded by the European Commission. The authors are grateful to M. Baba, E. Belal, L. Dara, T. Jolley, B. Ladu, K. Mindjimba, S. Ovie, J. Quensière, O. Sule, F. Tiotsop and A. Zakara for their collaboration during the fieldwork and their helpful comments during the data analysis. The opinions presented here are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the European Commission.


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