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by Petra C. Spliethoff
International Agricultural Centre
Postbus 88, 6700 AB Wageningen, The Netherlands


The handling, processing, and marketing of fish products are essential complementary functions of all food production systems. Women traditionally have played a major role in these activities. In most developing countries women dominate the markets either as buyers or sellers of food. For most women marketing is a secondary activity which provides the only source of cash income.

The marketability of fish products is an important constraint in the development of aquaculture. Moreover, processing and marketing activities provide the greatest opportunities for employment within the aquaculture industry.

The objective of this paper is to describe the role of women in the handling, processing, and marketing of aquaculture products. In the absence of adequate statistics, this paper relies heavily on studies of the role of women in processing and marketing in general, and of fish in particular. The performance of "fishmammies" is highlighted to gain insight into the abilities, capacities, and constraints of women as fish processors and traders.


The main concern of small subsistence households is to secure a steady living year-round for the family. In many instances, extensive aquaculture may provide a means of spreading production risk and of improving overall farm output. Women often view fish as a savings account to draw on when food supplies are scarce, or when cash is needed. Surplus production can be bartered for other goods or sold for cash.

In more intensive production systems, the handling, processing, and marketing of fish may constrain the development of aquaculture. These systems rely on preserving and processing techniques, traders, transport, and market facilities.

The success of fish farming is highly dependent on the income elasticity of the consumer and the substitution effects in the market. Fresh aquatic products, in many areas, are high-quality substitutes for other sources of protein in the market.

Traditionally, there is a quite distinct division of labour between the sexes. Although labour utilization patterns differ from region to region, women generally are responsible for fish processing and marketing (FAO, 1977). Men will sometimes assist their wives in drying, smoking, or grilling but women are primarily responsible for these activities. Women generally sell fresh fish in small quantities at local markets or to wholesalers. They may also sell processed fish dried or smoked. Men may sell fresh fish to a cooperative, or will sell fresh or processed fish in large quantities to traders.

2.1 Handling

Pond harvest is highly labour intensive. The help of the entire family, as well as other villagers, is generally required. Men seine the pond, while women use baskets to catch the remaining fish. In most rural areas all fish are seined at the end of the culture period. The smaller fish are kept for home consumption and the larger fish are sold. All people involved in harvesting the pond receive a share in the production.

Multiple stocking and harvest imply careful handling and restocking of fish of unsuitable size. This practice is usually found on well-managed farms in Asia. Multiple harvest offers better opportunities for women than single harvesting; small quantities (up to 20 kg) which require less time and capital can be marketed more easily by women. Large-scale production farms generally use other marketing channels; often women traders are only found further down the marketing chain.

The timing of pond harvests must be tailored to meet the local supply and demand patterns. The time lapse between fish harvest and purchase by customers is critical for fresh fish. In Asia, the harvested fish are kept in fish holding cages for on-farm sales for a maximum of one day before being sent to the market. Men are trained to transport and sell fish to hotels, supermarkets, and wholesalers. Market facilities (such as containers with aeration devices) may not be accessible to smaller, private retailers (FAO, 1983a).

Fresh fish cannot be held for long periods of time without serious losses. If necessary they are processed. Fresh fish, especially live, are highly preferred by consumers but they present transport and storage problems. Local transport may include baskets or containers carried on the head, on bicycles, or in small pickup trucks. Transport by boats can be found in estuarine areas in Bangladesh, China, Guinea Bissau, and Benin.

The transport of fresh or live fish requires: (a) location of ponds close to the market to minimize handling and to limit transportation time, (b) early morning harvests to transport fish at cool temperatures, and (c) markets equipped with ice facilities or water tanks (cement or small tin containers) with aeration devices and a drainage system.

Transport of live fish to remote markets is a more complex handling operation and requires investment in trucks with fish holding cages, pumping systems to circulate the water, and aeration devices in the tanks. Long distance transport of fresh fish further requires ice, or trucks with cooling devices. It may not be economically feasible to transport fresh or live fish to rural markets unless economies of scale can be achieved through high-volume transport. Transport is expensive and may be unreliable or unavailable along bad roads during certain seasons. Live transport may only be feasible for urban centres where consumers are willing and able to pay higher prices for quality products.

Women do take part in the transportation of fish, but only at a minor level with less professional means. Most women do not have the necessary cash to invest in modern means of transport or the time for long distance travel.

2.2 Processing

Women have always predominated in the fish processing sector on small-scale private, cooperative, or industrial levels. Small-scale enterprises can be characterized by a high degree of flexibility, and are capable of responding to the supply of fresh products and consumer preferences. Although most processing enterprises are run on a small-scale basis, their importance to the economy needs to be stressed. Large numbers of woman can find employment and income in this type of industry.

The processing methods used can vary greatly and are dependent on:

(a) consumer taste,
(b) availability and costs of the processing material,
(c) technical knowledge,
(d) time needed for processing,
(e) price of the final product,
(f) storage facilities,
(g) marketability and seasonal fluctuations.

In extensive and semi-intensive production systems, fish are processed when the product cannot be sold fresh, when cold storage plants are not present, or when the product is destined for remote markets. Small-scale salting, smoking, drying, and fermenting are performed by women near or inside the house, and are considered domestic activities. The introduction of special processing facilities off-farm or near the market is often not acceptable to women. Processing at home is preferred because women are able to combine processing activities with other domestic duties. Young girls often help their mothers with different methods of processing. The final product is stored in or near the house for fear of theft. The processed fish is either sold to wholesale traders in large quantities, or brought to the markets for private selling.

Economic pressure to shift from production for subsistence to commodity production has often resulted in reshaping the role of women. Small-scale enterprises tend to be taken over by modern processing plants. Most of the fish processing plants are oriented towards export markets and not for home consumption. The range of fish species available on local markets and the marketing opportunities for women changed as a consequence of the development of industrial processing.

Women have been seriously affected by this process. Inadequate analysis and neglect of the possibilities of traditional processing and marketing structures have excluded women from their main source of income. The need for cash income to buy basic goods has driven large numbers of women to the fish processing industries. Lack of education and vocational training push women into less skilled and lower paying jobs. For example, the deheading of shrimp is primarily a processing task executed by women. Most of these women do not have other options for work and generally belong to the lower social strata of the society. During periods of peak supply they often work through the night to earn some extra income. The number of female workers in the fish processing sector in Southeast Asia tends to be very high.

The fish and seafood processing industries in particular suffer from seasonal fluctuations in supply. These fluctuations affect women more than men because most women are employed as low category workers on a casual basis. Although these fluctuations in supply often predominate in artisanal fisheries, the small-scale processing industry is capable of compensating for periodic deficiencies in supplies. Women may shift to less valuable fish, for example, or fish can be dried and kept for several months as a kind of savings account.

Seasonal fluctuations can be somewhat offset by planning aquacultural harvests. For example, instance shrimp farmers can try to plan their harvest to coincide with a time of slack supply of marine products. Close contact between the industry and the producers, and knowledge about market fluctuations is needed. In Asia for instance a market survey and analysis of world shrimp aquaculture is regularly published which includes wholesale price trends and projected supplies. In the catfish industry in the USA, 88% of the catfish production is sold to the processors, so that 85% of the plant can be utilized during the year. The remaining 12% of catfish production is sold to live handlers who carry the fish to distant markets. This centralization in processing regulates the supply to the markets, stabilizes prices, and guarantees long term employment for the processors.

2.3 Marketing

Restricted time budgets, and social and cultural factors limit women's ability to participate in marketing. Marketing of home products usually provides rural women with their only source of income. Part of the gains are often reinvested in business dealings, with the rest spent to cover domestic and personal expenses such as food, clothing, health care, school fees, etc.

In rural areas the customers become aware of a pond harvesting by informal contacts and buy their fish at the pond site. Most of the customers are women, who use the fish for home consumption or local marketing (CIFA, 1975).

The closer the market is to the farm, the fewer intermediaries and the greater the chance that women become actively involved in marketing aquatic products. In general, women have been quick to respond to opportunities created by growing demand for their produce. In Africa and Latin America, women have been able to consolidate their position as food sellers. In Asia, however, women often have lost their predominant market position to big traders and are forced to become petty traders.

Confined to domestic tasks, the majority of women are small entrepreneurs on a part-time or seasonal basis. Only a few women have established themselves as full-time traders. Dorjahn (1962) said, "Many women try bonga trading, when they assemble sufficient finance, but the majority abandon it after a few trips and use the income to set themselves up in a less arduous, less aromatic, and more highly regarded profession. It is said that only those who have bounced over the 'washboard' dirt roads, tended smokey fires in the wet season, and inhaled the variety of odours can properly appreciate the arduousness of the bonga trade. Then, too, a successful trader will sooner or later hear slurs on her character in the form of pointed remarks about what some women won't do to obtain fish when the catch is small. Those few who persist in the trade for some time make a lot of money, but the profession is not highly regarded and bonga traders have low status in the eyes of most Temne."

Women fish traders either handle the crop of their husbands or buy fish from different sources. Fishmammies collect fish directly at the landing places. Most fishmammies are in some way related to the fishermen and often take part in financing fishing operations. These financial commitments guarantee their share in the fish harvest. Fishmongers with a fixed relationship to the fishermen only pay the fishermen after the product is sold. In all other cases the fish is sold directly by auction. In most fishing communities the customers' groups are restricted by traditional relationships. New traders may be barred from entering the business (Spliethoff, 1984).

There are often distinctive patterns of division in selling different products. Generally the sale of products requiring large capital investment or long-distance travel is in the hands of men. Although it is impossible to separate factors like freedom of mobility, the efforts and costs of travelling, and transporting goods to the market, etc., women are less mobile and have less access to financial support than men. Ottenberg and Ottenberg, (1962) said, "In the Afikpo market (Nigeria) three categories of dried fish were sold. First, the stockfish from Europe was sold exclusively by the men. Indigenous riverfish like the bonga and the enya oca, were sold by both men and women. The smaller dried river fish was exclusively sold by the women, often in combination with a wide range of other food products."

Women acquainted with fish processing and marketing readily include aquaculture products, especially if pond harvest coincides with the slack season in capture fisheries. In societies where aquaculture is a new or alien enterprise and no capture fisheries can be found, the women are often not acquainted with processing and trading perishable products like fish. Aquaculture products have to compete with traditional products. If aquaculture production is focused on a highly preferred product already available on the markets, it will have to compete through price. When new products are introduced, the customer often requires a period of time to accept the new product. Consumer preferences for size, external features, taste, and price must all be taken into consideration.

2.4 Price Determination

Fish can be obtained by money, barter, or through gift exchange. In non-monetized societies the barter equivalents are fairly standardized, although bargaining does occur at the retail level as well as in transactions between traders and wholesalers.

The transition from a barter to a money economy has seriously affected existing market patterns. The increase in production as a result of the modernization of the fisheries sector has attracted traders formerly not engaged in fish processing and marketing. Women have often been displaced by new groups of traders with bicycles, greater access to cash, and greater mobility.

In a free market system the prices of fish are not fixed and are determined by a complex of factors. These include:

(a) transport cost,
(b) production cost,
(c) supply and demand,
(d) competition,
(e) processing technique,
(f) variety of fish.

Traders will take into account their transport and marketing costs as well as prices of substitute foods when deciding what price to charge. Price fluctuations can be explained largely in terms of availability, quality, and purchasing power of the customer. Prices are generally lowest during fish harvest, and rise as supplies diminish. The purchasing power of rural consumers is greatest just after the agricultural harvest while it is greatest in urban centres at the beginning of the month after pay day.

Greater capital investment in aquaculture will lead to higher market prices. Intensive systems usually supply urban centres where large quantities can be absorbed and high prices obtained. Depending on the intensity of the system, the investment in aquaculture can be quite considerable, compared with the family budget. In the absence of banks, fish farmers often have to borrow money from a money-lender (including market women). Sometimes money is borrowed in exchange for the fish yield. In such a case the money-lender makes a contract with the fish farmer at an agreed price.

In more intensive systems the fish harvest is often sold to fixed traders or by auction. The fish farmer has to know the costs of production to determine his lowest acceptable price. The price obtained will depend on the quality of the fish and the numbers at the auction. On the one hand this can give the fish farmer the security that his products are all sold, while on the other the price might be below the average price for that moment.

Road construction around the intensive farms makes the fish landing sites more accessible to traders with modern trucks. Most fishmammies are not able to modernize because of time, education and cash constraints. Their role is consequently reduced to petty trader of less valuable fish, or as a wage labourer in the processing industry. Only those women who have established an independent financial position are capable of keeping and extending their position as fish traders in this situation.

On the other hand, the flow of money which comes from the development of market transactions and urban centres has opened up new possibilities for market women to extend their trade and even become money-lenders. The dependency of urban centres on rural production is in fact greater and more direct than it first appears. However, urban wholesalers must buy bulk quantities from retailers in local markets. High preservation, transport, and purchase costs therefore raise the prices in urban markets. Consequently, many city dwellers are still willing to travel to rural markets to buy at low prices.


Many of the problems and constraints encountered in handling, processing and marketing are common to both men and women. Limited access to resources, insufficient credit facilities, inadequate transport means, bad roads, poor processing and marketing facilities, price policies, etc., are all factors constraining the development of processing and trading enterprises.

Production policies and projects often ignore the role of processing and marketing. Interventions usually concentrate on modern enterprises and distribution to larger markets, instead of supporting individual or collective activities. Insufficient incentives and financial support will continue to constrain rural distribution systems.

Apart from the constraints common to both men and women, women often face an extra set of gender-specific problems. Domestic activities, limited time disposition, no title to land or cattle, and no access to credit, make women more disadvantaged compared with men.

An analysis of the role of women in the production, processing, and marketing sectors is often lacking in project planning. The introduction of a new production system or technology often ends up demanding more labour from women while allocating most of the benefits to men.

Project planners cannot foresee the risks and disincentives for women. Processing plants and markets have been constructed without prior consultation with the intended users. On many occasions the inappropriateness of new technologies and constructions could have been avoided if participatory development was pursued.

Small-scale processing and marketing is a competitive rather than a cooperative action. A spontaneous solidarity of women generating a communal enterprise to obtain credit and to protect themselves against other commercial traders is not to be expected.


Women's participation in aquaculture is not taken into account by planners and policy-makers. A full understanding of the role of women as traders indicates their economic significance for the functioning and further development of aquaculture. Opportunities for women to discuss their constraints and opportunities can draw attention to the risks and disincentives not foreseen by project planners.

In extensive and semi-intensive aquaculture production systems, harvesting the pond is a communal activity and the fish are primarily destined for local consumption and marketing. Women are actively involved in the handling of fish from small-scale production with local transportation. Small-scale handling has been neglected by project planners. The handling of fish in extensive and semi-intensive systems needs more attention in the form of training, extension, and credit.

Particular attention is needed to improve quality control of fish to prevent deterioration during fish handling operations, and to develop more products for domestic consumption.

Processing of aquatic products is considered to be women's work. Although most processing enterprises are run on an informal basis, their scale and way of operation makes these enterprises important for the employment and income generation of women.

Inadequate analysis and neglect of these enterprises has often resulted in a disruption of the rural fish supply and the position of women. Support of small-scale processing is critically needed. The development and extension of appropriate fish preservation and processing technologies should be promoted. Training of women should be arranged in such a way that disruption of the daily work is avoided.

Intensive systems are capital intensive and their produce is primarily destined for urban centres where better prices can be obtained. Transport to urban centres requires sophisticated equipment and good roads. Women's access to selling and transport is limited by lack of cash, transport, and market facilities. More attention to appropriate transportation services and marketing facilities at local markets can be of benefit to people and can reduce transportation costs.

Inadequate market facilities, such as lack of ice plants, containers with aerating devices, processing facilities, protected (cold) storage facilities, good roads, shelter, transport facilities, etc., often limit the development of trading enterprises. Strategies to overcome constraints for marketing would benefit both sellers and buyers. A seminar (FAO, 1977) on market women in West Africa gives the following recommendations:

(a) more attention to the role of traders in the formulation and development of policies,

(b) development of appropriate technologies for food processing and preservation,

(c) construction and maintenance of rural roads,

(d) provision of transportation and spare parts,

(e) promotion of the establishment of trade associations,

(f) increase of credit facilities to traders by involving trade associations as guarantors for individual loans,

(g) vocational training (bookkeeping, application forms for credit),

(h) improvement and expansion of existing market facilities (storage, loading space for vehicles, shelter, childcare centres, health clinics),

(i) provision of information by marketing advisory services,

(j) supply of essential inputs for farms (fertilizers, seeds, etc.),

(k) improvement of communication channels between traders, producers and relevant local extension agencies and government institutions.

Markets can be focal points for rural development. The better the market facilities, the more people are motivated to participate. Insufficient support and domestic duties often force women to restrict these activities and to continue production and marketing on a limited scale. There are, however, several examples of women exploring new activities and setting examples for others who are equally poor. Freedom to handle marketing and finances are critically important for women and result in a better living for the family.

Equal access to credit and participation in market development for women is needed to consolidate their position as traders. Women are often not acquainted with official credit facilities. The existing household funds are usually the only source of money for women. Self-help savings groups and rotating funds provide a good basis for the development of credit opportunities (FAO, 1983a).

Examples of trade associations specialized in aquaculture products are found in China on several administrative levels. These associations are responsible for the purchasing, distribution, market supply, and storage of farm and fish products. The fish are purchased on the basis of a contract negotiated between the association and the producers. Payment in advance is possible; moreover the association supplies necessary inputs to the fish farms like fertilizers, seeds, and feeds. Because of their close contacts with the producers and their capacity to control supply and demand at the markets, they can be considered as an important regulating and promotional agency. Although different in many aspects, these associations have a somewhat similar role to the fishmammies in small-scale capture fisheries. These similarities include:

(a) interdependency between producers and traders,
(b) secure delivery and marketing,
(c) financial management to the benefit of both parties,
(d) social services in times of misfortune.

It is imperative to regulate the distribution and marketing of perishable products like fish and shellfish. Instead of trying to introduce deliberate changes into the marketing systems which involve completely new roles for women, it is advisable to adapt local production and marketing patterns towards multi-functional trade associations.

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