Mitigating the impacts of COVID-19 on Africa’s women fish processors and traders

6 minutes read
Fish trader in Lusaka, Zambia. Photo by Stevie Mann.
  • Fish processors and traders are vital to food, nutrition and economic security throughout Africa
  • Rural women’s postharvest contributions are persistently undervalued, and the COVID-19 pandemic has further exacerbated existing gender inequalities in aquatic food systems
  • Interventions have tended to be gender-blind and overlooked gender-specific consequences of associated containment measures  

Women fish processors and traders play a critical role in food and nutrition security across Africa, ensuring safe and sufficient supplies of aquatic foods reach the most vulnerable consumers. Women account for over half of the global workforce in fisheries and aquaculture, and they perform up to 90 percent of secondary fishing activities in low- and middle-income countries. They prepare and mend fishing gear, purchase fish wholesale, process and trade.

Despite the significant roles women play in aquatic food systems, their contributions are persistently undervalued, and they receive little formal support in financing schemes. This has only been exacerbated by the COVID-19 impact, where responses and mitigation measures have tended to be either gender-blind or overly representative of men’s experiences.

In response to the lack of gender-sensitive research, a new report, COVID-19 impacts on women fish processors and traders in sub-Saharan Africa: Insights and recommendations for building forward better, analyzes the effects of pandemic-related supply chain disruptions on women fish processors and traders in 13 countries in sub-Saharan Africa and provides guidance to make future interventions in the sector more equitable and inclusive.

The report draws on key informant interviews and focus group discussions with representatives of the African Women Fish Processors and Traders Network (AWFishNet) to underscore their critical role in food and nutrition security and economies, while highlighting the lived experiences of women during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“When the fishermen could only go out to fish two times a week, the demand for fish became very high, which impacted the price of fish. Women fish processors could no longer afford to buy freshly caught fish at that price, so they did not have enough fish to process and then sell onwards for profit. It was a problem, as they had to use up all the buffer money they had,” said Patricia Maisha, deputy treasurer of AWFishNet in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Most women in aquatic food supply chains are involved in postharvest activities, leaving them vulnerable to supply-demand gaps, as they traditionally purchase fish once ashore to sell for profit.

In the wake of COVID-19, many have to adapt their livelihoods to cope with the disruptions containment measures have caused to aquatic food systems. Some women have coped by utilizing communication technologies to conduct their business activities remotely. Others have relied on social networks, including women’s groups like AWFishNet, for technical and financial support.

A continental cooperative, AWFishNet brings together women involved in aquatic food supply chains across Africa. It provides a platform for women fish processors and traders on the continent to collaborate and support each other, sharing best practices, experiences and technologies.

The network draws its members from 28 countries in the African Union, from Algeria to Zambia, and has been instrumental in providing support for women coping with pandemic-associated losses.

The report, produced by the CGIAR Research Program on Fish Agri-Food Systems, draws on the experiences of AWFishNet members to outline ten key recommendations to build forward better in the wake of COVID-19, with women fish processors and traders being placed at the heart of economic recovery.

“COVID-19 disruptions have severely impacted women processors and traders, but this is not represented in current policies and investments. This policy brief aims to make sector responses more inclusive, equitable and effective, and formally recognize the diverse contributions of women across aquatic food supply chains,” said Cynthia McDougall, co-author and gender research leader at WorldFish.

Gendered impacts of COVID-19 pandemic

A woman fish trader sells her products in Zambia. Photo by Stevie Mann.
A woman fish trader sells her products in Zambia. Photo by Stevie Mann.

Despite women’s critical role in processing and distributing fish, gender inequalities persist within aquatic food supply chains. Women have little access to capital to finance their own operations or control over their household assets.

These existing inequalities were only amplified by the pandemic when travel restrictions disrupted trade, and customers could not physically access markets, explained Molly Atkins, co-author and research consultant for WorldFish.  

“The study found that women fish processors and traders have suffered severe economic impacts, including significant declines in income and depleted savings. Some women entrepreneurs have lost their fish processing or retailing businesses entirely. Paying back loans has become more difficult, and this has led to some women becoming trapped in the vicious cycle of having to take loans to repay existing loans,” said Atkins.

Moreover, with children not allowed to attend school due to measures to curb the spread of COVID-19, women’s household duties and unpaid care work have increased, limiting their time to perform paid work and earn income.

“We are now spending so much time taking care of babies, being teachers, instead of doing work because schools are closed. This is something we could not foresee or plan for, and it is taking much of our time,” said Lovin Kobusingye, Treasurer of AwFishNet, Uganda.

Post-harvest losses have also accelerated, with recently caught fish spoiling before they can reach markets or be sold, with far-reaching implications for food and economic security.

“I ended up with an excess stock of fish at home, but the customers couldn’t come or reach my home because of a lack of transportation. And as our cold storage facilities are limited, I lost a part of the fish stock,” said Julia Pembe Mountsoueke, deputy secretary-general of AwFishNet, Republic of Congo.

Recommendations to build forward better

Women fish processors in West Africa. Photo by Minkoh, FAO.
Women fish processors in West Africa. Photo by Minkoh, FAO.

One key recommendation of the report is to remove barriers to women’s economic recovery, such as debt forgiveness and lowered interest rates for new loans, to allow women fish processors and traders to invest in novel businesses or rebuild existing ones.

Another suggestion was to invest in fit-for-user technologies and infrastructure to reduce fish waste and loss, such as solar driers and smoking kilns, to preserve fresh fish and extend their shelf-life, prolonging the sale period while market dynamics are still unpredictable.

Yet, the brief’s overarching message was ultimately to recognize women’s agency in decision-making and prioritize their voices, forging a path towards gender-inclusive governance.

“We must recognize women’s agency and transform the decision-making processes to ensure equal representation of women in the governance of fisheries, food systems and COVID-19 recovery,” said Pip Cohen, co-author and research program leader for resilient small-scale fisheries at WorldFish.

The first step towards empowering women is to formally recognize their social and economic contributions, and improving data collection to better capture their role in aquatic food supply chains is essential, she explained.

Currently, gender-disaggregated data is only collected on the primary fish production sector, in which women make up only 14 percent of workers. The Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) does not collect data on the secondary sector that employs the majority of women, and statistics on small-scale fisheries, where women’s involvement is primarily centered, are relatively poor.

AWFishNet, aiming to support women’s social and economic inclusion, is helping to formalize women’s roles and build competitive, sustainable and viable business enterprises, the effects of which are felt from the household to the community.

“Whatever a woman fish trader or processor earns goes back to the family, however small. The woman invests in the family by paying for rice, school fees and healthcare costs. With whatever money remaining, she goes back to the beach to buy more fish to trade. Whatever happens to a woman impacts the whole family,” said Editrudith Lukanga, secretary-general of AWFishNet.


This work was undertaken as part of, and funded by, the CGIAR Research Program on Fish Agri-Food Systems (FISH) led by WorldFish. The program is supported by contributors to the CGIAR Trust Fund.

Kate McMahon

Junior Consultant, Digital Journalism