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The world is your oyster - if you TRY!

In The Gambia, shellfish production is an arduous and low status occupation (© TRY Oyster Women's Association)
In The Gambia, shellfish production is an arduous and low status occupation
© TRY Oyster Women's Association

In June 2013, the 500 members of the TRY Oyster Women's Association faced a challenge. In 2012, the government of The Gambia had granted them exclusive use rights to the cockle and oyster grounds in the Tanbi wetlands near Banjul, under a fisheries co-management plan. In so doing, TRY became the first women's group in Africa to be granted such rights by a national government. But within a year, they were facing pressure from within their own organisation to reduce an annual eight month closure period, which they had established to prevent overfishing and protect Tanbi's mangrove habitats. In response, a majority of the women voted to maintain the closure period, driven and empowered by a new-found understanding that their livelihoods depended on sustainable harvesting of the shellfish and conservation of their habitat.

For many of these women, reaching that point of knowledge and confidence has been a six year journey. In 2007, Fatou Janha Mboob, a graduate in home economics and agriculture and former agricultural extension worker, stopped to buy oysters from a roadside vendor. In The Gambia, shellfish production is an arduous and low status occupation, pursued mainly by uneducated women, who eke out a precarious living by harvesting, processing and selling this important, but low priced, food. "I realised that these women were still working under the same conditions, with no improvement in their livelihood," says Fatou. "I wanted to help them."

Shared visions

Most of the women voted to maintain the closure period (© TRY Oyster Women's Association)
Most of the women voted to maintain the closure period
© TRY Oyster Women's Association

That process began with 40 women who, under Fatou's coordination, joined together to form TRY - the name chosen to reflect their intent, to try to improve their lives and those of their families and communities. Their common goal has been to become self-sufficient through improved cultivation techniques and marketing of oysters, and under Fatou's leadership, the Association has grown to over 500 members from 15 communities.

In describing the challenges she has faced, Fatou points to the difficulty of organising women from different backgrounds, often from marginalised communities, to work together. "Before, these oyster women were very timid because people did not care much about them," she says. "I tried to show them what they can do. I took them to meetings, took them to training." She also found other organisations to back them. In 2009, the association gained support from the five year, USAID-funded Gambia-Senegal Sustainable Fisheries Project - known locally as Ba Nafaa, meaning 'benefits from the sea'. That support enabled TRY to expand its training programmes in both aquaculture and business management. It also led to a working partnership with the Coastal Resources Center at the University of Rhode Island's Graduate School of Oceanography, which has given technical support in fisheries management, business development and health issues, as well as management of coastal ecosystems.

Production and protection

Mangrove trees provide a crucial habitat for oysters, which grow on their roots. Previously, large swathes of mangrove in the Tanbi wetlands had been cut for building materials and fuel, but following their training, TRY members are now educating their communities about their value, both to the environment and their livelihoods. TRY has been able to sponsor mangrove restoration activities, in which men, women and children can earn US$5 for a day's replanting. Learning how to farm oysters, using racks and floating baskets, has also helped the women to improve their yields. Between March and June they continue to harvest from the wild shellfish beds, but the oysters they collect are larger, thanks to the closure period, and fetch a higher price per kilo.

The women hope to establish a regional processing plant (© TRY Oyster Women's Association)
The women hope to establish a regional processing plant
© TRY Oyster Women's Association

Selling oysters by the kilo has been a recent innovation. The members have also been trained in sanitary handling and processing methods and, benefiting from a TRY credit scheme, have been able to invest in a wide range of equipment - canoes, gloves and lifejackets for safer harvesting, and storage and processing equipment. "We train them on food hygiene and safety, so they understand what it means if they sell oysters that are not good - how they can poison the whole community," says Fatou. "Now we are happy to say that where they are selling is very healthy, and they wear gloves to sell." Having initially graduated from selling unpackaged oysters to bottling them, the Association has recently introduced vacuum packing; with such improvements in hygiene and packaging they aim to soon be supplying up-market restaurants and hotels in Banjul.

Looking ahead

Longer term goals include creating a more comprehensive national organisation to address gender, health and environmental issues on a country-wide level. And within the next five years, the women hope to establish a regional processing plant, so that they can be certified to export their shellfish to lucrative markets worldwide. "Our wish is to be the leading supplyer of oysters in West Africa, and also to export to EU countries and to the United States," says Fatou. But for now, she is happy with the change in confidence and attitude she sees in the TRY members. "Now they go out, they have their savings accounts; they walk to the bank and save money. They go to functions; they speak out when they need to speak. They can stand anywhere and talk and people will listen to them. And they know what they are saying."

Date published: December 2013


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