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Cutting waste by managing money

Estimates are that almost one-third of fish caught by Africa's artisanal fisherfolk is lost due to spoilage and pest attack. These high losses are felt both as lost income to the fishing communities and as lost potential nutrition to consumers. With many fisheries fished at their maximum productivity or beyond, and catches declining in marine and inland waters, such post-harvest wastage must be addressed as a high priority. Investing in new technology to catch more fish, when so much that is harvested continues to go to waste, is as pointless as pouring ever more water into a leaking bucket.

Drying fish on the shore of Lake Malawi
Drying fish on the shore of Lake Malawi

Fish is a highly perishable product, and it must be either consumed quickly or be processed without delay. The high-tech approach to processing is to freeze or can, options that demand infrastructure that is more often associated with large-scale commercial fisheries, though small-scale ice plants are growing in number. Currently, however, most artisanal fisherfolk depend on salting, sun-drying or smoking fish over fires. But significant losses often occur even where drying is undertaken, since the fish can be attacked by birds or by insects that lay eggs in the flesh which is then consumed by their hatched larvae. The down-sides to smoking are the large quantities of wood fuel required (often at serious environmental cost to local watersheds that are stripped of tree cover), and the health risk to the people, mainly women, who work inside the smoke houses and often suffer severe damage to eyes and lungs.

New technology needs new money...

New technology is available: stoves that are more efficient at smoking, using less fuel and concentrating their smoke on the fish, thereby reducing environmental and health impacts. There are solar dryers that use low-cost plastic sheet to protect fish from birds and insects, and simultaneously increase the effect of solar radiation and accelerate the drying process. And small-scale refrigeration and ice-making plants, powered by bottled gas or kerosene, are also available. However, all require investment, which is near impossible for small entrepreneurs to fund except at extortionate interest rates. The same applies, of course, to fish farmers and fisherfolk trying to start or improve their facilities.

This is where micro-credit can play a crucial role in getting such small businesses started. Patrick Dugan, Deputy Director General of the WorldFish Center, believes that "There are two main mechanisms... The first is to develop micro-credit schemes through specifically created institutions. You have in Bangladesh a very good example with the Grameen Bank, which was set up specifically to provide credit to poor farmers and has increasingly invested in poor fishers as well. The same sort of thing is progressively being done in Africa, and I think it needs to be expanded. The second sort of investment needed is to work more with traditional banks and support them to understand the economic benefits and real returns from certain fishing and fish trading activities. An example is in Egypt, where there have been training courses for bankers so that they are in a better position to assess loan applications from fish farms."

...and borrowed money demands business sense

Dried fish for sale in Ghanaian market
Dried fish for sale in Ghanaian market

Borrowing money is the beginning of creating a business, and running a business requires a structured approach to the entrepreneur's activity, whether it is processing or buying a vehicle for transporting and trading fish. Training is an essential prerequisite, and Dugan explains how this can be arranged. "Training can be provided in a number of ways, but what we are recommending are small training courses for entrepreneurs at village level or at small urban processing and distributing level. The larger scale private sector has access to that sort of training through their own means; it is mainly at the smaller scale, village level, where there is a need for support to develop these skills and obtain access to this information." Dugan believes that the funding for this training will come from either national governments or from the international development community. "There is a lot of interest in supporting them to develop these small enterprises," he adds, "The sort of support that can be provided are revolving funds so that they can obtain loans at preferential rates and return that back into the revolving fund so that it can be used for other borrowers in due course."

Fishers, processors, traders and the growing number of fish farmers form an extensive and growing group of entrepreneurs in Africa, who can serve as agents of economic development in otherwise remote areas. If the right steps are taken and continuing appropriate support is provided, their energy can be galvanised by improving access to new technologies, new credit sources and new markets. With fish processors alone, reductions in currently wasted catch would add significantly to the fish available for consumption without the need to catch one extra fish. On the basis of the old saying that a dollar saved is as good as a dollar earned, improving Africa's fish processing, transport and marketing to cut wastage should repay the investment many-fold.

Date published: November 2005


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