The Oasis Reporters
February 8, 2024
Makoko, a coastal fishing community in Lagos, Nigeria, was established by fishermen in the 19th century. It is considered the world’s largest “floating slum”. There are conflicting figures about its population but it is home to about a million inhabitants living in poor and informal housing built on the Lagos Lagoon.
The main economic activities are fishing, sand dredging and salt making. Men in Makoko are mostly fishers. Some women also fish; others trade fresh or smoked fish or process other people’s catches.
The incentives distributed in Makoko by the government (such as fishing nets and powered engines) go mostly to the men.
I was interested in how the women managed to keep their businesses going without much education, information or financial support. Understanding this could be useful in designing ways to help them, and others like them, to improve their lives.
My study of the livelihood strategies, lived experiences and prospects of women in the Makoko fishing community found that their contributions to artisanal fisheries were rarely appreciated. Though most of them were breadwinners, they got little or no institutional or cultural support. Those who were married often had to hide their income from their partners. Access to capital to fund their businesses was limited. They depended on the local thrift collection system, called Ajo in the Yoruba language, to bank and save money.
I suggest that social capital and social networks are therefore the entry points for any interventions to help the women, such as literacy programmes and access to credit. Men also need to be part of the solutions.
Surviving challenges that keep Makoko women down
One hundred women in the Otodo Gbame and Oko Agbon fishing communities within Makoko and the nearby Asejere fish market participated in the study.
The education levels of the women interviewed ranged from no formal education to 12 academic years (secondary education). None had tertiary education. Among the women with no formal education, 51% were fisherwomen, 30% were fish processors, and 19% were fish traders.
Our study also revealed that most of the women were poor. Their working capital was as little as 50,000 naira (US$139).
The majority lived separately from their husbands. This was due to their partners being at sea or in a different fishing settlement, or because they were in polygamous relationships.
The women reported often being bullied by their husbands to hand over their money, or having to hide it from them. Mama Ola, a trader in Asejere fish market, shared her mother’s experience:
My father often came to Asejere fish market to fiercely demand money for feeding from my mother and if he was not given, he would become hysterical, shouting at her in the local market, and on rare occasions he flogged her when she got home.
Most of the women were financially constrained by inadequate working capital to pursue their fish business and insufficient state support. They lacked market information about cost, demand and supply of fish products. Contributing factors were low literacy levels and a lack of confidence in managing their finances.
Some relied on credit support from “fish mammies”: wealthier women who own equipment, or are wholesalers, creditors or intermediaries.
Women fisherfolk who could not access bank loans to expand their businesses also relied on local thrift collectors, called Alajo. The Alajo manage informal savings and loan groups. About 85% of the respondents belonged to and obtained their working capital from these groups.
Ajo group initiatives are mostly found in south-western Nigeria. They provide flexible opportunities to deposit money and to obtain credit at any time of the year. In one of the focus group discussions, a woman fish trader recounted how she safeguarded her earnings through ajo:
My husband becomes more caring and very romantic every Saturday evening because he thinks I will bring a huge amount of money home after my weekly fish sales. I disappoint him by keeping my money with the local saver.
The study also revealed other difficulties the women faced: the depletion of fish stocks due to sand dredging; and fluctuating income based on fishing seasons.
Pathways that can work for Makoko women fisherfolk
The study identified pathways which could enhance resilience and reduce poverty.
Social capital and social networks can be entry points for policy advocacy and intervention. Formal and informal cooperatives or associations could be registered, making it easier to get recognition and support from the state. For this to work effectively, members would have to follow their cooperative’s particular social values, objectives and rules about loan repayment.
This requires the active participation of members in running the group and knowledge of financial management and book-keeping.
To empower the women economically, their literacy level must increase. Women can be targeted through adult literacy classes supported by the state or NGOs.
It is also important for women to benefit from assistance and empowerment programmes for micro and small-scale enterprises provided by the state or private sector. For example, I have observed a UN Development Programme which succeeded in boosting agricultural productivity by providing skills training to women. An indirect option would be to use the Alajo as vehicles to create better access to financial services for the fisherfolk. This has been done for women fish traders in Ibaka, Delta State.
Improving access to financial capital and the social well-being of women fisherfolk should also focus on the limiting or harmful gender norms and relations deeply rooted in culture. Gradual changes must go beyond focusing on women alone.
Engaging both women and men is necessary to understand and adopt new perspectives. This will have better, long-lasting outcomes for fisheries and for the people who depend on them.