Liberia: Making Fisheries Work - Lives and Livelihoods of Women Fishmongers

Fatu Kamara Thomas, fishmonger and pastry maker. She is also the chairlady for a group of women fishmongers at the fishers' landing site in the ELWA community.

Fatu Kamara Thomas, has been a fishmonger for 14 years and believes that while it is true that the Liberian economy is in a downturn and the government is also challenged, it is important as a woman with a lot of responsibilities to get involved in business because it pays.

A mother of five, Fatu explains that her involvement in business came as a result of her determination to see her children being educated and not to depend on neither the government nor anybody because her children deserve better living condition if they are educated.

"My children need to go to school and there is no help from anywhere," she told the Daily Observer. "All of my children are attending private schools. One of them is in the 3rd grade, while another is in the 9th grade."

According to her, she had to diversify her business activities in order to provide for her family. "I sell fish to support them. But first, every morning, I prepare doughnuts and tea and students are the ones who buy it. Later in the day, I go buy fish to sell," she said.

"The fish business is bigger than the other," Fatu said, optimistic about the idea that the more she sells, she is able to buttress her husband's income.

Two years ago, she herself enrolled at the Reform Hope of Cathedral school, a vocational program located on the Zubah Town, Paynesville, to gain skills in pastry-making, which is how she started making and selling doughnuts.

"I learned how to bake shortbread, wedding cakes, doughnuts and other pastries in the course of nine months," she told the Daily Observer, adding that it has been an added advantage to her business.

Fatu happens to be the chairlady for a group of women fishmongers at the fishers' landing site in the ELWA community. Her job as chairlady is to keep the women organized and ensure that the business interests of the women are protected, especially in their dealings with the fishermen who they buy from. According to her, being a fishmonger has its nuances, and, like any other businesses, there are risks and rewards.

Perhaps one of the greatest risks, especially for artisanal fisheries, is the lack of adequate storage, Fatu explains. Fish, being a perishable commodity, must either be consumed quickly, sent to cold storage or forwarded for processing.

Fishmongers keep fish fresh by covering it in ice and a blanket

For fishmongers like Fatu, who depend on profits from daily sales to run their households, processing (by drying or preservation by salt) is not an option. For short-term storage, fishmongers wrap the fish in blankets with ice to keep it fresh, in hopes of selling their entire consignment for the day.

"We buy cassava fish, grouper and sole fish from the fishermen and sell it to the market women, or directly to customers who will go home and cook," Fatu says. According to her, sole fish is sold cheaply in Liberia because it has very little flesh, compared to grouper or barracuda. However she did not know that sole fish is an expensive delicacy in western cuisine.

"We buy from the fishermen only what we know we can sell that same day. For me, if I do not sell the fish and it starts to get rotten in my possession, I will have to make mwen-mwen from it and sell for less."

Mwen-mwen is fish that has become fermented, though it is still a useful ingredient in some West African cuisine.

"Sometimes we, fish sellers, have to buy nets, bait, hooks and other supplies for the fisherman just to create customer relations with them," she explains. "That way, when they come from fishing, they will be able to sell the fish to us at a reasonable price. Sometimes we are looking for a particular kind of fish, and that requires a special kind of net or hook to be able to get the fish we want. So the fishermen will tell us what kind of net to buy for them, or sometimes we give them the cash to go buy the supplies themselves before going on the sea."

She said one of the greatest mistakes that she made in her early years as a fishmonger was that, "whenever we give money to some fishermen to buy bait or net for certain fish that we want, they sometimes fail to meet our expectation, but take our supply and use it for a different person."

The amount of money she lost as a result of such mistakes, she said, is the cost of learning the business.

FIshers' landing site, ELWA community, Paynesville

For Marie S. Wah, a mother of three, with just over 2 years experience as a fishmonger, this is the only business she does. She sells with other fishmongers just off the S.D. Cooper Junction, along the Tubman Boulevard, in Paynesville.

"I have been in this business for almost two and a half years now, I was living with one of my aunties who brought me from Lofa to go to school. Unfortunately, she has died. So, with no way to go back to school since no one else could help me, there came a time I was decided to get into fish business because I know that it pays so much."

According to her, she earns at least L$4000, every day, though she acknowledges that business is hard at times. "I really want to encourage women to take advantage of fish business because it pays," she stated. "From this business, my children are all in school, I pay my rent every year and so far, I have bought one plot of land," she told the Daily Observer.

Marie, she started with a little amount of US$150 and, as time went by, her business started to improve. "I buy and sell varieties of fish from Monday to Friday; sometimes Saturday if things are ok that day. For me, I have no external support, but God helps me to maintain my family." She also faces challenge with storage.

"We buy the fish and have to do everything possible to sell all so that it cannot spoil and this is due to the lack of storage," she said.

For Fatu and Marie, being in business does not excuse her from the demands of being a wife and a mother. Yet they both presses on. "I am doing this because I do not want my children to be like me," Fatu said. "I am straining so much, waking up early morning to prepare the doughnuts and then go to the beach to get fish to sell," she said.

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