The quest for sustainable livelihoods : women fish traders in Ibaka, Niger Delta, Nigeria

E.E. Udong

Research output: Thesisinternal PhD, WU



The contribution of fisheries to food security in Africa cannot be underestimated. It provides

over 30 percent of the protein consumed by the Nigerian population. However, Nigeria

produces only about 45 percent of the fish requirement locally while the shortfall of about 55

percent is imported. Over 80 percent of the local production is from the artisanal, small scale

sector. While several studies have been conducted on the productivity of many water bodies,

endemic fish species, different fisheries, boats mechanization and the role of the fishermen,

socio-economic and gender issues in fisheries have received scant attention. Such research has

therefore become necessary for the development of relevant policies and intervention

programmes. The sustainable livelihood approach was used in facilitating the understanding of

how the women fish traders’ livelihoods are created, sustained and constrained by a set of

complex factors and processes including institutions and culture. The main objectives of this

study were to:

1. Contribute towards the livelihood and gender theory by focusing on the performance of

women fish traders in the economic and domestic domains in a coastal fishing

community, given the institutional and cultural constraints, their vulnerability and

susceptibility to HIV and AIDS;

2. Identify the implications for household food and livelihood security and the critical

factors needed to be considered in the development of relevant policies that would

ensure sustainable livelihoods and lower vulnerability levels for the women fish traders

and their households.

Specifically, the study aimed at highlighting the complexity of sustaining rural

livelihoods by women fish traders in a coastal fishing community in Nigeria and the flexibility

and variation, which give the fish trading system its continuing ability to link other commercial

and non-commercial sectors, characterised by constantly shifting relationships. A gender

perspective was applied throughout the study. The study was carried out in Ibaka, a dynamic

commercial centre and the largest coastal fishing community in Akwa Ibom State in the Niger

Delta of Nigeria, which is largely undeveloped but has over 70 percent of the population

depending on the fisheries for their livelihood. A cross-sectional study design was used, in

combination with qualitative and quantitative research methods. Apart from being descriptive

in nature, an analytical approach was also used by arranging and processing the collected data

in different ways and through testing different hypotheses.

Due to the large variation in the range and scale of enterprises obtained, the fish traders

comprise some of the largest wholesalers on the Nigerian coastline and some of the poorest

strolling hawkers, living from hand-to-mouth. This is a characteristic feature of a major

market, and the study seeks to identify the key social, economic and institutional forces, which

generate, maintain and continue to reshape this diversity. The forces originate from the market,

its links with the household, community, and national level processes, which create conflicting

interests and pressures on the individual fish traders as they struggle for survival and the

accumulation of wealth. These contradictions renew and transform the trading relations,

including their constraints.

The main household resources available and accessible were the labour of the women

fish traders themselves and the female members of their families. Through family ties,

churches, professional associations, social clubs and osusu groups trade networks and social

churches, professional associations, social clubs and osusu groups trade networks and social

capital, on which depended success in the fish trade were developed. The economic resource

was the different species of fish provided by the sea. The physical resources included equipments such as boats, nets, outboard engines, landed properties, houses, and mobile

phones. The women also used their own trading and language skills, and years of experience in

the trade to their advantage. Those with sufficient years of education also deployed their

educational skills to their advantage. The gendered nature of the fish trade and the fact that it

requires professional skills ensures that labour is expensive to hire. Only very few women fish

traders, operating on a large scale and earning higher incomes possessed tangible assets, and

were able to acquire equipments such as outboard engines, fishing and transport boats, and

other assets such as land, houses, generators, deep freezers, market stalls as well as fish trade


Processing and trading in either bonga, big fish or crayfish, and providing labour for

fish processing remain the main livelihood strategies and the main source of livelihood for

most women fish traders in Ibaka. Most of the incomes used for the maintenance of their

children and households are derived from these. Diversification into other economic activities

including fashion designing, subsistence farming, food processing, money lending, food

vending and petty trading is also adopted by most women, while the better-off are involved in

water transportation, equipment leasing, money lending, bukka business. The strategies

adopted are affected by factors such as age, skills acquired, years of experience, working

capital available for the trade, educational status, and number and ages of children. Younger

traders try to acquire other skills and formal education to enable them diversify while the older

women concentrate on earning higher incomes through developing their social capital,

expanding their networks, and making better business connections, to enable them diversify,

educate their children and secure their livelihoods

The study identifies three groups of women fish traders in Ibaka: the bonga, big fish

and crayfish traders, who all operate as small, medium and large scale traders, depending on

the amount of working capital used. Many similarities were observed in the lack of access to

resources, lack of infrastructural facilities, the mode of recruitment into the trade, the

involvement of family members, the use of social capital, and the use of incomes for the

livelihood sustenance of their households. However, significant differences by age, educational

status, years of experience, working capital and wealth status were observed between the three

fish trade groups. Big fish traders with older members had more experience, higher working

capital and incomes, and consequently more assets than bonga and crayfish traders. In

addition, limited access to resources for most of the poor fish traders, especially from the

bonga group, forced them into activities that yielded low returns, such as casual labour and

subsistence farming, re-enforcing their poor performance in the economic and domestic


The study shows that the fish trade is a gendered activity, and the most profitable

livelihood strategy undertaken for the sustenance of households in Ibaka, providing the women

with incomes used for the maintenance and upkeep of their households, and the payment of

their children’s school fees, healthcare bills and other needs.

However, in spite of their different circumstances, interests and opportunities, the

women fish traders all face similar risks, shocks and stress, associated with their location and

environment. These include seasonality, conflicts, and HIV and AIDS, as well as institutional

and cultural constraints, which make them vulnerable. The institutional constraints identified

include lack of physical and marketing infrastructure, financial services, and access to

resources, information asymmetries, high transaction and labour costs, while the cultural

constraints include the beliefs, taboos, ethnicity, norms, values and family life. The adaptation

strategies used for the institutional constraints included buying and selling on credit, use of

social capital and networking, membership of osusu groups, patronising local money-lenders,

use of family labour, including under-aged children, sourcing for water from shallow wells and

commercial boreholes for washing and drinking respectively, patronising traditional health

practitioners and patent medicine stores, and the churches over their health problems. On the

other hand, the adaptation strategies for the cultural constraints included intermarriage with the

indigenes, joining associations and clubs, working from home on days of cultural festivals,

non-pooling of incomes and striving for independence and autonomy.

Apart from the cultural and institutional constraints the study shows that the fish trade

is affected by seasonality which is a major cause of vulnerability. During the lean season which

covers about six months of the year, fishing activities and incomes are reduced to a minimum

for all the fish species due to high fish prices at the beach and insufficient working capital. The

traders then experience periods of food shortage and hunger in the household, making them

highly vulnerable and susceptible to poverty and HIV and AIDS. Fire incidents and conflicts

also contribute to their vulnerability.

The study shows that participation in the fish trade is through kinship and marriage, and

only women who possess specific skills, working capital, available networks and social capital,

and belong in a certain culture, location and ethnicity can participate. It is also determined by

household structures, gender division of labour, marriage, residence and inheritance patterns.

However, in the absence of functional institutions, and with several cultural barriers to contend

with, the fish trade, which is often regarded as an extension of household tasks embarked upon

to ensure the livelihood sustenance of the household, is carried out by the women fish traders

using social networking and social capital, to facilitate their trading profession. Sources of

social capital include kin, neighbours, friends, matron-client relationships, mutual trust, osusu

groups, social clubs and associations, norms and values, and churches.

The study shows that the Ibaka fish market, like most rural food markets in West

Africa, operates without any supporting structures. It lacks infrastructural facilities and access

to information, with a non-existent line of communication between the women fish traders and

the consumers. The provision of an improved communication system, infrastructural facilities,

credit systems and adequate information would therefore reduce the transaction costs and make

for a better coordination mechanism in the market. The study also shows that the fish market in

Ibaka operates through incomplete contract transactions, where it is impossible to reach an

agreement in advance about all possible events that could affect the exchange. Even though it

is a rural market dealing with a single commodity, and does not quite fit into the modern urban

market category, it possesses many attributes of an imperfect market. These include nonhomogenous

products, fewer buyers and sellers, no market transparency and barriers to entry

and exit. The various types and degrees of market imperfection characterise Ibaka market as a

missing market and a thin, incomplete and interlocked market.

The study shows that performance in the economic domain is mainly determined by the

women fish traders’ ability to mobilize sufficient working capital from different sources and

arrange for regular supply of fish, social capital and networking ability, the years of

experience, skills acquired, the ability to pay for labour, the profitability of the enterprise, level

of income, the ability to save, their assets base and wealth status, among others. Performance in

the domestic domain is determined by the ability to educate children, the type of housing, the

energy type used for lighting and cooking, the health status of the household, and the number

of hours spent in the household.

The study shows that performance in both domains is influenced by age, years of

experience, skills acquired, amount of working capital used, educational status, status of

mother in the trade, social capital and the number of children. The women fish traders also

derive potential benefits associated with their location if they successfully adapt to the

conditions and adopt sustainable livelihood strategies. All these together, affect their

performance in the economic and domestic domains, and their success at maintaining the

livelihoods of their households. The big fish and crayfish traders seemed to perform better than

the bonga traders generally, both in the economic and domestic domains.

The study also shows that good performance in the economic domain engenders good

performance in the domestic domain because the possession of sufficient incomes enables the

women to feed and educate their children, maintain a healthy household and take care of

themselves. Sufficient incomes also engender the ability to own or live in permanent structures

in the community and the use of generating sets for lighting and kerosene stoves for cooking in

the households. However, the lack of basic information and documentation on HIV and AIDS

in Ibaka has made it impossible to determine how susceptible and vulnerable the women fish

traders and their families are to the disease even though evidence from fishing communities in

other countries has shown fisherfolk to be more vulnerable than rural upland populations.

In conclusion, the resilience of the women fish traders and their survival in the fisheries

sector can be explained through the rigid and gendered division of labour. This is backed by

the determination of the women to become independent economically and overcome the

cultural biases imposed through patriarchy, polygamy and discriminatory inheritance laws.

Also, there is the incentive of being able to take care of themselves and their children, gain

some power, agency and autonomy. The realization that men depend on the women to dispose

of their fish catches, giving the fish economic value, further strengthens the position of the fish

traders in the fishery economy of Ibaka. The women fish traders’ conversion of profits made

from the fish trade into ownership of fishing and transportation boats is true entrepreneurship.

Using new and innovative ways of finding new or acquiring more customers and accumulating

capital is also entrepreneurial. However, there is far less risk, both socially and economically,

in expanding the scope in the trade and climbing in the female market hierarchy than in

investing in a male domain.

The fact that the women fish traders live in the same community and locality, and are

exposed to similar institutional and cultural constraints does not mean that there are no

differences between the three fish trade groups. The constraints impact differentially both

within and between the groups and the strategic responses depend on the category the fish

trader belongs to within the group and her wealth status in the trade and the community.

Environmental factors and processes such as climate change and oil pollution, and the general

economic crisis, also make fisherfolk vulnerable and susceptible to HIV and AIDS. While the

government is trying to extend development to the rural areas, it is pertinent that remote

communities like Ibaka should be specially targeted. Gender mainstreaming should also be

incorporated in the development process in order to reduce glaring inequalities, with certain

social groups being marginalized while others are privileged. This will reduce the women

traders’ level of vulnerability to constraints, stresses, risks, and shocks in our rural


Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Wageningen University
  • Niehof, Anke, Promotor
  • van Tilburg, Aad, Co-promotor
Award date19 May 2011
Place of Publication[S.l.]
Print ISBNs9789085859345
Publication statusPublished - 19 May 2011


  • women
  • gender
  • fish
  • market traders
  • trade
  • livelihood strategies
  • sustainability
  • sustainable development
  • fish processing
  • marketing
  • sociology
  • hiv infections
  • acquired immune deficiency syndrome
  • nigeria
  • africa


Dive into the research topics of 'The quest for sustainable livelihoods : women fish traders in Ibaka, Niger Delta, Nigeria'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this