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The Cool Women of Malaita: Solar-Powered Freezers Make Money for Rural Women in Solomon Islands

This post was written by WorldFish, and originally appeared on their site

In the Solomon Islands, an archipelago of almost 1000 islands, fishing provides an income for 30 percent of the population. Improving the way people catch, process or trade fish is a critical pathway for rural development in coastal communities.

 “In very remote villages, opportunities for earning an income to meet basic needs is limited,” says Margaret Batalofo, research analyst, WorldFish. 

 “Rural populations lack access to daily markets so are left with using expensive and unreliable transport to get their goods to market or selling their goods at local school and church events for very low prices.”

Most activities to support fish-based livelihoods in Solomon Islands have deliberately or inadvertently focused on the activities of men—like fish aggregating devices, fleet mechanization programs and deep-sea fishing methods—with little input from women.

Now a coalition of partners supported by SwedBio, a programme at the Stockholm Resilience Centre, and the Australian Aid program through an ACIAR project, are working to realize the potential of fisheries for rural livelihoods in the Pacific. The focus is on fishery-related initiatives for women, who play a crucial role in fisheries and fish-value chains. 

PARTNERING WITH ROKOTANIKENI WOMEN’S ASSOCIATION

Many churches in the Solomon Island have established village women’s groups, which are today widespread. Research shows that working with these groups can be effective for providing services to rural populations.

 “When we work with the women’s groups, include them in decision-making, include their wisdom, invest in them in terms of training and financial support, and allow them to drive a project, they feel empowered to lead and own a project,” says Dr. Alice Pollard, founder and president of West Are’are Rokotanikeni Association.

Yet government or development partners don’t often use this mechanism, nor provide much support for the many women actively involved in fishery activities.

Recognizing an opportunity, WorldFish formed a partnership in 2016 with the West Are’are Rokotanikeni Association (WARA), a rural women’s organization with more than 1,000 members, to experiment with local income-earning activities. 

The WorldFish initiative tested a gender-sensitized participatory diagnosis tool—originally created in 2011 and to be re-published with updated information by WorldFish and the Pacific Community—to enable women to identify and prioritize ideas.

Most of the women cook and sell fish, so they decided to test if solar-powered freezers would improve their marketing opportunities.

MAKING A BIG DIFFERENCE

During 2018, nine solar-powered freezers were tested in nine villages—Surairo, Pipisu, Cut-Hill, Tawaimare, Toi’hioro, Kiu, Wairokai, Aiarai and Uhu.

The women rented out freezer space in the village for members of the community to store their fish and other perishable foods. Sometimes the women ordered frozen foods, like chicken or meat, from the capital, Honiara, that arrived on the fortnightly ship. These products were sold for a profit in the village. For the first time, refrigeration was available in these remote villages.

To make sure the freezers were a good livelihood investment, the women formed committees and shared the task to carefully record the earnings of each freezer. Their modest goal was to earn enough money to keep the freezer going by covering repair costs. 

After about a year, 487 people had used the freezers. Nearly 1,000 kg of fish had been stored and the women’s freezer committees had saved over USD $3,000—a significant amount of money in rural Solomon Islands. In some villages the goal was far exceeded, but in others the savings were much lower. Besides making money, the freezers generated a sense of achievement.

“Your [initiative’s] support has lifted the morale of our women and they can speak high and tall about the solar freezer. These freezers are contributing a lot to our women’s lives,” says Dr. Pollard.

“A key reason for the success is because the solar-powered freezers concept built on the group’s existing strengths.”

“Lots of training has been conducted for members since 2000. So WARA was already doing savings, loan schemes, business skills training and small business activities,” says Dr. Pollard.

“The solar initiative came and built on an existing network rather than re-inventing the wheel.”

A NEW WAY OF THINKING

Efforts to support fish-based livelihoods in rural and remote Pacific Islands have largely followed development ‘blueprints’ focused on modernizing the sector.

In many Pacific countries, the biggest budget cost for national fisheries agencies is building regionally-located, centralized fish processing and distribution infrastructure (called ‘fisheries centers’). But this model is often unsuitable and uneconomical in rural settings.

In the Solomon Islands, where only 48 percent of the population has access to electricity, there’s a need to focus on simple technologies that build on what people already have and do.

“The role of science is to find more appropriate and efficient means to deliver impact,” explains Hampus Eriksson, project leader, WorldFish. “This project highlights that there’s another way to deliver services to small-scale fisheries that target women and don't cost a lot of money.” A key emphasis of the initiative was to influence how government agencies view and incorporate women into sector service delivery workplans.

Despite being a research project, Eriksson says the real success was working with the provincial government, who have been involved in every stage of the project.

“A Malaita provincial officer came along to every community visit. Through close collaboration, the project has influenced how the provincial government seeks to support to rural areas,” he says, adding that 80 percent of the country’s population lives rurally.

Eriksson notes there have been many learnings from the project relating to technical issues with the freezers, finding trained technicians and having reliable suppliers. These lessons have already been shared with development partners in Vanuatu and could be further shared to other Pacific Island countries.

Now, the provincial government of Malaita wants to carry on the participatory initiative in more communities.

“It’s a cheaper and simpler approach that raised no disputes, compared to the big fishery centers that are very expensive, are associated with more disputes, and have less impact on fewer people,” says Martin Jasper, principal provincial fisheries officer, Malaita Provincial Fishery. 

“We can see that this project is having a real impact, and it’s working much better than those targeted at men. That’s why the provincial government workplan now emphasizes participatory diagnosis with women and solar freezer activities for fisheries in Malaita.”

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