This post originally appeared on the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Fish website.
Understanding disparities in access to income and food can help us understand disparities in nutrition, especially for women and children in poor households. The Fish4Zambia team at the Fish Innovation Lab collected data over the summer to understand these needs among families in fishing camps and villages who earn their livelihoods from Lake Bangweulu in Zambia’s Laupula Province. This research project is a first step toward identifying ways to improve food and nutrition security, particularly for low-resource, rural families and communities in the country.
“What we’re trying to help figure out is what’s going on in the fish value chain in Lake Bangweulu in Zambia and how we can impact what is going on there, especially with a focus toward improving nutrition among women of reproductive age and young children under the age of two,” said Kathleen Ragsdale, U.S. principal investigator (PI) on the project and research professor at the Mississippi State University Social Science Research Center.
Over the summer, Ragsdale and the team spent two weeks at Lake Bangweulu collecting baseline data to help them understand socioeconomic and gender-equity factors in the fisheries sector. Findings from their research-for-development project will be used to help build sustainable systems to impact food and nutrition security, especially for women of childbearing age and young children, and economic development in rural Zambia.
Research across much of Africa shows that women and girls are lagging behind men and boys in terms of access to income and food security; men and boys tend to have more access to and control over important resources that are key to food and nutrition security, said Ragsdale.
Lake Bangweulu has many temporary fishing camps, some of which house over 1,000 adults and their families during the fishing season of March through November each year. The Fish4Zambia researchers visited several of these camps to survey and interview men, women, and youth who are fishers, fish processors, and fish traders. Data collection included interviews and focus group discussions, mostly with migrant men and women fishers at the fishing camps and villages around the lake.
“In these fishing camps, people might be living there for several months during the fishing season, but they are temporary camps – they are makeshift camps – and it’s very difficult to have in place what you need to take care of small children,” said Ragsdale.
Using the Women’s Empowerment in Fisheries Index (WEFI), a modification of the Women’s Empowerment in Agriculture Index, the Fish4Zambia team asked men, women, and youth about their daily activities related to the fish value chain.
“Using the WEFI, we asked about activities each gender engages in and also tried to identify gender differences in ownership, access, and control of assets and time allocation for the different activities,” said Robert Kayivawa Sakapaji, a student from the University of Zambia on the project. “For example, we asked what do [the participants] think each gender should do, who should sell at the markets, who should do the processing, and who should transport the fish from where it is caught?”
As part of the WEFI, the team used Ballard’s Household Hunger Scale to measure hunger events and their frequency among men and women in the Lake Bangweulu region.
“There is a lot of stunting in children in these areas, so we also asked a lot of questions about nutrition, trying to figure out how mothers and young children could get the nutrition they needed,” said Laura Ingouf, a student from Mississippi State University on the project. “One of the common responses was that they had enough food during the nine-month fishing season, but during the other three months [when the fishing ban is in place], the children would go hungry because it was harder to get as much protein and calories as they needed.”
The Fish4Zambia team is still analyzing the data, but preliminary results suggest that women are experiencing quite a bit more hunger than men, and this disparity may be a result of women going hungry in order to ensure their children have something to eat.
“Based on what we know from other research, women suffer most because they tend to give up their food for their children,” said Pamela Marinda, Zambia co-PI on the project and lecturer at the University of Zambia Department of Food Science and Nutrition. “Women typically eat only one or two meals a day and are more likely to sacrifice what little food they have for the children.”
This year, Zambia experienced erratic rains, creating large-scale crop failures for rural farmers who rely on agriculture. Due to low harvests, the frequency and intensity of hunger has increased for all members of the family, and even more so for women with young children, Marinda added.
Next steps for the Fish4Zambia team include continuing with data analysis to determine statistical significance of their findings when comparing men to women and adults (30+ years old) to youth (18-29 years old). The team also is looking for ways to add value to fish products in the region to improve both taste and ease of use so that increasing nutrition for young children at risk of stunting is less burdensome for mothers.
“One of the things women mentioned was that it is very tedious to grind the small fish [typically the chisense species] by hand or by using mortar and pestle, so as a researcher, I was trying to think of ways of value addition,” said Marinda. “We have the research, yes. We are teaching the women, yes. But we need to move a step further and remove the burden to have to grind fish by hand at every meal, which would make it easier for them to include fish in the diets of young children.”
From focus group discussions, the research team also learned of challenges fishers and processors face with post-harvest loss due to spoilage and contamination in Zambia’s tropical climate. Identifying options, such as solar-powered dryers and other innovative practices, to help fishers and processors maximize the amount of fish they can sell is another priority for the team.
Fish4Zambia also hopes their work is beneficial to the Zambian government in its nutritional support for families.
“The Ministry of Health and the Ministries of Agriculture, Fisheries, and Livestock have been at the forefront of promoting ways households can improve the quality of their diets,” said Marinda. “This study can contribute to these efforts by encouraging the ministries and other stakeholders to incorporate benefits of consuming fish in the nutrition messages going out to the public as a way of increasing fish consumption and having quality diets. If more women and children consume more fish, their diets will be better. This will go a long way in addressing the problem of undernutrition in Zambia.”
At the fishing camps and villages on Lake Bangweulu, the majority of the catch is meant for sale. Typically, men fish at night and bring the catch back for women to process. Then men and women sell the fish at local markets. Though integral to the fish value chain as fishers, processors, and traders, women often lack access to important resources, such as microloans, that can help them maximize economic gains. Ultimately, the Fish4Zambia team hopes their research can help increase access to economic opportunities for women and youth as a way to reach nutritional improvement for the whole family.
“When women have the same access to technology and inputs, they are as productive as men, but because of cultural barriers, women don’t always have the same access,” Ragsdale said. “So we are looking to improve the access for women as a driver to improving outcomes for families and children.