The traditional method of fish-smoking in the Niger Delta region saw women spending many hours tending to fish laid out on mesh over smoking coals. Health hazards from smoke inhalation were high, while the output from such intensive labour was often low. That is now changing with the introduction of new smoking ovens. AKINWALE GANG, who recently toured the oil rich area, reports that the new technology is boosting income, providing better food and improves health
Omowunmi Omoyele, 26, was getting ready to prepare her fresh fish for smoking. Some were packed in a bowl, while others were spread out on wire gauze outside a thatched roof kitchen that she shared with her younger sister. As she picked from fresh fishes piled up in a black bowl for smoking, her younger sister turned those in the Chokor oven tray inside the kitchen. For the two women, this is a daily routine.
They need to do this often if they must make ends meet. At Awoye, a community of fishermen and women in Ilaje Local Government of Ondo State, fish trading is the mainstay of the riverine economy. From one of the two Chokor ovens in the kitchen comes out gentle smoke. On the oven tray was smoked fish ready for sale. The fish smoking stove, constructed from an old drum or barrel, is commonly used by women in the coastal area. But Omoyele seldom uses it any longer.
Two years ago, she discovered a new and better way to smoke fresh fish. The mother of three is one of several women in that community who has abandoned using drums to prepare their fishes. Using drums and firewood to smoke fish is expensive and unfriendly to human and the environment, they told Saturday Telegraph. The women now prefer the Chokor oven to smoke their fishes. Omoyele said the new device for smoking fish is far better than the old one.
In her over 10 years of selling smoked fish, more than eight years were spent using the drums to smoke fish. She came in contact with the Chokor oven just two years ago when it was demonstrated at the residence of the community’s head. Besides the high cost of buying firewood, using the crude stove and firewood to smoke fish exposed her and other women to hazard of inhaling smokes. She said: “All these years, I have been using the drum to smoke my fish, and that takes more firewood. We smoked fish every day and spent a lot of money to buy firewood and transport it to this place through boat; and stayed inside the kitchen with the heavy smoke.” Ugbonla town, where they buy firewood, is a 45-minute boat drive from Awoye.
But the Chokor oven— a combination of locally made red bricks (hydro form) and planks – takes just about three to four piece of woods to smoke as much as 400 kilogramme of fishes in a day. “Chokor does not waste wood; the old method consumes more firewood.
The oven uses just three to four piece of wood,” Omoyele said as she sets three pieces of firewood under the Chokor oven. In Awoye, fish traders spend as much as N30, 000 on woods alone in a month. With Chokor oven, they now spend less on firewood. With firewood worth N10, 000, they can smoke more fishes in a month using the Chokor oven.
“It was demonstrated at our Chief’s house and we begged those who constructed it for Chief to come and do the same thing for us,” Omoyele said as she prepared her fishes for the market. She added: “Chokor is more spacious and can take more fishes than the old method.”
The advantages of smoking fish are manifold, according to Agriculture Nigeria, an online newspaper that focuses on agriculture. “Fish smoking prolongs shelf life, enhances flavour and increases utilisation in soups and sauces. It reduces waste in times of bumper catches and permits storage for the lean season. It also increases protein availability to people throughout the year and makes fish easier to pack, transport and market.” In Niger Delta and beyond, smoked fish has fully developed as an alternative market to fresh fish.
From Ondo to Bayelsa, Rivers, Cross Rivers and other Niger Delta states, more and more women are embracing the new fish smoking technologies. According to the Foundation for Partnership Initiative in the Niger Delta, (PIND), approximately 50,648 kg of smoked catfish is consumed weekly. The Foundation said demand or consumption is expected to keep increasing as more people are becoming aware of a relatively cheaper source of protein.
Despite many years of using a local method, women in the riverine part of Niger Delta are fast embracing the use of Chokor oven and smoking kiln. After disposing of all her drums with which she used to smoke fish, Temilorun Olugbuyi, a popular fish trader in Araromi, Ilaje Local Government Area, has constructed nine Chokor ovens, making her the owner of the largest numbers of the new technology in her village. And having spent close to three decades in the business, she believes the new fish smoking innovation introduced by PIND is far better than what she grew up to know. Olugbuyi said: “The one they introduced to us is better than our own. After we constructed one to see how it works, I have since disposed of the old ones and now I have nine Chokor ovens.”
She was among over 170 women drawn from the nine Niger Delta states to participate in the 2019 International Women Day (IWD) celebration held in Akure, Ondo State by PIND to further promote the new fish smoking technologies. Like Olugbuyi, Evelyn October, who lives in Amatu 1, Ekeremo Local Government of Bayelsa State, has since abandoned her fish smoking drums. She and 14 other women in the village are making use of the Chokor oven.
“Na me first dey use the oven for our village and now, na 15 of us dey use am,” October told our reporter in pidgin English. In 2014, PIND piloted the use of Chokor oven fish smoking technology at the United Ufuoma Fish farmers Association (UUFFA). Through the use of the Chokor oven, farmers in the UUFFA cluster increased the number of fish they smoked in lesser hours (smoking an average of 100kg of fish monthly) thereby improving their ability to meet the ever increasing demand for smoked fish in the area. The successful pilot of the Chokor oven intervention in partnership with the UUFFA helped to showcase its potentials both as a business as well as an effective tool for fish smoking.
It created sustainable access to fish smoking service to fish farmers and increased the shelf life of their fish as well as generating additional income and employment to farmers and fish processors. It’s equally a huge potential profitmaking venture for interested investors. According to the Capacity Building Programme Manager for PIND and Gender Mainstreaming Coordinator, Bose Eitokpah, improved fish smoking ovens are sustainable technologies that can raise income, living standards and quality of life. “One of such ovens is the Chokor oven. “It is cost-effective and safe equipment used for drying fish, made up of a smoking chamber or oven and stackable smoking trays as well as an optional Banda house.
The tray dimension is 100mx100m,” she said. Speaking on the making of the oven, Paul Captain, an official of PIND, who went to Ghana to learn the technology said that the oven can be constructed using local materials like clay bricks, hydra form bricks, cement blocks, burnt bricks and compressed earth. “I went to Ghana in 2014.
It took me one year to learn, I have worked in Akwa Ibom, Bayelsa and other Niger Delta states such as Akure, Ondo State. I have done some works in Yola, Adamawa State, in the border area where the River Niger flows. Presently, we are working in Kainji Dam, Niger State, trying to set up the ovens there.
“Unlike the traditional smoking ovens which are inefficient in capacity and fuel usage, produce poor-quality smoked fish and cause significant post-harvest loss, the Chokor oven is easy to use, it uses up to 80 per cent less fuel. It has a high fish smoking capacity, supplies a uniform and better quality product that attracts higher prices. It is also faster and healthier to use and reduces the risk of smoke inhalation and burns,” Captain further explained. PIND said it has created awareness about the ovens among the women— showing to them that it is more economical as they can now use less firewood and dry up to 400kg of fish a day without any stress or burn. During the 2019 IWD celebration in Akure with the theme:
Innovate for change, both the oven and the smoking kiln were demonstrated for women to see and adopt. Ehitokpa explained that the oven has the capacity of smoking as much as 200kg of fish and it saves up to 50 per cent wood used by the traditional method, conserves heat within and reduces the risk of fire outbreak. The technologies are affordable, said Blessing Allen-Adebayo, Capacity Building Advisor at PIND. She explained that the average fish smoker can afford it.
“They are commercially active and economically potent, it just for them to innovate for more. What we have found out is that the technologies are affordable. At the moment, over 150 Chokor ovens are in use by women across the nine states of Niger Delta. Dearth of capital Although the women have tested these new technologies and are no longer ready to continue with the old ways of smoking fish, many of them however, still don’t have enough capital to take the advantage offered by Chokor oven and the smoking kiln. For Ayosanmi Ebinuyi, a mother of two, who has procured two Chokor ovens at Awoye community, lack of capital has not allowed her to operate.
She is yet to put any of it to use due to lack of capital to purchase fish. A bowl full of fish, according to her, can go as much N17, 000 from fishermen. “We make just between N2000 and N3000 from that. Now, I don’t have money to do business and that’s why I have not started using my oven,” she said, pointing to her unused oven loaded with her households goods. Another fish seller, Odunlayo Ebinuyi, who is yet to switch to the new technology, also lamented: “We are suffering. We are not happy; those catching fish from the river would not give us fish without money.”
These two women are not the only ones experiencing the dearth of capital to engage in what they described as a profitable business. Omoyele, Olugbuyi and October also share their sentiments. Olugbuyi, for instance, told Saturday Telegraph that she uses only two out of the nine Chokor ovens she constructed due to lack of finances to expand her business. She currently supplies smoked fish to Lagos, Warri and other places. “Out of the nine, I’m currently using two. But now, I need more funds to construct more because I so much love it.
It is spacious and takes more fishes. But we need more money to do the business. If we can access as much as N1million, it will be enough to buy fish in a day. We can make like N300, 000 from the fish worth of N1million after smoking,” she said. For October, the story is not different, as she said in Pidgin English: “I no get money to buy fish dey dry, and I no get engine wey dey use diesel, na hand we take dey operate our canoe.”
To address the worries of these women, the PIND Capacity Advisor disclosed that the Foundation is talking to banks to develop suitable products for the women. “These women cannot read or write; they don’t even have identification cards. We are helping with models that will help them get access to finance,” she revealed.
Ehitokpa corroborates this when she said that the IWD celebration also created an opportunity for the women to present their successes, achievements and then to look for platforms to address some issues that have been impeding their advancement at the community level, state and region. She said: “The issue of accessing resources is a recurring one in most things women do,” she said, adding, “One thing that we have done is to also include a session on how to access resources to procure technologies in the agenda. We are also looking at how they can add value to their agricultural produce. We have an association of women in international trade, they are here to talk to the women and also advise them.” She said that the Foundation is “really particular about the riverine communities because when you talk about fish smoking that is mostly the occupation of women.” However, the Chairman of Ondo State Oil Producing Areas (OSOPADEC), Olugbenga Edema, has said that government through the agency would collaborate with PIND to support the women. “We may have to provide soft loans for them in a cluster group to buy the inputs,” he added.
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