Although The Gambia has a small coastline of 80km, its fishing sector is responsible for roughly 12% of the country’s total GDP. In March 2022, the Minister of Fisheries announced that the fishing sector created at least 300,000 jobs in the country, emphasizing the sector’s potential to aid in poverty reduction and economic growth. The country’s waters are populated with diverse species of fish that are sourced throughout the year. However, oysters have become especially important for The Gambia’s social and economic development.

5 Facts About the Female-Led Oyster Sector in The Gambia

  1. Women run The Gambia’s oyster trade: Oyster fishing in The Gambia is a day-long process that involves collecting oysters from mangrove roots, preparing them on land and then transporting and selling them in the Gambian capital of Banjul. The TRY Oyster Women’s Association (TRY OWA) completely oversees oyster harvesting in the country’s Tanbi region. Approximately 500 Tanbi-area women belong to the TRY OWA, which was founded in 2007 by Fatou Janha Mboob, a Gambian social worker. A nonprofit collective, the organization works to improve the lives of The Gambia’s female oyster pickers by spearheading “environmental and social initiatives” and providing “training in financial management, food hygiene and water safety.”
  2. Increased flooding and The Gambia’s oyster trade: Climate change has contributed to increased flooding in The Gambia. Frequent flooding can lead to sewage entering the mangroves where the oysters are harvested. In turn, this can destroy the wetland ecosystem, damage the roots of mangrove plants and result in spoiled, unsaleable oysters. In an initiative to protect the wetland forests, the TRY OWA has partnered with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) to plant over 50,000 mangrove seedlings to counteract the effects of deforestation and extreme climate change. In 2012, the UNDP awarded Mboob the Equator Prize for her leadership in such initiatives.
  3. Marie Sambou’s award: In 2019, the Global Youth Innovation Network Gambia acknowledged the work of Marie Sambou, a Gambian oyster harvester, by granting her the Young Business Innovation of the Year award. The award included a gift of 35,000 dalasis, equivalent to about $580, which she pledged to spend on a new fiber boat for oyster fishing.
  4. Food insecurity: An estimated 80% or more of the world’s fish supplies have deteriorated due to overfishing and extreme population growth. As of 2021, The Gambia had experienced a 5%-8% increase in food insecurity. Severe droughts, flooding and misuse of natural resources have impacted fishing in The Gambia and contributed to the rise in food insecurity. Additionally, illegal fishing activities by bigger nations on Gambian waters are depleting the fish supplies that many Gambians rely on for sustenance and survival, thereby heightening the threat of poverty. For instance, TRY OWA oyster harvesters may make up to £30 on successful days. However, when tides are too high, they may not be able to harvest any oysters at all. A short 4-month harvesting season further limits economic opportunity, making income a “primary concern” and forcing many to “supplement their earnings with subsistence farming.”
  5. Support from FISH4ACP: An initiative of the Organization of African, Caribbean and Pacific States (OACPS), FISH4ACP works to improve the global fish value chain while promoting sustainable aquaculture. FISH4ACP and the Gambian government have partnered to expand the country’s mangrove oyster harvesting sector. The agreement aims to improve the lives of the sector’s women workers, increase local access to nutritious, low-cost food, implement improved production methods and advance sustainable development over the next decade. Furthermore, it incorporates pilot schemes for the development and sale of new products, like jewelry and animal feed, that will make practical use of oyster shell byproducts.

Looking Ahead

The oyster sector in The Gambia, led by a dedicated group of women, has emerged as a powerful force for social and economic development in the country. Through the efforts of organizations like the TRY OWA and partnerships with entities such as the United Nations Development Programme and FISH4ACP, there are signs of progress with regard to protecting the wetland ecosystem and enhancing the livelihoods of female oyster harvesters. By supporting the oyster sector, The Gambia is paving the way for a more sustainable and prosperous future for its coastal communities.

Jennifer Preece
Photo: Flickr