More than a mere subsistence activity, fish smoking on Benin’s coast is a real entrepreneurial activity in the daily life of many actors. It certainly offers them many permanent jobs, but it also causes health discomforts. Immersed in this world, on the smoking sites of Cotonou, Sémè and Ouidah, our survey, which reviews the health risks involved associated with fish-smoking answers several questions.
By Prisca NEKEYAN
It is eleven o’clock on this Tuesday in front of the large fish smoking site of Cotonou located in the seaside district of Placodji. Women, smoke and the smell of fish are one and the same. Mrs. Bertille, an imposing lady is standing at the main gate. With a loincloth tied around her waist and another around her chest, she looks much older than her 38 years.
With a questioning look, she shouts in the local language as she walks towards a metal-barrel smoking room on the left wing of the site. Sitting comfortably, she bustles around the large metal barrel stacked with wire meshes. Dripping with sweat and inhaling smoke, the mother of four inserts firewood, sawdust and coconut shells in a row into the fire.
Using a traditional fan, she swiftly blows on the embers to fan the fire. With an artistic gesture reflecting her passion and accuracy, she lines up the fish on the greasy wire meshes. “I have been smoking fish for many years. I learned this from my mother who was also a fish smoker. I didn’t attend school; I grew up here near my mother and now I have eight stoves and many wire meshes,” she says in this stifling atmosphere.
Everyone is busy on this crowded site. The thick smoky air makes your eyes tingle. But everything seems more than normal for all these women in this universe saturated with heavy white smoke and messy bundles of firewood.
As one of the fish conservation methods used in southern Benin, fish smoking is also practiced on several other sites. Driving along the Route des Pêches on a hot sunny afternoon down the coastal lagoon of Avlekéte-Plage all the way to Djèbjadji (localities that are part of Ouidah), coconut palm huts can be seen in the distance.
As we are lulled by the sound of the sea waves, a slightly fragrant breeze of grilled fish titillates our nostrils. Far away in the clouds a white smoke rises and disperses. One hears a deep voice: “We are fishermen from Ghana, this is our compound!” This is Sir Alomasso Atchou Louis, a family head surrounded by his wife Kuyean, his sisters and cousins.
The site is very clean and attractive. And the rectangular six-by-four-metre cement brick kiln supporting six meshes is a model imported from Ghana. “It costs about CFA 150,000 and we have three of them in the compound; and all local residents here in the Atchignicodji district of Kouvénafidé village. That’s how it is! We go fishing and the women smoke the fish,” he says.
Next door, Mrs. Kyean is busy near the oven. Next to her, a large basket about a metre high is full of beautiful golden fish. “It’s smoked pike worth CFA 450,000; it took a week to smoke them. On the next market day in Kpassè, Ouidah, we will sell it in bulk.” On this site, the smoking huts are separated from the houses. “And when there is fish, we are around from Monday to Saturday to work on the fish. I smoke fish to fill up to 15 baskets a day, but when fish is scarce, I fill an average of five,” she continues.
The fish are thoroughly washed, sorted, scaled and cut up. Others are folded, with their tails inserted into their mouths. Then they are spread out on the meshes, with the biggest ones at the bottom. Customers love smoked fish, which are preferred to fresh fish for their dietetic value. “We used to use mangrove as firewood in the past, but after state agents sensitized us, we buy teak wood at CFA 30,000!”
Fish smoking is very organized and is done in clans, with family labour. In the distribution of tasks, while attending school, children and teenagers also contribute and learn as they go along. With time, they will have the knack of the profession.
Marcel Goudohèssi, Fisheries and Aquaculture Product Control Officer of the Departmental Directorate of Agriculture, Livestock and Fisheries, Zone 3, reported that regular quality control is carried out at the sites in accordance with the national regulations. “The same applies to hygiene measures applicable at all stages of the processing,” he said. “We make sure that the equipment are friendly to the environment while reducing wood consumption and carbon dioxide emissions. We wish we got larger loans, at least FCFA five (05) million to be more comfortable. What we are getting here are small amounts“.
With a broad smile on her face reflecting her well-being, she proclaims “I don’t want my children to do this. It’s rewarding but altogether exhausting. They attend school to become big bosses! “Adjusting the firewood while blinking her eyes, she exclaims, “You can’t do without smoke! That’s what makes the fish, and since we’ve been sensitized, we smoke in the kitchen and the smoke goes outside… But it’s true that sometimes I need protection glasses“.
A female-dominated business
Wives of fishermen’s, fish merchants and fish smokers are all involved in the fish smoking trade. As old as 20 to over 60 years, most of them are illiterate and dropouts. Working in the informal sector, they try to make up for it by coming together in local associations. “This way, we often attend training and awareness sessions,” says another woman.
The literate minority owes this to the programmes set up by the government. As a source of wealth, fish smoking on some sites provides only substantial income to meet basic needs. While many do it by legacy across generations, others have no other way. “I am a worker and I am paid CFA 500 per day and some smoked fish. My husband lost his job and overnight our limited income led me to do this work. If one day I save enough money, I too would own my own fish. A lot of people started like that,” says Adèle, a young lady from Djeffa.
To carry out their activity, the processors buy fish of different species and qualities at an average price of CFA 25,000 for a basin of about 15 litres. Some pay cash, others pay on credit or come together to buy. “When the fish are big, with an average of 50, once they are cut into three pieces each, you get about 150 pieces. In threes, these pieces are sold for CFA 1,000. The processor earns about CFA 50,000 on a fish basin sold. “When we take out the expenses incurred, we have FCFA 25,000 left as profit. But today business is low and there is fish shortage,” mumbles Atindekou, a lady.
Lengthy fish smoking, which lasts about two days, ensures long-term conservation. The most common fish are small fish such as anchovies or sardinella, which are smoked whole.
The head of the post-catch division, Fabrice Ahomlanto, says: “Long-smoking for export is very popular. Control is carried out in accordance with the certification texts in force. Before and after, in collaboration with the central laboratory, to see the quality and also the presence of heavy metals“.
Enormous risks requiring health checks
Although Article 86 of the framework law of 7 August 2014 on fisheries and fish farming in Benin lays down the conditions for the quality, treatment and processing of fishery products, coastal women still practise fish smoking in conditions thatare not always reassuring.
From the water source to the quality of the fish, the artisanal handling of such a sensitive product as fish poses a serious problem of hygiene. The permanent risk of microbial contamination or insect infestation during processing, storage and marketing is more than obvious. Fabrice Ahomlanto, Head of the Catch Department at the Fisheries Directorate, said that steps had been taken to ensure the microbiological quality of the fish throughout the smoking process.
Moreover: “sanitary measures have been taken by the government to prevent and limit the development of risks associated with the consumption of foodstuffs and to consequently improve their quality“.
Body and working space hygiene, disinfection and pre-smoking quality control are done as much as possible. “An obsolete production process and tough working conditions make it quite difficult to control everything, especially for women smokers,” adds the food technology engineer. As the government has already obtained funding for the construction of improved smoking stoves, the Placodji site is almost finished and this only needs to be replicated on the other sites.
This harmful smoke!
Beyond the issue of deforestation which is no less important, smoked fish contains a high level of Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (Hap), notably benzo (a) pyrene, a real health safety hazard in smoking systems. Both the producer and the consumer are exposed to this.
Fuel wood used by women can be toxic. Among the Toffins on Lake Nokoué, freshwater and brackish species such as tilapia and clarias are smoked. The area is almost unsanitary, but the fish are highly prized.
The Toffins women use a fuel mix of cardboard packaging, mangroves and urban recycled wood. With their bare hands, the processors handle the burning fish while inhaling the thick layers of hot and noxious smoke. “The women know that smoke is harmful, they are aware of the type of wood they should use but they prefer timber woods to prevent the fish from losing too much weight, hence the selling price; owing to such precarious living conditions, preventive control is more practised.”
According to the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), the smoke from burning wood releases polycyclic hydrocarbons (Hap) which are deposited on the food and gradually impregnate it. One of these compounds, benzo[a]pyrene, was classified as a known human carcinogen by the IARC in 2005. It is believed to be capable of damaging DNA and increasing the risk of colorectal cancer.
Under the action of fire, women sweat profusely. The skin becomes considerably dehydrated. Weakened by these repeated aggressions, it becomes unable to protect the body, which opens the door to skin dryness. “We go home almost every day in the evening at 9pm. I have been smoking fish for years and when I inhale smoke, like all the women here, we drink Peak milk to cleanse the heart! Several times I have been sick, I would cough for a long time. I’ve had conjunctivitis. Tears would well up my eyes. But even without smoking it happens, doesn’t it?” chuckles Karo from Ouidah. “The authorities tell us about the smoke during training, but what we’re worried about here is how to get out of our precarious situation”.
As she speaks, she wipes her watery eyes, with a loincloth of dubious cleanliness and blows her nose noisily. Women who are approached for information about the risks they face become hostile and aggressive. Is this a clear sign of their ignorance or hopelessness? A painful question.
These women seem much more concerned about the financial aspect than about the precariousness. Only the tax on the selling site is required; the tax on fish products cannot be levied, as they are refractory to it. This behaviour is illustrated by their reluctance regarding new equipment.
Marked by the desire to get out of precariousness, smoked fish processing on Benin’s coast is now becoming an annual market economy. It opens the door to a new economic situation.
The Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Fisheries has therefore included a plan to reorganise smoking areas in the 2019-2020 Annual Work Plan. “On at least two sites the new ovens have already been installed. If it wasn’t for the COVID-19 pandemic which delayed the work on the other sites, we would have been halfway through by now. The sensitive part to be promoted is the popularization of modern processing techniques. But as you have heard from the ladies themselves, the biggest obstacle is the smokers themselves who prefer to develop individually,” confirms Adrien MEVO, controller of the Xlacodji site. The need to influence the social behaviour of smokers therefore becomes a challenge for the relevant authority.
It is urgent to mobilize funds and social actors for a change in behaviour. A deconstruction of the employment policy and the integration of vulnerable social categories into the economic fabric is necessary. The example of women fish smokers should serve as a textbook case!
This story is written with the support of REJOPRA, the Network of Journalists for Responsible Fisheries in Africa.