A vital food source in West Africa
by Anthony Acheampong
Food security is defined as'access by all people at all times to
enough food for an active, healthy life'. As such it covers not only the
quantity of food available, but also its quality, in terms of adequate
nutritional value. The definition also covers both sides of the food equation at
the household level, namely food availability and the purchasing power needed to
have access to it.
As a source of high quality protein, fish are vitally important
in feeding the world's growing population - particularly in the developing
countries. Fish supplies about 20% of animal protein globally and as much as 64%
in some West African diets. Most of this is caught by artisanal fishermen and
women. The table illustrates the importance of fish in the diet of many West
A nutritious and healthy food
Protein-energy malnutrition is one of the most direct
manifestations of household food insecurity and is a leading cause of infant
mortality in West Africa. Diseases associated with nutrient deficiencies
threaten the lives and futures of the most vulnerable sections of the
population. In Ghana, for example, a study by UNICEF published in 1990 revealed
that more than 15% of the country's children die before their fifth birthday.
Fish can be an important element in the diet of malnourished
children. They are a good quality source of easily digestible animal protein,
with nutritional qualities which are comparable with, if not superior to, meat
and dairy products. In the first place, they tend to be high in protein,
aminoacids and polyunsaturated fats. They are also an excellent source of
minerals (calcium, phosphorus and iron), vitamins (A, B1, B2 and D) and
important trace elements. Because of their high Iysine content (an essential
amino-acid), fish are a particularly important complement in the West African
diet, which tends to include large amounts of carbohydrates.
They can also play a role in combating diseases such as
xerophtalmia, which results from Vitamin A deficiency and causes permanent
blindness, and in the fight against nutritional anaemia and endemic goitre
caused, respectively, by a lack of dietary iron and iodine Current research also
points to the positive effects of highly unsaturated fatty acids (HUFA) in
reducing cardiac ailments.
Finally, as a flavouring, fish can make monotonous food more
palatable. They can thus help to improve consumption patterns and bring about
better nutrition overall. When processed, preserved and cooked properly, they
retain most of their high nutrient content although this can be lost with poor
handling and storage.
Fish supply for 16 West African
An important source of income
In terms of its contribution to nutrition and food security in
West Africa, the artisanal sector supplies the vast bulk of fish consumed
locally. Senegal has a per capita consumption of more than 25kg per annum, which
exceeds that of the USA (1 7kg). In all but one of the country's provinces, fish
account for more than 75% of the protein intake of the people. Clearly, the
importance of artisanal fishing to nutrition cannot be underestimated. The
artisanal sector in the region supplies fresh fish for both export and local
consumption as well as smoked, dried and salted fish for the local and regional
Drying, smoking and salting generates considerable demand for
services ranging from the transport of straw and salt to the distribution of the
finished product. Equally the expansion and modernisation of the pirogue fleet
has resulted in significant demand for boat building and repairs, the supply and
servicing of motors and the manufacture of ice. This creates backward and
forward linkages to the local economy, with artisanal fishing villages becoming
thriving centres of local economic activity.
In a context of ever-decreasing levels of formal sector
employment, the sector also generates considerable employment not just in the
fishing itself but also in all the related activities referred to above.
Senegal, for example, has some 50 000 people directly engaged in fishing and a
further 200 000 working in processing, distribution and provision of services.
And the expansion of employment in artisanal fisheries is no longer restricted
to people from traditional fishing communities. Increasingly it provides jobs
for arable farmers displaced by desert encroachment or demographic pressures.
The overwheming majority of people employed in the processing and marketing of
the artisanal fish catch are women.
The sector is also now making a growing contribution to foreign
exchange earnings. The modernisation of the pirogue fleet has enabled it to
supply a growing volume of fresh fish to export-oriented industrial companies.
Food security programmes
Decision makers in West Africa have been seeking to formulate
and implement policies and programmes to enhance food security. In most of the
programmes, there is a particular commitment to enhance the nutritional aspects.
Ghana, for example, aims to provide all its citizens with access to an adequate
and nutritionally-balanced diet at an affordable price.
The strategy involves increasing crop and animal protein
production and improving marketing in order to increase the availability of
food. Studies, however, have shown that in West Africa, the more vocal urban
dwellers usually benefit more from government measures than their rural
At both national and local levels, the management of food
security policies requires inter-ministerial and inter-sectoral coordination
mechanisms to resolve potential institutional conflicts and differences in
approaches and priorities.
In the present environment of structural adjustment, involving
institutional reforms and an emerging new role for government, new pressures are
being placed on the management capacity of these institutions.
Structural adjustment, the changing role of government, the
involvement of civil society, and issues of sustainable food production and
income generation are all central policy issues. None of these can be dealt with
adequately by individual countries.
Food security in West Africa is increasingly recognised as a
regional issue that needs cooperation and coordination among countries to be
Communication among policy makers, and between them and members
of civil society and the private sector, can be a problem.
The apparent gap in understanding between researchers and policy
makers hampers the adoption of policies based on the best available data and
expertise. This may help to explain why the fisheries sector has not featured
prominently in the food security programmes of West African countries.
Despite the difficulties facing the sector, the fisherfolk of
West Africa have demonstrated that they can make a vital contribution to food
security in their region. Further recognition of their productive and social
role, and well targeted support for their efforts could go a long way in