Story | 02 Mar, 2023

Supporting small-scale fisher women’s livelihoods in the Eastern Cape of South Africa

Buhle Francis, early-career researcher at One Ocean Hub and the Environmental Learning Research Centre (ELRC) at Rhodes University

For the past three years, Hub’s early-career researcher Buhle Francis has been working with women in small-scale fishing communities in Eastern Cape, South Africa and has been undertaking pioneering collaborative research at the nexus of environmental justice, gender equality, ocean livelihoods and inclusivity in ocean-related decision-making processes. This blogpost provides an overview of Buhle Francis’s research in supporting small-scale fisher women’s livelihoods in the Eastern Cape of South Africa.

For the past three years Buhle Francis, Hub early-career researcher in South Africa, has been working with women in small-scale fishing communities in the Eastern Cape, undertaking pioneering collaborative research at the nexus of environmental justice, gender equality, ocean livelihoods and inclusivity in ocean-related decision-making processes.

Her work started in 2020, during the level-5 COVID lockdown (complete restrictions to movement), when a large group of Hub researchers in South Africa decided to start a WhatsApp group to keep in touch with the fishers and did interviews online with them, to find out how they could be supported during this time. The WhatsApp group gradually led to the emergence of a knowledge-solidarity network among small-scale fishers, researchers and civil society called Coastal Justice Network.

When some of the strictest lockdown conditions were lifted, Buhle conducted interviews with women in these communities. They disclosed that they did not feel free to express their views in the WhatsApp group and had misgivings about the governance of fishing cooperatives, so a separate WhatsApp group exclusively for women was created. In addition, the women shared their livelihoods concerns, related to not being able to carry out fisheries work (in fishing processing factories/industries, and buying and selling fish) and have access to the ocean because of the lockdown restrictions, but also because traditionally their roles in the fishing value chain are often limited to post-harvest fishing work. Buhle facilitated a conversation among the two communities of women about a menu of possible complementary livelihood projects, with sewing emerging as a priority. 

They then collaborated on a project proposal submitted to the Hub’s Flexible Fund, which allowed to mobilise two pilot projects in Gqeberha (“Women in the Sewing Project”: 20 women that are part of the fishing cooperative and 6 women who are married to fishermen that are not part of the cooperatives) and Hamburg (Sophakama - “Let’s raise” - sewing project; 22 women from an aquaculture and fisheries cooperatives). Eight sewing machines and an overlock were provided to each group, as well as capacity building. Keiskamma at Art Centre (which also created Our Sacred Ocean, a magnificent tapestry under the Hub’s DEEP Fund project) partnered with both groups and provided the initial training (one training session was hosted at the Centre for Integrated Post-School Education and Training at Nelson Mandela University). To support the launch of these enterprises, the Environmental Learning and Research Centre of Rhodes University made a large order for cushions and cushion covers, as well as reusable sanitary pads, from both groups and hosted a training of trainers for four selected women in October 2022. Women in both groups have trained other women in their communities, and the two groups are also sharing skills with one another.

Each group created a 7-member committee (with chairperson and deputy, treasurer and secretariat) and obtained registration as a legal entity (in the form of a cooperative), with a view to continuing the enterprise after the project and gaining access to government support moving forward.

What did this project mean for the women in small-scale fishing communities? 

The project provided a rapid response, during the global pandemic, to the self-identified and prioritised livelihood needs of women in two small-scale fishing communities, allowing them to secure livelihoods as a safety-net that remains crucial after the lifting of lockdown restrictions, to fill gaps between fishing seasons. Such additional livelihoods are particularly important for single mothers in fishing communities. Even during fishing season, small-scale fishing cooperatives are still facing several challenges to ensure their economic viability.
The Chairperson of the Sophakama sewing project, Thembakazi Paliso, said: “We received 8 sewing machines among 20 women, so we divided ourselves in two training groups. Within two weeks, we learnt to make handbags, cushions, cushion covers, aprons and reusable sanitary pads.”

One of the trainer of trainers, also from the Sophakama sewing project, Ntombizanele Ntshokoma, added: “Most women in our group never had an opportunity to sew in their life and in two weeks they were able to produce items for sale. We can see that this project is sustainable.”

The Chairperson of the “Women in the Sewing Project”, Dolly Mkatha: “I have no words to thank One Ocean Hub for this project, because it has made a difference for our livelihoods and those of our children.”

The initial income generated under the project for each group is expected to be around 15.000 Rands (1.400£). By providing innovative and flexible funding to establish these ocean economy diversification projects for women, this is changing the lives of coastal communities. It is action-research that is responding to a need that has been identified by – not imposed on – women. Rarely are other research projects so flexible and relevant to the communities they do research with. Often, research may be knowledge-extractive, leaving communities with no tangible benefits other than their struggles and issues made known globally. Instead, by creating such opportunities for the communities that we do research with builds trust, creates opportunities not only for me as a researcher but also for the leadership of local community members.  

What did this project mean for ocean governance research?

Through this project, Buhle learnt about gender equality issues within the small-scale fishing sector, and the livelihood challenges and capacity-building needs of women in small-scale fishing communities. The project also demonstrated that skills can be quickly developed when access to equipment and training is facilitated. Buhle is currently working on two academic papers on the insights arising from this project. In addition, the project has enriched ongoing research under the Coastal Justice Network, where Buhle is leading on questions related to gender equality and women’s participation in the governance of small-scale fisheries, including in cases in which, like for some of the women in the two sewing cooperatives, they are small-scale fishing leaders. 

Furthermore, the project built deep trust, which led to women sharing their concerns around seaweed harvesting, which are used for cosmetics development, and also distinctive cultural connections to the ocean. Following this research lead, Buhle was able to reach out to other women involved in seaweed harvesting that were concerned about the fairness of benefit-sharing. She thus developed a new research project titled “Grandmothers of the sea - protecting women’s rights through art and fair benefit-sharing from seaweed harvesting in the face of climate change,” to contribute to protecting the human rights of women involved in seaweed harvesting in the Eastern Cape. The new project will expand on Buhle’s post-doctoral research on the nexus between climate change, livelihoods and governance by integrating legal research on human rights and the ocean, as well as legal and art-based empowerment approaches. Buhle has just been awarded a British Council Scotland SGSAH EARTH Scholarship to deepen her research collaboration with law researchers at the University of Strathclyde in this connection. She will be based in Glasgow, Scotland, from April to July 2023.