OMOWUNMI Omoyele, 26, is getting ready to prepare her fresh fish for smoking — some packed in a bowl, others spread out on a wire gauze—outside a thatched roof kitchen that she shares with her younger sister.
As she picks from fresh fishes piled up in a black bowl for smoking, her younger sister turns those in the Chokor oven tray inside the kitchen. For the two women, this is a daily routine. They need to do this on daily basis 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 is 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 fire wood to smoke fish is expensive and unfriendly to human and the environment, they told The ICIR in an interview.
The women now prefer the Chokor oven to smoke their fishes. Omoyele says 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.
“All these years, I have been using the drum to smoke my fish, and that takes more firewood,” she says. “We smoke fish every day, we spend a lot of money to buy firewood and transport it to this place through boat and we stay inside the kitchen with the heavy smoke from firewood.”
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 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 says 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 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 says as she prepares her fishes for the market. “ “Chokor is more spacious and can take more fishes than the old method.”
The advantages of smoking fish are manifold, Agriculture Nigeria, an online newspaper that focuses on agriculture has reported. Fish smoking prolongs shelf life, enhances flavour and increases utilisation in soups and sauces.
It reduces waste at times of bumper catches and permits storage for the lean season. It 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 State 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 either as smoked fish.
The Foundation says demand or consumption is expected to keep increasing as more people are becoming aware of a relatively cheaper source of protein.
Chokor oven and smoking kiln— the riverine women’s newly found love
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 largest numbers of the new technology in her village.
After 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.
“The one they introduced to us is better than our own. After we constructed one to see how it works, I have since disposed the old ones and now I have nine Chokor ovens,” she reveals.
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 says.
In 2014 PIND piloted the use of Chorkor oven fish smoking technology at the United Ufuoma Fish farmers Association (UUFFA).
Through the use of the Chorkor oven, farmers in the UUFFA cluster increased the number of fish they smoke 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 Chorkor 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 creating sustainable access to fish smoking service to fish farmers and increasing the shelf life of their fish as well as generating additional income and employment to farmers and fish processors. It is also a huge potential profit-making 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 Chorkor oven,” she says.
“The Chorkor oven 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.
Speaking on the making of the oven, Paul Captain, an official of PIND who went to Ghana to learn the technology says, 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, I have worked in Bayelsa and Delta states, Akure which is 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, says Captain.
“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 Chorkor oven, Captain says is easy to use, 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, is faster and healthier to use and reduces the risk of smoke inhalation and burns,” he further explains.
PIND says it has created awareness about the ovens among the women— showing to them that it is more economical because they can use three 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 explains 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, says Blessing Allen-Adebayo, Capacity Building Advisor at PIND. She explains 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 all the women who have tested these new technologies are no longer using the old ways of smoking fish, many still don’t have enough capital to take the advantaged offer 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 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 says showing her unused oven loaded with her households goods.
“We are suffering. We are not happy, those catching fish from the river would not give us fish without money, laments Odunlayo Ebinuyi, another fish seller whose house is next to that of Ayosanmi. Odunlayo has not made use of her two chokor ovens.
These two women are not the only one experiencing the dearth of capital to engage in what they described as a profitable business. Omoyele, Olugbuyi and October share their sentiments.
Olugbuyi 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 occupies more fishes. But we need more money to do the business,” she laments.
“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 N1 million after smoking.”
For October, the story is not different—“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 discloses 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 an ID card. We are helping them with models that will help them get access to finance,” she reveals.
Ehitokpa corroborates this when she says 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.
“The issue of accessing resources is a recurring issue in most things women do,” she says.
“One thing that we have done is to also include a session on how to access resources to procure technologies in the agenda today. 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 says the Foundation is “really particular about riverine communities because when you talk about fish smoking, that is mostly the occupation of women.”
The Chairman of Ondo State Oil Producing Areas (OSOPADEC), Olugbenga Edema, pledges 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 says.