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Positioning women for success in the Blue Economy

January 25, 2019
Jemimah Njuki

Jemimah Njuki

Senior program specialist, IDRC

Michele Leone

Senior program specialist, IDRC

Jackline Auma is a fisherwoman from Shakababo Lake in Kenya’s Tana River Delta. Unlike many women working in fisheries — 85% of whom are strictly employed in roles involving fish mongering, gutting, filling cans, or other processing tasks — Auma is a boat owner. While she does occasionally go out to fish, she also rents her boat to others and employs several people in processing positions.

Globally, women make up 47% of the 120 million people who earn money directly from fishing and processing. In late November 2018, Auma joined more than 18,000 international delegates — among them ministers, CEOs, researchers, and practitioners — for the first global conference on the sustainable Blue Economy. Co-hosted in Nairobi by the governments of Kenya, Canada, and Japan, the conference aimed to capture concrete commitments and practical actions to sustainably tap the potential of the world’s oceans, seas, lakes, and rivers, particularly to support developing states, women, youth, and Indigenous peoples.

One of the themes addressed at the conference was breaking down the barriers that Auma and millions of other women face in the Blue Economy. The fishing sector is predominantly male and Auma was often told that the waters were “no place for a woman”. She also struggled to secure capital to buy her boat. Unless these and similar barriers are addressed, these trends threaten to further marginalize women in the Blue Economy.

Four major sets of barriers facing women in the Blue Economy were discussed at the conference:


Growth in the Blue Economy is framed in the context of the mass exploitation of untapped resources via large investments, with the assumption that this will create jobs for locals, small-scale fishers, and women. However, most of these jobs are low-skilled. Big Capital prevents innovation from reaching the small-scale fisheries where women tend to work, which disproportionately impacts them. Despite the fact that women provide more than 85% of the landed catch, even when investment is available it reaches men first.

Moreover, the market for licenses in the fisheries sector threatens local catches and livelihoods by facilitating unregulated access of foreign fleets in the territorial waters in the otherwise exclusive economic zones of several African countries. Despite growing research evidence of the negative impacts of large-scale activities on the degradation of the ecosystem, it remains an insufficiently-addressed danger.

A human rights approach is urgently needed, one that consistently weighs the benefits and trade-offs to questions around governance of tenure, small-scale fisheries, right to food, and ecosystem conservation. This requires the use of a political economy lens to begin dismantling the unequal distribution of wealth and resources and to modernize small-scale economic activities.


Social attitudes frown on and punish women for being in certain spaces. Discriminatory gender and social norms prohibit women from participating in certain aspects of the Blue Economy, creating an additional burden on them. In order for transformative change, investments, and innovations to be realized, it is not enough to simply promote jobs for women in the sector.

Research findings in Malawi and Zambia have brought awareness of gender dynamics in fish processing to the surface. This has sparked local ideas for constructive shifts in cultural and social norms that challenge the idea that it is sufficient for projects to merely include women in order for research or development to be empowering and transform gender dynamics. For example, incorporating communication tools such as community theatre greatly improved gender equal attitudes. This increased equal attitudes by men by more than one-third, women’s ownership of fishing assets by almost two-thirds, and allowed for more uptake of postharvest fish processing technologies (solar tent dryers, smoking kilns, salting).


Women engaged in the Blue Economy lack access to capital, investments, and equipment to grow their businesses. In 2016, nearly 81% of Kenya’s women-to-women business partnerships were denied loans, even from microfinance institutions. Financial institutions must recognize that women are building their capacity and their businesses are bankable. Developing products specifically suited to women’s needs has proven effective in some countries. CIDRE, Bolivia’s financial institution for development, launched innovative financial services, such as equipment leasing, for Indigenous women and women’s cooperatives working in the fisheries sector. This service is particularly important for women, who tend to have an initial lower capacity to purchase equipment because households’ financial resources are controlled by men.

Lack of women’s voices

Women’s voices are largely absent in decision-making. Women’s movements continue to play a key role in fostering their participation in development and planning processes, as well as demanding greater accountability from governments. Successful examples of African organizations mobilizing women include Kenya’s Grassroots Organizations Operating Together in Sisterhood (GROOTS) and the Katosi Women Development Trust in Uganda. Led by women, both groups organize women in groups to enhance not only their capacity to access economic resources, skills, and knowledge, but also to increase their sense of agency and independence.  

As governments call for investments, millions of women like Auma need a just Blue Economy — one that doesn’t simply exploit resources, but that also ensures these resources lead to prosperity for all who depend on them.

This article is based on discussions from a side event called Women of the Blue Economy, co-organized by IDRC and the Government of Canada on November 26, 2018. It includes contributions from Jackline Auma from the Tana Delta, Margaret Appiah and Kwasi Appeaning Addo of the University of Ghana,  Moenieba Isaacs of the University of the Western Cape, Tiffanie Rainville of Global Affairs Canada, Fridah Githuku of GROOTS Kenya, Mahama Kaba-Wheeler of the Africa Union Commission, and Margaret Nakato of the KATOSI Women Development Trust. Important insights were also provided by Kathryn Toure and Bruce Currie-Alder of IDRC, and Tamer Mansy, Lynn Ponniah, and Lisa Stadelbauer of Global Affairs Canada.