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Financing the future of fish

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The Cultivate Africa’s Future Fund (CultiAF) is a ten-year, CA$35 million partnership (AUD$37 million) between IDRC and the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR). CultiAF funds applied research aimed at improving food security, resilience, and gender equality across Eastern and Southern Africa.

In Malawi, three out of 10 fish are lost through traditional post-harvest processing techniques. Improved Fish Processing Technologies (IFPTs), such as solar tent dryers and improved smoking kilns, are environmentally friendly, effective, and economically viable, as demonstrated by the Gender-inclusive financing for scaling up improved fish-processing technologies project. However, scaling these technologies in Malawi has so far not been successful, partly due to the financial challenges faced by fisherfolk – particularly women – who are most commonly involved in fish processing.

To help overcome this financial barrier, a project funded by the Cultivate Africa's Future Fund (CultiAF) – a joint partnership between IDRC and the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research – has been working to scale out use of the innovations. The project uses a business model that provides funding for actors of the fish value chain. The model comprises a gender-inclusive financing mechanism – to enable the adoption of a fish solar tent dryer and/or improved smoking kiln – certification of the processed fish products, promotion of access to formal markets, and promotion of gender equality within communities.

Bank loans for the “unbankable”

The project has established an innovative partnership with FDH Bank Limited in Malawi to provide fish processors with flexible loans that do not require significant collateral and take into account external factors such as seasonality in fish catch. Other features of the agreement include the following:

  • The loans are disbursed primarily through the purchase of materials from trusted suppliers and payments to approved contractors for IFPT construction.
  • The processors are organized into groups to provide social collateral and the group members collectively encourage each other to repay loans on time.
  • The beneficiaries are required to deposit an upfront commitment fee. The contributions vary depending on capacity.

So far, 19.6 million Malawian kwacha (approximately CA$31,890) have been distributed among six fish processors (three women, three men). The awardees have used the funds to construct six solar dryers, five smoking kilns, and two warehouses in which to store their processed fish products.

The initiative was ready to be expanded further before the onset of COVID-19 but the subsequent lockdown restrictions interrupted project activities, including the gathering of fishers to increase awareness of the financing product. To continue to spread the message to processors – and all actors throughout the fish value chain – the project is bringing together small groups safely by providing them with adequate personal protection equipment, such as face masks.

Funding female empowerment

Although women working in Malawi’s fish value chain are most commonly involved in fish processing, they have less access to business resources, including financing and market information, than men. Therefore, while the funding is available to both men and women, the bank gives women a preferential reduced interest rate as part of the project’s strategy for women’s empowerment, which seeks to increase engagement with female fish processors.

The project is also working to actively identify and encourage women to participate in the loan scheme. One such participant is Atusaye Msiska, a 28-year-old single mother from Mangochi district, who has successfully accessed a 2.9 million Malawian kwacha (approximately CA$4,740) financing agreement from FDH. The financing, provided in the form of materials, has enabled Atusaye to construct a solar tent dryer, fish-smoking kiln, and fish-processing shelter. The processing shelter is roofed, meaning Atusaye can fry or boil her purchased fish without fear of inclement weather during the rainy season. Protection from flies and contaminants has also improved her products’ quality and shelf-life.

“When she has used her facilities for the whole year, we expect Atusaye to make a profit margin of about 5.6 million MK [approximately CA$6,900],” explained Levison Chiwaula, principal investigator for the project.

Another way the project is working to address gender inequality is by recruiting and training “gender champions” who sensitize community members on gender issues within the fish value chain. So far, 36 champions (25 males and 11 females) have been selected and trained. They have gone on to train a further 319 champions (123 males, 196 females) by working with community leaders. The project facilitates discussions and advocacy meetings within the communities to deliver its messages on IFPTs and the financing initiatives, as well as underlying power inequalities and social norms that need to be addressed to ensure greater participation of women and youths.

Setting the standard

To enhance the marketing potential of the fish produced using IFPTs, the project has created two standards: one for smoked fish and one for dried fish. Such standards were absent prior to the project and, as such, the marketed fish products were not graded consistently by the Malawi Bureau of Standards (MBS). With the documents now in use, the bureau will be able to regulate the fish available in supermarkets, and the fish producers will be able to sell their products in the formal markets for higher prices. With the standards in place, fish consumers will also be protected against poor-quality products.


The project has tested the effectiveness of an innovative financing solution, which has proven to be both gender inclusive and flexible enough to take into account the unique features of the fishing sector, as well as the demands of the financing institution. Application of a business model that delivers this financing mechanism to fishing communities, combined with capacity-building initiatives, gender-transformative approaches, and certification of fish products by the MBS, is also proving successful in engaging and empowering women processors, and in initiating the scaling out of IFPTs for better-quality fish products. Going forward, the project will continue to follow the beneficiaries to monitor changes to their businesses, as well as their ability to meet the loan repayments.

Research highlights

  • Solar tent drying technology can reduce post-harvest fish losses by more than half when compared to traditional open-air sun drying.
  • A gender-inclusive financing mechanism to enable fisherfolk to procure the processing technology has been negotiated and approved with a private commercial bank.
  • Women in the fish value chain, who were previously not able to access loans, are already accessing the funds through the financing mechanism.
  • Fish processors can pay back a loan of 2.5 million Malawian kwacha (approximately CA$4,780) within 20 months.