Nets, Buoys, Salt, Ice. For West African Fishermen, ‘Everything’ Is Going Up.

His red soccer jersey and shorts soaked in salty water, Edison Fofana loaded his boat on a recent morning with gallons of fuel, a box of rice and bottles of soda needed for his four-day fishing journey.

Walking back and forth between the beach buzzing with dozens of other fishermen and his wooden vessel docked nearby, he also carried on his head bags of ice — an increasingly expensive commodity, but necessary to keep his catch fresh on the trip.

“Within a week time, ice prices shoot up,” said Mr. Fofana, 33, as he jumped into the ice storage bin on his boat and sprinkled salt on the flake ice he had just stacked to prevent it from melting. “Nets, rice, fuel, ice, everything.”

Skyrocketing fuel prices caused in part by the war in Ukraine have driven up the cost of living in African countries like Sierra Leone this year, hitting fishermen and working-class communities hard and leaving millions hungry. Their governments, highly dependent on imports of basic commodities like rice and wheat, have seen meager financial reserves dwindle.

In West and Central Africa, a 2,000-mile-long stretch of food insecurity has developed among at least eight countries, according to the World Food Program, and the dire situation is likely to worsen next year as floods in Nigeria and Chad this summer ravaged a million acres of farmland.

Around 48 million people are expected to face hunger in the region next year, according to the U.N. agency, including nine million children.

Overlooking Freetown. Credit…Yagazie Emezi for The New York Times

In Sierra Leone, a coastal nation of eight million people, 80 percent of the population relies on fish as a source of animal protein. Every day, hundreds of fishermen leave its pristine beaches to try their luck, hoping to catch swordfish, small sharks or barracuda from their slender, colorful wooden boats with names like “God,” “King” or their hometowns.

But back on shore, their families are increasingly reliant on other food sources. On a recent evening on the main beach in Tombo, a fishing town 20 miles south of Freetown, children scurried for cheap beignets, a deep-fried pastry, as adults sucked on potatoes drowned in Maggi-seasoning sauce or a porridge of cassava and yam.

As the sun set, fishermen in groups of four to five were leaving for the night to the sound of Afrobeats, as adventurous toddlers were kept in check by their mothers. Other boats had departed earlier that morning for neighboring Guinea, where the waters, some fishermen say, are richer these days.

Fatima Koroma, a fishmonger for the past 20 years, kept the four colorful plastic bowls full of fish she had just bought close by. She said her difficulties had just “spiraled into something else” since the beginning of the year.

A small bag of rice that used to cost about $16 now costs nearly $27, said Ms. Koroma, 45 and the mother of seven children. “We’re more often talking about cups of rice than bags now,” she said. Her profits every few days: around $11.

A can of palm oil is now 49 percent more expensive compared with last year, according to the World Food Program; even the price of potato and cassava leaves, two cheap staple goods produced locally, has nearly doubled as the price of fuel needed to transport them has increased. So has the price of salt.

Mensa Ekow, right, and his fishing crew load ice into their storage boxes while adding salt to help preserve the fish, ahead of a multiday fishing trip.Credit…Yagazie Emezi for The New York Times

As of August, eight out of 10 Sierra Leonean households were food insecure, according to the World Food Program. Along with Burkina Faso and Mauritania, Sierra Leone is among the West African countries with the highest rate of food insecurity.

For fishermen like Mr. Fofana, the latest challenge is the price of flake ice. But plenty of other problems pre-date that cost surge.

For the past few years, foreign trawlers, mostly from China, South Korea and Europe, have largely depleted the waters off Sierra Leone and other West African countries, forcing him to venture farther out to sea.

A fishing trip that used to take a day or two now requires up to a week — meaning that Mr. Fofana needs more ice to keep his fish from rotting.

But when the price of the fuel and electricity needed to power the generators that make and store ice goes up, so does the cost of a bag of ice — from about $1 to $1.40 over the past few months.

That may not sound like much, Mr. Fofana acknowledged, but that morning, he loaded 30 bags on his boat. And ice is not the only issue. One small net now costs about $430, up from $370 recently, and Mr. Fofana needs 20 to 22 of those nets knitted together when he goes to sea.

Residents of Goderich wait for the arrival of fresh fish, last month. Eighty percent of Sierra Leone’s eight million people rely on fish for their source of animal protein.Credit…Yagazie Emezi for The New York Times

Mr. Fofana says he occasionally loses his catch when foreign trawlers tear through his nets, a fate many fishermen say they have experienced. Even the price of the dozens of buoys attached to the nets has increased.

“It just adds up, and up,” he said. “But what we catch out at sea, does not.”

Mr. Fofana grew up in Goderich, a buzzing wharf in western Freetown teeming with colorful wooden boats, market vendors selling poultry and fresh fish and children kicking balls around. The father of an 8-year-old boy, he has been fishing since he was a teenager and is one of the 500,000 people in Sierra Leone who depend on fishing for their livelihoods.

Fishermen across coastal Western Africa face similar challenges, according to Dr. Ifesinachi Okafor-Yarwood, a lecturer in sustainable development at the University of St. Andrews who has studied fishing communities in West Africa.

For the men who fish, and the women who process and sell the catch, only ice keeps fish sellable, whether in it is Sierra Leone, Ghana or Senegal, because refrigerators and ice containers are scarce.

“If women haven’t sold fish at the end of the day, they have to sell at the giveaway price,” Dr. Okafor-Yarwood said. “There’s so much food wastage because of the lack of preservation.”

A solar-powered ice container in the fishing community of Goderich. Fishermen say it is still not working properly, so they still have to buy ice from local ice plants.Credit…Yagazie Emezi for The New York Times

Cyril Jengo, an economist based in Freetown, said making ice was costly in countries with regular power cuts like Sierra Leone. “If you use your generator, you face a high bill; if you don’t, you go out of business,” Mr. Jengo said.

“Ultimately, that cost is being passed on to customers.”

Indeed, in Goderich, the price of fish has gone up 20 to 30 percent on average, but that is far less than the cost of most everything else the fishermen need.

Such hardships have already prompted people to protest. This summer an unknown number of demonstrators died in protests over the rising cost of living in Freetown.

Sierra Leone’s central bank has removed three zeros from its bank notes, hoping to restore confidence in the currency and reduce the amount of paper money in circulation while keeping its value unchanged. But it has mostly sown confusion, with many Sierra Leoneans still pricing goods in the former currency, the Leone, which has lost more than 40 percent of its value against the dollar since September, 2021.

Mr. Fofana buys his ice from a nearby plant, and on a recent morning there a steady stream of sweaty deliverymen in sleeveless shirts piled up ice bags on wheelbarrows. While fishermen need it to store their catch at sea, fishmongers need it on land.

Earlier this year, a shipping container financed by the government of Iceland and designed to store fish, make ice and reduce the fishermen’s dependence on the local ice plant, was installed in Goderich. But until a nearby road is completed and water can reach the container, which sits a few hundred yards away from the docked boats, it remains a lukewarm box that doesn’t keep fish fresh for long, fishermen and fishmongers say.

When the local ice plant stopped functioning for a few days earlier this month, fishermen were forced to get ice from another plant a few miles away, a taxi trip that added to their ever-growing bills.

Fishermen need up to 30 bags of ice to store the fish they catch on journeys that can last up to a week.Credit…Yagazie Emezi for The New York Times

Joseph Johnson contributed reporting.

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