His red football shirt and shorts soaked in salt water, Edison Fofana loaded his boat one recent morning with liters of fuel, a can of rice and bottles of soda needed for his four-day fishing trip.
Walking back and forth between the beach bustling with dozens of other fishermen and his wooden boat moored nearby, he was also carrying bags of ice on his head – an increasingly expensive commodity, but necessary to keep his catch fresh during the trip.
“Within a week, ice prices skyrocket,” said Mr Fofana, 33, as he hopped into his boat’s ice storage bin and sprinkled salt on the flake ice he had just piled up to keep it from melting. “Nets, rice, fuel, ice, everything.”
Soaring 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 fishing and working communities hard and leaving millions starving. Their governments, heavily dependent on imported staples like rice and wheat, have seen their meager financial reserves dwindle.
In West and Central Africa, a 2,000-mile-long stretch of food insecurity has developed in at least eight countries, according to the World Food Program, and the dire situation is likely to worsen next year. next as floods in Nigeria and Chad this summer ravaged a million acres of farmland.
About 48 million people are expected to face hunger in the region next year, according to the UN agency, including nine million children.
In Sierra Leone, a coastal nation of eight million people, 80% of the population depends on fish as a source of animal protein. Every day, hundreds of anglers leave its pristine beaches to try their luck, hoping to catch swordfish, small sharks or barracuda from their slender, colorful wooden boats bearing names like “God”, “King or their hometowns.
But back on land, their families increasingly depend on other sources of food. On a recent evening on the main beach in Tombo, a fishing town 20 miles south of Freetown, children rushed for cheap donuts, a fried pastry, while adults sucked on drowned potatoes in Maggi seasoning sauce or cassava and yam porridge.
As the sun set, fishermen in groups of four to five set off for the night to the sound of Afrobeats, while adventurous toddlers were kept in check by their mothers. Other boats had left earlier in the morning for neighboring Guinea, where the waters, some fishermen say, are richer these days.
Fatima Koroma, a fishmonger for 20 years, kept nearby the four colorful plastic bowls full of fish she had just bought. She said her struggles just “morphed into something else” since the start of the year.
A small bag of rice that used to cost around $16 now costs nearly $27, said Ms Koroma, 45 and a mother of seven. “We talk more often about cups of rice than bags now,” she said. His profits every few days: about $11.
A can of palm oil is now 49% more expensive than last year, according to the World Food Programme; even the price of potato and cassava leaves, two cheap locally produced staples, nearly doubled as the price of the fuel needed to transport them rose. The price of salt too.
In August, eight out of 10 Sierra Leonean households were food insecure, according to the World Food Programme. Along with Burkina Faso and Mauritania, Sierra Leone is one of the West African countries with the highest rate of food insecurity.
For fishermen like Mr. Fofana, the final challenge is the price of flake ice. But many other problems predate this spike in costs.
In recent years, foreign trawlers, mainly from China, South Korea and Europe, have greatly depleted the waters off Sierra Leone and other West African countries, forcing it to venture further offshore.
A fishing trip that used to take a day or two now takes up to a week, meaning 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 the ice rises, so does the cost of a bag of ice – from around $1 to $1.40 in recent months. .
It may not seem like much, Mr. Fofana acknowledged, but that morning he loaded 30 bags onto his boat. And the ice isn’t the only problem. A small net now costs around $430, up from $370 recently, and Mr. Fofana needs 20 to 22 of these nets knit together when he goes to sea.
Mr Fofana says he sometimes loses his catch when foreign trawlers tear up his nets, a fate many fishermen say they have suffered. Even the price of the dozens of buoys attached to the nets has increased.
“It adds up and adds up,” he said. “But what we catch at sea doesn’t.”
Mr Fofana grew up in Goderich, a bustling wharf in western Freetown teeming with colorful wooden boats, market vendors selling fresh poultry and fish and children playing ball. 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 livelihood.
Fishermen across coastal West Africa face similar challenges, according to Dr Ifesinachi Okafor-Yarwood, a senior lecturer in sustainable development at the University of St. Andrews who has studied fishing communities in Africa. from West.
For the men who fish and the women who process and sell the catch, only ice can sell the fish, whether in Sierra Leone, Ghana or Senegal, because refrigerators and ice bins are scarce.
“If the women have not sold any fish at the end of the day, they should sell at the bid price,” Dr Okafor-Yarwood said. “There is so much food waste due to lack of preservation.”
Cyril Jengo, a Freetown-based economist, said making ice was expensive 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 bankrupt,” Mr. Jengo said.
“Ultimately, that cost is passed on to customers.”
Indeed, in Goderich, the price of fish has increased by an average of 20-30%, but this is far less than the cost of almost everything fishermen need.
Such difficulties have already prompted people to protest. This summer, an unknown number of protesters died during protests against the rising cost of living in Freetown.
Sierra Leone’s central bank removed three zeros from its banknotes, 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 caused confusion, with many Sierra Leoneans still pricing goods in the old currency, the Leone, which has lost more than 40% of its value against the dollar since September 2021.
Mr. Fofana buys his ice cream from a nearby factory, and on a recent morning a steady stream of sweaty delivery men in sleeveless shirts piled bags of ice on wheelbarrows. While fishermen need it to store their catch at sea, fishmongers need it ashore.
Earlier this year, a shipping container funded by the Icelandic government and designed to store fish, make ice and reduce fishermen’s reliance on the local ice factory, was installed in Goderich. But until a nearby road is completed and water can reach the container, which is a few hundred meters from the moored boats, there remains a lukewarm box that doesn’t keep the fish fresh for long, say fishermen and fishmongers.
When the local ice factory went out of business for a few days earlier this month, fishermen were forced to get ice from another factory a few miles away, a taxi ride that added to their ever-increasing bills.
Joseph Johnson contributed reporting.