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Thinking Like A Boss! Gambian Women Do A 180 Degree Turn-Around From Poverty To Resilience


TRY Oyster Women’s Association empowers a highly marginalized and economically vulnerable segment of Gambian society. The Association is an established group of 500 female oyster harvesters, with organized leadership, from 15 villages in the Greater Banjul area of The Gambia. It is creating positive change and economic transformation in local villages. Rather than struggling individually, as they once did, women harvesters are now part of a flourishing and widely recognized local enterprise. Harvesters are grouped into cooperatives, where they exchange sustainable oyster harvesting techniques and receive training in small-scale enterprise development. The cooperatives ensure access to appropriate equipment and technologies, set higher standards for working and sanitary conditions, and coordinate the processing, packaging and marketing of oysters. The cooperatives have also mobilized to reforest local mangroves and educate the local population on the benefits of environmentally responsible resource management. One of TRY’s greatest accomplishments is its leadership in the development and implementation of the Oyster and Cockle Co-Management Plan for the Tanbi Special Management Area, synonymous with the Tanbi Wetlands National Park. The co-management agreement for the park puts women harvesters in regular contact with government officials and lawmakers, establishing them as relevant stakeholders in environment and development decision-making and planning. TRY provides women harvesters a collective voice, improves their quality of living, and furnishes them with an active role in natural resource management.

Problem, challenge or context: 

Gender mainstreaming refers to the coherent and comprehensive inclusion of gender considerations into NBAP design and implementation. Gender mainstreaming can increase the effectiveness of NBSAP implementation and can help ensure that biodiversity objectives do not undermine human well-being. This best practice demonstrates how a community based Women’s Association is supporting the achievement of Aichi Biodiversity Targets. Although women are specifically mentioned only in Target 14, gender considerations crosscut most of the Aichi Biodiversity Targets.

Specific elements of components: 

Oysters are considered a delicacy in The Gambia, and are a key ingredient in many popular dishes. Oyster collection, a field dominated by women harvesters between 25 and 45, is often as the sole source of household income. Oyster harvesting is seasonal (March-June), leaving women with no alternative sources of income during the rest of the year. Oysters are traditionally collected from the roots of mangroves, using rudimentary tools such as machetes. The work is physically demanding and exposes harvesters to a high degree of risk. Many women harvesters cannot swim, which makes the collection of oysters in small canoes without lifejackets a life-threatening proposition. The majority of harvesters also lack appropriate gloves and footwear; therefore, the sharp oyster beds pose a serious risk of injury. Harvesters often lack adequate storage and sanitation equipment. As a consequence, they are forced to steam or grill freshly harvested oysters over open fires, remove their shells, and sell them by the roadside. Without the ability to store their catch, harvesters sell oysters well below the potential market value. The mangrove ecosystems are under persistent threat of overexploitation due to population growth, deforestation, pollution, waste dumping, and unsustainable extraction of resources. Oyster harvesters who lack knowledge of sustainable collection methods tend to harvest too frequently and allow too little time for regeneration. The use of coarse harvesting tools (such as machetes) damages mangrove roots. In addition, many harvesters contribute to deforestation by cutting mangrove trees for fuel wood. In the context of women’s socio-economic challenges, school and formal education are not seen as priorities for girls. Young women face barriers that include teenage pregnancy, illiteracy, sexual violence and rape, and an extremely limited job market.

The action taken: 

Formation of TRY Association: To confront these social, economic and environmental realities, 40 women formed the TRY Association. Their aim was to improve living conditions and become self-sufficient. An annual oyster festival, which was organized to raise seed money for the association and to formally register the group, netted USD ,200, which was put in a TRY Association bank account. The Association was formally registered and legally recognized as a community-based organization, and members wrote its constitution. The governance structure consists of Board of Directors, Advisory Council, Local Governing Board and an Executive Director. The intention is to maintain a group of individuals that have leadership capabilities, influence and contacts to assist in fundraising, strategic planning, and small business development. The Local Governing Board is made up of representatives from the association’s 15 member communities, including the President, Vice President, Secretary, Vice Secretary, Treasurer, Vice Treasurer, and community representatives. Elections for these positions are held every two years, with some of the smaller communities joining together to elect one combined representative. General membership in the association is open to anyone from TRY’s 15 member communities. The association keeps a percentage of revenues collected from sales to financially sustain its operation and to provide a range of social services to its members.

TRY is increasing the market-value of locally harvested oysters by:

  • Improving the quality of collected products, harvesting methods, processing and storage and market supply-chains. • Holding capacity building workshops and trainings for members on hygiene, proper food handling, and value-added secondary processing.
  • Providing a platform for collective bargaining and negotiating fair prices. • Training harvesters on value-added secondary processing techniques to improve product shelf life, including storing oysters and cockles in oil, freezing them and smoking them. These techniques allow women to sell their products for a higher premium, and, in some cases, up to three months after the end of the oyster season, thus providing financial security even in off-season.
  • Processing and packaging oysters and cockles at the TRY community-training center (a small building rented by the Association) and selling them at TRY Training Centre, supermarkets, restaurants, shops, lodges, hotels, streets and local markets. • Having TRY members wearing red uniforms to help identify their brand and provide consistency in the minds of consumers.
  • Installing an oyster-smoking oven at one of TRY’s main landing sites and setting up smoking ovens at TRY sites, based on increased market demand.
  • Conducting a market survey to assess demand from local hotels and restaurants, customer base composition, customer opinions on TRY products, and the volume of daily sales. • Working with a research team to train TRY members in aquaculture, as harvesting in a controlled, farmed manner would further reduce damage to mangrove beds.
  • Using baskets with bases that allow undersized juvenile cockles to pass through, which provides a built-in standard for no-take size limits.

Co-Management of Tanbi Wetlands National Park: With The Gambia government, TRY developed and implemented the Oyster and Cockle Co-Management Plan for the Tanbi Wetlands National Park (TWNP), a comprehensive natural resources management plan for a “Special Management Area.” It provides TRY exclusive use rights and sustainable management of cockle and oyster fishery resources in TWNP. TRY members work closely with government officials to plan land use strategies, harvesting areas and monitoring and interventions to restore and protect the mangrove ecosystem.

Mangrove Reforestation: TRY conducts trainings in mangrove conservation and reforestation. With support from The Gambian Department of Parks and Wildlife Management, Association members planted more than 20,000 mangrove seedlings (Rhizophora racemosa) in the communities of Fajikunda and Jeshwang, covering 6.7 hectares in 2010. In 2012, members planted 25,000 seedlings, covering 12.5 hectares. They also planted 8,500 seedlings in 2.5 hectares in the West Coast Region. Members are also trained to use smaller knives to break the oysters free from mangrove roots, thus avoiding damage to the trees.

Education and health services: TRY provides a range of educational services to members and their families, including basic literacy and financial management workshops. Examples include a Skills Training Program for the daughters of oyster harvesters that no longer attend school. It is run in conjunction with U.S. Peace Corps Volunteers to enable the women to obtain gainful employment or start their own businesses. The program also provides placement services. By partnering with government organizations such as the Ministry of Gender’s Women’s Bureau and the Department of Community Development, TRY has opened up a range of vocational training options in the fields of cooking, baking and artisanal crafts. The women oyster harvesters learn basic English language skills, including reading and writing (with a focus on literacy), math, and accounting. TRY has also introduced health education initiatives focused on sexual and reproductive health, communicable diseases, malaria and dietary health and nutrition.

Access to credit and savings services: The TRY microfinance program supports association members with financial management skills and services, and providing small, catalytic loans enabling members to start or improve upon small business ventures. Of the 256 women involved in the first round of loan disbursements, only two did not repay their loans in full. The TRY savings program provides women with secure safety boxes for storing their money. The women with the highest savings are offered more substantial loans in the next cycle.

Key lessons learned: 

TRY members efforts to obtain exclusive access and ownership of certain TWNP harvesting areas is empowering women that were historically marginalized and excluded from resource governance and decision-making systems. TRY members are empowered and validated through a government collaboration to monitor and police TWNP. The women are recognized as agents of positive change, deputized enforcers of community rules and regulations, holders of valued local knowledge, and a vigilant presence in the Tanbi wetlands area. TRY’s business model is accessing an untapped market of restaurants and hotels that are looking for authentic, high-end, exceptional quality oysters. The Association has made significant strides in food handling and storage techniques. TRY is partnering on a series of water quality surveys, which, thus far, have shown Coliform levels – a bacteria that is commonly used as an indicator of sanitary quality in water – to be within US standards for safe shellfish harvesting. The microfinance program educates TRY members on small businesses management and how to save money. The ability to save and plan financially is enabling women to withstand the nine-month off-season. Vocational trainings for young girls have empowered them to become independent and start new ventures. These include basic literacy, financial management and health initiatives, e.g. sexual and reproductive health, communicable diseases, dietary health and nutrition.

Impacts and outcomes: 
  • Biodiversity Impacts: TRY’s mangrove reforestation effort resulted in a substantial number of mangrove seedlings planted over a sizable area. TRY’s involvement in the TWNP Oyster and Cockle Co-Management Plan has led to the institutionalization of open and closed harvesting periods. Extending the length of the closed season allows the oyster beds more time to recover, reproduce, and grow to maturity, significantly increasing the size of oysters, leading to a 30 per cent higher market price.
  • Socio-economic Impacts and Improved Working Conditions: TRY raised safety standards, improved working conditions, expanded revenue streams, diversified income-generation opportunities, and provided a platform for both collective bargaining and women’s empowerment. Women now have access to proper harvesting tools and safety equipment, including boats, life jackets and protective gloves and boots. The women also wear uniforms to identify them as TRY members and to provide a degree of safety in numbers to make them less prone to attacks. The association has a number of revenue streams that support financial sustainability. These include: one-time membership fees; the sale of fresh and frozen oysters through the TRY Centre; broker fees for connecting buyers of fresh oysters; the sale of value-added oyster and cockle products (e.g. in oil, dried, frozen and smoked); the sale of alternative livelihood products (handmade crafts, soap, jewelry and food); fees for microcredit services; fees educational programmes; renting out the resource centre; donor contributions; and educational tours focusing on environmental stewardship and community-based ecotourism. Financial Security: By developing more lucrative market supply-chains, improving value added secondary processing, and providing a platform for collective bargaining and marketing, TRY ensures that its members receive fair wages and that year-round income generation is possible. The microfinance program provides women, who otherwise lacked access to formal credit and savings, access to financial institutions that allow them to grow their capital. These services are sustained through the contributions and planning of TRY members, leading to group empowerment and social capital accumulation.
  • Education and Training: The TRY products that are made at vocational trainings are marketed and sold, which generates a revenue stream that is reinvested into educational programming. These vocational trainings are encouraging young women to start new businesses or seek employment.
  • Policy Impact: TRY’s work with the government led to the development of the Co-Management Plan for the Cockle and Oyster Fishery and declaration of the TWNP “Special Management Area”. The plan encourages community-based management that is focused on conservation and the sustainable use of fisheries resources. The law provides TRY Oyster Women’s Association exclusive rights to the cockles and oyster resources of certain areas within the wetlands complex. TRY members are also involved in law-making processes around Tanbi Wetlands. Their knowledge of effective natural resource management techniques and the estuarine ecosystem have positioned them as valued stakeholders who regularly provide guidance, instruction and on-site demonstrations for high-ranking government officials.
Contact details: 
Equator Initiative Sustainable Development Cluster Bureau for Policy and Programme Support, 304 East 45th Street, Room 614 New York, NY 10017 USA, Tel: + 646.781.4023, E-mail:, Web:
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