Worldwide, approximately 120 million people are employed in small-scale fisheries (SSF) value chains or subsistence activities, 97% of whom are in the Global South (FAO 2020). At least 45 million women participate in small-scale fisheries value chains globally, which is around 40% of all those engaged (FAO, WorldFish, and Duke 2023). Women are particularly prominent in the post-harvest fisheries sector where they play key roles as processors and retailers of fish products (Frocklin et al. 2013; FAO 2020; Manyungwa-Pasani et al. 2020). In many sub-Saharan African countries, women are employed in the post-harvest fisheries sector at a higher rate than in the general labor force, making this sector critical for household income, food security, and nutrition (Lynch et al. 2017). Given the importance of women in small-scale fisheries, gender equality and gender equity have been recognized as guiding principles fundamental to SSF development by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) in the Voluntary Guidelines for Securing Sustainable Small-Scale Fisheries. Similarly, working towards gender equality and gender equity in the small-scale fisheries sector links directly to Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 5, Gender Equality.

Despite global acknowledgement of the need to prioritize gender equality and gender equity in SSF, several challenges persist for women in the sector. First, women remain underrepresented in governance and decision-making processes (Williams 2008; Manyungwa et al. 2019; FAO 2020; Torell et al. 2021; FAO, WorldFish, and Duke 2023). Second, women are overrepresented in unpaid and underpaid activities in small-scale fisheries such as net mending and fish cleaning (Koralagama et al. 2017; FAO, WorldFish, and Duke 2023). Women in SSF earn an inequitable share of benefits because they generally own fewer assets, are disproportionately involved in less profitable nodes of value chains, and have limited opportunities to advance within their roles due to limited access to capital (Lwenya and Abila 2001; Frocklin et al. 2013; FAO 2014; Nagoli et al. 2019; Adam et al. 2021; Moreau and Garaway 2021). Third, women’s participation in and benefits from SSF are constrained by gender-based violence. Fish-for-sex trade, a form of gender-based violence in which women fish traders are coerced to exchange sex with fishermen to gain access to fish resources, has been well documented in many small-scale fishing communities in sub-Saharan Africa (Merten and Haller 2007; Béné and Merten 2008; Fiorella et al. 2015; Fiorella et al. 2019; Medard et al. 2019; Moreau and Garaway 2021). These key issues for women in SSF emphasize the need for greater policy commitments to be made to gender equality and gender equity in SSF (Lawless et al. 2021).

This study seeks to measure and explain differences in marketing margins between women and men in small-scale fish trade in the empirical context of usipa (Engraulicypris sardella) trade in Malawi. Fish trade is a critical part of the value chain distributing fish throughout the country and is an important livelihood activity for women and men (e.g., Williams 2008; Harper et al. 2013; Manyungwa et al. 2019; Manyungwa-Pasani et al. 2020; Lawless et al. 2021; Torell et al. 2021). Previous literature has found that gendered inequities negatively affect women’s participation in fisheries value chains, governance, and decision-making in Malawi (Nagoli et al. 2019; Manyungwa et al. 2019; Manyungwa-Pasani et al. 2020; Torell et al. 2021). While these previous studies have generated qualitative insight on the impact of gender norms on qualitative outcomes such as empowerment and decision-making, few studies have yet to explore the impact of gender norms on quantitative livelihood outcomes such as marketing margins.

This study fills this gap by evaluating the influence of gender norms on marketing margins using sex-disaggregated quantitative and qualitative data. Using a mixed methods approach, we investigate the following research questions in the empirical case of usipa retailers in Malawi: (1) Do marketing margins differ significantly between female and male small-scale fish traders? and (2) How do gender norms affect margins in small-scale fish trade?

This study contributes to the literature in multiple ways. First, we contribute extensive sex-disaggregated data to a data-poor sector, small-scale inland fisheries (FAO, Duke University, and WorldFish 2023). Most fisheries data to date are not disaggregated by sex, resulting in gender-blind fisheries management, policy, and research (Frocklin et al. 2013; Harper et al. 2013; Lawless et al. 2021; FAO, Duke University, and WorldFish 2023). Second, we contribute to the literature by exploring gender dynamics in the post-harvest fisheries sector, specifically fish retail activities. Fisheries research has primarily focused on harvest activities and has neglected actors in the broader fish value chain including processors, logistics providers, wholesalers, and retailers (Smith and Basurto 2019). Third, we provide new insight into gendered inequities in small-scale fisheries through an empirical application of a mixed methods approach. Much of the gender in small-scale fisheries literature to date has used qualitative methods alone (e.g., Manyungwa et al. 2019; Torell et al. 2021). In utilizing quantitative methods to measure economic performance, in addition to using qualitative methods to understand gender norms, this study is able to draw links between the two and provide new insight into gendered inequities in small-scale fisheries. Finally, this study provides comparative insight into the post-harvest sector by considering the perspectives and experiences of both women and men retailers. Going one step beyond previous research that has identified livelihood constraints for actors in SSF (e.g., Kimani et al. 2020), this study compares constraints between women and men in SSF.

Study area

Malawi, a country with vast, rich aquatic resources in the African Great Lakes Region, is bordered by Mozambique, Tanzania, and Zambia (Fig. 1). Small-scale inland fisheries account for 90% of fishing vessels in Malawi, primarily on Lake Malawi (Lago Nyasa/Niassa) (Cooke et al. 2021). Small-scale fisheries play a key role in food security and livelihoods for Malawians by providing nutritious, affordable foods and a variety of employment opportunities via participation in the fish value chain (Cooke et al. 2021; Bennett et al. 2022). Affordable aquatic foods are especially important given that Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world with just over half of Malawians living below the poverty line (IMF 2017). In Malawi, local freshwater fish provides over one quarter of animal protein consumed in the country and fish value chains account for over 7% of national Gross Domestic Product (GDP) (Torell et al. 2020). Other studies have revealed, however, that these figures may, in fact, be much higher given that official fish catches in Malawi may be underreported by up to 65% (Fluet-Chouinard et al. 2018).

Fig. 1
figure 1

Map of Africa with Malawi highlighted in red

In this study, we examine gender dynamics in Malawian fish trade, specifically usipa (Engraulicypris sardella) retail. The trade of the native Lake Malawi sardine has been selected for this study because women primarily participate in the trade of low-value species, especially small pelagic species like usipa (Lwenya and Abila 2001; Frocklin et al. 2013). Further, small pelagic species make important contributions to food security and nutrition in low- and middle-income countries, like Malawi, as an affordable source of essential micronutrients, i.e., vitamins and minerals (Isaacs 2016; Robinson et al. 2022).


Data collection

This study utilizes a mixed method approach that uses qualitative focus group data to help explain quantitative findings from market survey data (Steckler et al. 1992). Quantitative methods are used first to answer research question (1) Do marketing margins differ significantly between female and male small-scale fish traders? Qualitative methods are then used to answer research question (2) How do gender norms affect margins in small-scale fish trade? In using both quantitative and qualitative methods, we answer different research questions that build upon and strengthen one another to enable a systematic analysis of factors that contribute to variation in livelihood outcomes for women and men.


Market surveys were carried out in Malawi by a team of enumerators from October 2019 to January 2020 using KoBo toolbox, an open-source data collection tool. The market surveys collected relevant demographic and socioeconomic information about the fish traders themselves, information about the retail markets where surveys were conducted, and critical economic information about each transaction including quantity, buying price, selling price, processing method, transport costs, and market fees.

A total of 604 usipa traders (271 female; 333 male) at 72 formal open air retail markets were surveyed (Fig. 2). The 72 markets were identified through a value chain mapping approach in which enumerators followed traders from the three largest beach sites on Lake Malawi through each phase of the value chain until retail markets were reached where usipa was sold direct to end consumers. At the 72 usipa retail markets, the 604 traders were identified through a convenience sampling approach, given no sampling frame was available for informal fish traders. Convenience samples are often utilized in contexts that lack a sampling frame and in locations where informants are moving in and out of public spaces quickly, such as the open-air fish markets in Malawi (Peek and Fothergill 2009).

Fig. 2
figure 2

Map of sampling sites

Focus groups

Sex and gender are different yet related; sex is based on biological attributes, whereas gender is shaped by social norms, power dynamics, and institutions (Lau et al. 2021). While meaningful, quantitative sex-disaggregated analysis cannot substitute qualitative gender research on context-specific, socio-cultural dimensions that shape people’s lived experiences (Lau et al. 2021). Solely using sex-disaggregated data instead of gender research can risk identifying gender inequalities as the result of sex, unintentionally reinforcing gender stereotypes (Lau et al. 2021).

It is, therefore, fundamental for quantitative sex-disaggregated data to be complemented by qualitative gender data. The Gendered Value Chain Framework is one tool to integrate gender analysis thinking with economic analysis (Kruijssen et al. 2021). The Gendered Value Chain Framework examines value chain composition, performance, governance, constraints, and opportunities (Table 1).

Table 1 Key components of a gendered value chain analysis (based on Kruijssen et al. 2021)

This study utilized the Gendered Value Chain Framework to develop a focus group discussion questionnaire and facilitate a comprehensive gender analysis of the retail node of the usipa value chain in Malawi (Kruijssen et al. 2021). Feminist researchers have argued that focus groups are an appropriate methodology to shift power from the researcher to research participants by allowing focus group participants to take control of the conversation (Pollack 2003; Hollander 2004). Further, the focus group format better facilitates conversations on the social causes of individual struggles such as sexism and racism (Pollack 2003; Hollander 2004).

Thirty-six focus group discussions were conducted in January of 2022 that involved a total of 212 participants ranging from 18 to 66 years old. Exactly half of the focus group participants were women (n = 106), and half were men (n = 106) to allow for a comparative analysis that considers the perspectives of both women and men. Each of the 36 focus groups was homogenous by gender, i.e., all women discussions and all men discussions. In designing and implementing focus group research, segmentation based on homogeneous demographic characteristics has been found to make participants more comfortable and willing to answer research questions honesty, particularly regarding sensitive topics such as gender dynamics in the workplace (Peek and Fothergill 2009).

A team of twelve research assistants were trained and supervised by research partners at Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources (LUANAR) in Malawi. Research assistants were trained in research ethics, use of Open Data Kit (ODK) software, and data collection protocols to ensure a consistent approach across all focus groups. Each focus group discussion was facilitated by two research assistants, one leading the discussion and another recording the discussion using ODK, with the consent of all focus group participants. Each discussion was conducted in the local languages and lasted for 1–2 hours.

Focus groups were conducted in a total of twelve markets in eleven districts in all three political regions of Malawi, north, central, and south (Fig. 2). At least one women’s focus group and one men’s focus group were conducted at each market. Nine of the twelve focus group markets were selected based on descriptive analysis of the previously described market survey dataset. The variable that indicated the number of traders selling fish at each market was used as a rough indicator of the overall size of each market. The market with the minimum, median, and maximum number of traders was selected for each region to account for variation in the types of traders and scale of operation at different size markets in all three regions of Malawi. At least one urban market and one rural market were included in each region. Three additional markets were included, one in each region, after being identified as important by local experts in Malawi. Within the selected twelve markets, a convenience sampling approach was utilized to identify individual traders to participate in the focus groups.

The focus groups were conducted after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, while the quantitative data were collected prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Research has shown that COVID-19 disrupted fish value chains in developing countries, including Malawi (Belton et al. 2021; Nyiawung et al. 2022; Monirul Alam et al. 2022; Chiwaula et al. 2022). However, we argue that the focus groups discussions are still reflective of the quantitative findings in this study because focus group participants did not bring up the COVID-19 pandemic themselves when asked about the key challenges they face as fish traders.

Data analysis

The mixed methods gendered analysis was conducted by first using quantitative methods, followed by qualitative methods that help explain the quantitative findings. The quantitative analysis utilized market survey data to examine gendered value chain performance at the retail node of the usipa value chain by assessing differences in marketing margins between sexes. The qualitative analysis, using focus group data, investigated gendered value chain composition, performance, governance, constraints, and opportunities at the retail node to provide insight into how gender norms affect marketing margins for usipa retailers in Malawi.

Quantitative analysis

The statistical software StataIC version 16.1 was used to quantitatively analyze usipa retailers’ marketing margins disaggregated by sex. First, net daily income was calculated in Malawian Kwacha (MK), the local currency (Eq. (1)).

$$\textrm{NI}=\textrm{Revenue}-\textrm{Cost}=\left(\left(\textrm{selling}\ \textrm{price}\ \frac{\textrm{MK}}{\textrm{mulu}}\ast \textrm{mulu}\ \textrm{bought}\right)-\textrm{fish}\ \textrm{lost}\ \textrm{or}\ \textrm{spoiled}\ \textrm{MK}-\textrm{fish}\ \textrm{kept}\ \textrm{for}\ \textrm{own}\ \textrm{consumption}\ \textrm{MK}\right)-\left(\left(\textrm{buying}\ \textrm{price}\frac{\textrm{MK}}{5\ \textrm{liter}\ \textrm{pail}}\ast 5\ \textrm{liter}\ \textrm{pail}\textrm{s}\ \textrm{bought}\right)+\textrm{transport}\ \textrm{costs}\ \textrm{MK}+\textrm{market}\ \textrm{fees}\ \textrm{MK}+\textrm{other}\ \textrm{costs}\ \textrm{MK}\right)$$

where NI denotes net daily income.

The typical buying and selling units for fish retailers in Malawi are non-standard; therefore, random market surveys recorded the weight of select transactions in the standard unit of grams (n = 52). For usipa retailers, the typical buying unit is a 5-l pail, whereas the typical selling unit is a mulu (meaning mound or handful). Conversions between the two nonstandard units utilized the median weight in grams. Conversion factors were calculated for each of the four processing types (fresh, parboiled, smoked, and sundried) separately, given that the conversion rates range from 18 mulu per 5-l pail for sundried usipa to 26 mulu per 5-l pail for parboiled usipa.

One limitation of the dataset is that surveys were conducted mid-day before retailers had the opportunity to sell their entire lot of fish. Therefore, to avoid artificially deflated calculations for net daily income by using the quantity sold at the time of the survey, the quantity sold at the end of the day was estimated by converting the quantity of usipa purchased from 5-l pails to mulu. While acknowledging that not all retailers always sell all their fish in one day at market, this approach is based on the fact that the majority of markets in Malawi do not have storage for fish that is not sold by the end of the day. Because of this, we observed in the field that retailers attempt to sell all their fish in one day, even if it means lowering their prices later in the day, to avoid theft overnight. Further, many retailers live far away from the markets where they sell their fish; therefore, they prefer to sell in one day so they can travel home and avoid lodging costs. Due to data limitations from the surveys being conducted at only one point in time for each transaction, mid-day prices were applied to the whole lot of fish.

Outlier analysis was applied to net daily income for usipa retailers. Calculated values of individual retailers’ net daily income greater than the higher outlier threshold were removed from further analysis, as well as values less than the lower outlier threshold (Eq. (2)).

$$\mathrm{Lower}\;\mathrm{outlier}\;=\;\mathrm Q1\;-\;\left(1.5\;\ast\;\mathrm{IQR}\right)\;;\;\mathrm{Higher}\;\mathrm{outlier}\;=\;\mathrm Q3\;+\;\left(1.5\;\ast\;\mathrm{IQR}\right)$$

where Q1 denotes the first quartile, Q3 the third quartile, and IQR the interquartile range.

To gain a more accurate picture of profits disaggregated by sex, marketing margins per unit (mulu) were calculated to standardize and account for the different volumes handled by different retailers (Eq. (3)).


where MM denotes marketing margin, NI net income, V sales volume of usipa.

A two-side t-test was implemented on marketing margins between female and male retailers. The null hypothesis is that the mean marketing margin is equal for the two groups, female and male. The distribution of margins was further examined by comparing the interquartile range for female and male retailers.

An ordinary least squares (OLS) regression was implemented on marketing margins to assess the impact of sex on margins while controlling for other relevant explanatory variables (Eq. (4)).

$${\textrm{Marketing}\ \textrm{Margin}}_i={X}_i\beta +{\epsilon}_i$$

where x_i are usipa trader demographic characterisitcs and market variables, β are coefficents to be estimated, and ϵ_i is the error term.

The Chow Test F-statistic was utilized to test whether the OLS regression parameters differ between the two groups, female and male (Chow 1960). First, the independent variable for sex, a dummy variable where female equals one and male equals zero, was removed from the OLS regression model previously described. Then, a combined model was run in which female and male retailers were treated the same. Next, the model was run only on female retailers. Finally, the model was run only on male retailers. The following formula for the Chow Test was utilized to determine if the regression parameters differ between the two groups, female and male (Eq. (5)).


where SSR denotes the sum of squares, k number of parameters, n number of observations.

Qualitative analysis

In addition to the statistical analysis that examines differences in marketing margins for female and male retailers (value chain performance), focus groups were conducted to provide qualitative insight into how gender norms explain differences in marketing margins between retailers (value chain composition, performance, governance, constraints, and opportunities). Qualitative data adds nuance to the quantitative findings and provides a critical narrative to understand how relationality determines the opportunities and constraints of different women and different men by recognizing gender and its effects as socially constructed phenomena (Lawless et al. 2021; Galappaththi et al. 2021).

Focus group data were transcribed and translated into English by research partners at LUANAR. The data were analyzed with Nvivo qualitative software using the constant comparison analysis method in which key themes are identified from coded information. Constant comparison utilizes three stages of analysis: open coding, axial coding, and selective coding (Onwuegbuzie et al. 2009). During open coding, transcripts and notes from the 36 focus group discussions were sectioned into smaller units, and a code was assigned to each unit. In axial coding, the codes were grouped into categories. Finally, selective coding was conducted in which a theme was identified that expressed the content of each group to interpret and summarize overall qualitative findings.


Quantitative findings

Analysis of survey results reveal that there is nearly equal participation in fish retail between females and males (45% female; 55% male). Yet, summary statistics on marketing margins indicate that, on average, female usipa retailers make lower per unit marketing margins compared to male usipa retailers, with average margins of 26.03 and 46.29 MK/mulu, respectively (Table 2). A two-sided t-test revealed that the difference between average marketing margins for female and male retailers is statistically significant (P = 0.0011). Further, the majority of female retailers earn less than male retailers with an interquartile range of 1.82–60.66 MK/mulu and 15.34–83.88 MK/mulu, respectively.

Table 2 Transaction summary statistics

Female retailers purchase an average of 9.49 5-l pails to trade, whereas male retailers purchase an average of 10.42 5-l pails to trade; however, this difference is not statistically significant (P = 0.3695). This important finding that female and male retailers purchase similar amounts of fish yet has significantly different margins can be explained, in part, by sales price. On average, female retailers sell at 211.44 MK/mulu, while male retailers sell at 238.91 MK/mulu (Table 2). A two-sided t-test revealed that the difference between average sales price for female and male retailers is statistically significant (P = 0.0000). The difference in margins between female and male retailers is smaller than the difference in sales price because female retailers have lower costs than male retailers, on average. For example, female retailers lose less fish to spoilage than male retailers, on average. The average total cost of lost or spoiled fish for female retailers is 53.09 MK, compared against 90.81 MK for male retailers; however, this difference in costs is not statistically significant (P = 0.3564).

Using the independent variables described in Table 3, an ordinary least squares (OLS) regression was conducted on marketing margins (Table 4).

Table 3 Independent variable summary statistics
Table 4 OLS regression models on marketing margins

The coefficients on the pooled regression model indicate the following relationships between trader characteristics and marketing margins. The female dummy variable has a negative statistically significant effect on marketing margins, indicating that being a female in usipa retail is associated with lower marketing margins (P = 0.001). The primary livelihood dummy variable denotes whether usipa trade is a retailer’s primary livelihood activity and indicates a retailer’s resource investment in usipa trade against other livelihood activities. The primary livelihood variable was found to have a positive but insignificant impact on marketing margins in the pooled model (P = 0.127). While the education variable has a positive coefficient, it was not statistically significant (P = 0.322). This may indicate that the skills and knowledge required for success in small-scale usipa trade are obtained outside of formal education (e.g., social capital).

Pooled model results indicate the following relationships between transaction or market characteristics and marketing margins. The total number of traders in a retail market is negatively associated with marketing margins (P = 0.003). This result is consistent with economic theory which suggests that increased competition and or higher supply drives prices down, subsequently lowering margins. The model also indicates that the processing method has a statistically significant effect on marketing margins. Using fresh usipa as a base, the dummy variables for sundried, parboiled, and smoked are all positive and statistically significant (P = 0.000). Controlling for temporal variation, the month variable was found to be statistically significant (P = 0.005). The positive relationship between month and marketing margins indicates that the later a transaction was recorded in our sampling period, the higher the margin. Given that Malawi’s rainy season begins around November, this relationship may be attributed to decreasing catch and increasing prices as the rainy season progresses. Controlling for spatial variation, the easting/longitude variable is negative and statistically significant (P = 0.001). This indicates that space and place are relevant factors driving marketing margins.

Based on the Chow test, the null hypothesis of equality of regression parameters across the two groups (female and male) is rejected at the 10% significance level. In other words, the same regression model that explains marketing margins for female retailers cannot also be applied to male retailers, and vice versa; the difference in regression parameters between female and male retailers is statistically significant.

In the male-only regression model, all independent variables except education are statistically significant, but this does not hold true in the female only model. These differences indicate that gender norms may be overshadowing the influence of other relevant independent variables such as resources invested in usipa retail activities (primary livelihood), time (month), and place (easting), which are significant for male retailers but not for female retailers. Similarities between the female and male regression models indicate that processing method is a key variable driving marketing margins for all retailers.

In summary, the quantitative analysis found that female usipa retailers earn lower marketing margins than their male counterparts and that this difference in marketing margins by sex is statistically significant when analyzed two different ways. First, the difference between average marketing margins for female and male retailers is found to be statistically significant with a t-test. Second, a regression model found the effect of the female dummy variable to be negative and statistically significant on marketing margins. Further, a Chow Test revealed that the regression parameters for female and male usipa retailers differ, indicating that distinct factors shape margins for female and male retailers. The quantitative results present a convincing story of the unequal distribution of livelihood benefits from usipa trade between female and male retailers.

Qualitative findings

To build on quantitative analysis of value chain performance for usipa retailers, qualitative analysis of gendered value chain composition, performance, governance, constraints, and opportunities was conducted.

Value chain composition

Value chain composition considers how tasks and roles are divided among different types of people and how that is influenced by social norms. When analyzing focus group data regarding gendered composition, two key themes emerged: (1) gendered division of labor and (2) gender norms.

Both focus groups composed entirely of women and focus groups comprised entirely of men discussed a clear gendered division of labor throughout the usipa value chain. There was large agreement among the focus groups that men primarily participated as fishers, processors are primarily women, and women and men both engage in fish trade—wholesale and retail. While generalized gender roles emerged from the focus group data, there was variation in participation across space, with different actors dominating different roles across the three geographic regions of Malawi. Women fish retailers are more prominent in the northern region than in the central and southern regions where the largest urban markets are Lilongwe and Blantyre. This can be explained by differences in economic development between regions coupled with cultural differences between regions.

The second theme that emerged from both women’s and men’s focus group discussions is the role of gender norms in shaping the gendered division of labor in the usipa value chain. For example, men talked about not allowing their wives to participate in fish trade because it reflects poorly on the entire family when people assume women engage in fish-for-sex trade. However, there was also much discussion regarding changing gender norms and increasing acceptance of women’s participation in usipa trade. Women did not historically participate as fish traders, but women have become increasingly engaged in fish trade over the past few decades. Today, women and men are almost equally represented in the fish trade profession; quantitative survey data indicates that 45% of fish traders are female and 55% are male.

Man at Kasungu Market: “I guess things have changed, people have positive attitudes towards female traders unlike the old days.”

Value chain performance

When discussing the role of gender in determining how economic benefits are distributed between women and men, two opposing themes were illuminated: (1) gender is not a factor and (2) gender influences economic benefits. It is important to note that the men primarily responded that gender does not impact economic benefits, whereas women tended to discuss gender as a barrier and acknowledged differing economic benefits between women and men in fish trade. Women discussed several factors as driving gendered differences in economic returns including differences in access to capital, differences in scale of operation, and differences in time available to allocate to fish trade. Compared to men, women spend more time on household activities, such as childcare, which limits the time they can spend on fish trade activities.

Woman at Limbe Market: “Men do better in business normally. Just because they have more capital than women. Us women also have more responsibilities.”

Man at Chikwawa Market: “There is no difference between male and female traders. We all work hard in ordering and selling to customers. It all depends on the amount of capital and one’s hardworking at the business.”

Given that the quantitative findings affirm that there are significant differences in economic benefits from usipa trade for women and men, the consensus among men in the focus group discussions that gender does not impact economic performance illuminates a disconnect between perceptions and reality. A similar disconnect was highlighted when men discussed economic benefits as a function of capital yet did not acknowledge that women generally have lower access to capital than men. This disconnect highlights why it is critical to listen to the stories and lived experiences of women who have insight into the factors that they personally understand to impact their own economic outcomes.

Value chain governance

Value chain governance examines which actors have control and decision-making power and which actors do not. When assessing gendered value chain governance in the retail node of the usipa value chain, the following themes were identified from the data: (1) power dynamics, (2) societal expectations and perceptions, and (3) social capital.

In discussions of power and control in usipa trade, it became clear that men felt they had more power over their own business decisions than women. Men claimed to have complete control over decision-making regarding how to spend money they earned from fish trade. To support this finding, women felt that they have less control than men when it comes to making decisions regarding how to spend money earned from their own fish trading business. For instance, women typically bring their earnings home to the family and discuss with their husbands how to manage their money; however, men do not typically discuss their earnings with their wives. This came up several times as a key point of contention for families engaged in fish trade, with several focus groups citing this power struggle as a source of marital problems for many fish traders. It is also important to highlight differences in power and control among different women. Several women’s focus groups agreed that single women have more power and control over their own business decisions compared to married women.

Woman at Karonga Market: “Our men want us to show them our money while they don’t show us theirs.”

We also find evidence from the focus group discussions that women and men usipa traders feel that they bear the weight of different expectations regarding their earnings. Men discussed the cultural expectation that men are the breadwinners in their household. Therefore, men feel that they are expected to earn more money than their wives. Women discussed the societal expectation that women should spend their earnings on the needs of their household, particularly food and the educational expenses of their children. Women felt that this expectation is a disadvantage for their businesses compared against men who do not have to spend their earnings on household needs, rather men are able to further invest their earnings into their businesses.

Man at Mzimba Main Market: “Yes because of culture, men are on disadvantage because you are supposed to be a bread winner at home.”

Analysis of the focus group data revealed that fish traders generally feel underappreciated in Malawi. Given that fish trade generates very small income and requires very little capital to participate, i.e., low barriers to entry, fish traders are generally viewed in a negative light as some of the poorest members of society. However, this general societal perception of fish traders manifests differently for women and men. A woman focus group participant effectively summarized societal perceptions of women and men fish traders into one word each; men are “useless,” whereas women are “whores.” The derogatory connotation associated with the word “whore” for women, in contrast with the word “useless” for men, reveals how complex gender dynamics are entangled in fish trade.

Finally, the importance of social capital emerged as a key theme for fish traders. Both women and men emphasized the importance of their social networks and relationships in their success as fish traders. Traders often call their friends and kin at various markets each day to gain access to information on the ever-changing market prices. However, it is important to note that women felt they had less social capital compared to men given that they typically spend less time at the markets each day and thereby have less opportunity to socialize. Due to their obligations in the household, primarily childcare, women discussed the fact that they often arrive at the fish markets later in the morning and leave earlier in the evening compared to men.

Value chain constraints

Value chain constraints are analyzed to determine potential interventions to help overcome barriers. The following barriers were identified from the focus group data: (1) lack of formal financial services, (2) poor transportation, (3) price volatility, (4) lack of storage, and (5) gender-based violence.

The most discussed constraint by all fish traders was lack of access to formal financial services, i.e., capital and loans. Both women and men understand that to improve their business, they need to obtain more capital. However, loans to acquire capital are difficult to come by for the rural poor in Malawi. The focus group discussions revealed that small groups of traders, particularly women, often come together to create informal financial groups to overcome this challenge by lending among themselves.

Woman at Mzimba Main Market: “Between ourselves we give each other business or lend small money to run business…we don’t have any opportunity from NGOs or any financial institutions providing us to loans.”

Another key constraint identified by the focus group discussions is poor transportation. Fish traders, both women and men, acknowledged that transporting their fish is very costly and unreliable. In addition, the focus group data revealed that women often cannot travel as far as men to access the most profitable markets. Some women feel that they are geographically constrained due to the irregularity of transportation coupled with household responsibilities, particularly childcare, which requires them to remain closer to home.

Man at Jette Market: “We have poor transport that does not enable us to do the business we want. Transport costs are very high and not easily found.”

Another key theme identified from the focus group data is the volatility of fish prices. Both women and men traders discussed the challenges of ever-changing fish prices both at beach landing sites and markets. Without timely and reliable market information available on the going retail price, fish traders assume great risk when purchasing fish as they may be forced to sell at a loss. While volatile fish prices are reflective of the varying supply that is inherent to a capture fishery, many focus group participants expressed a desire for interventions to regulate the market for fish and facilitate greater price stability.

Man at Chikwawa Market: “We need those in authority in the fish department to set a fix price.”

Another recurring theme discussed in the focus groups was the lack of adequate storage facilities. Many traders expressed a need for access to storage, particularly cold storage, to reduce post-harvest fish losses.

Woman at Jette Market: “Sometimes we carry fresh fish going to afar off places, so we are asking for a place to store our fish.”

Finally, a complex issue raised by women’s focus groups was the prevalence of gender-based violence. Women in our focus group discussions identified fish-for-sex trade as a key barrier to their success in fish trade. They agreed that women and men in fish trade face different obstacles in their business because women are proposed to gain access to fish resources.

Woman at Jette Market: “The fishermen sometimes bribe us, they want us to be intimate with them in order for them to sell us anything, if we say no then they do not sell us.”

Furthermore, several women cited gender-based violence as a key factor determining which fish species they sell. When high-value species are in low supply, fishermen can use the resource scarcity to leverage power over women buying the fish and require sexual relationships. However, when lower value fish species like usipa are landed in high quantities, the fish can go to the highest bidder without sexual obligations. Therefore, to avoid engaging in transactional sex to gain access to high value species, women often settle for lower value species such as usipa.

Woman at Karonga Market: “Better ourselves who buys usipa, but our fellows who buys mbuvu, they cry too much, because they sell to only those who exchange sex with them…that’s why we go for usipa because once usipa arrives at this lake it’s in plenty amount so they sell on auction, the one who has enough money gets fish.”

Woman at Karonga Market: “The way I am so old now no one can lust after me, so even if I go to buy big fish they will not give to me because they cannot have sex with me.”

Given that men fishers have power over women traders by controlling access to the resource (fish) that women need to earn a living, the consequences of participating in fish-for-sex are not equally felt. Due to gendered power dynamics and gender norms, women are the ones who bear the social shame and isolation.

Woman at Karonga Market: “Men even if they chase women skirts, people say nothing about them, they say because they are men they can take any women they want. Their stories don’t go far. Women are the ones whose rumors spread being harlots.”

Local institutional innovations have begun to address the issue of gender-based violence in Malawi. One focus group discussion provided insight into a community where the local committee has already established rules against fish-for-sex transactions. A fine of MK15000 (approximately USD21) is imposed on individuals that are found to have engaged in fish-for-sex. These local procedures may be used as a model for similar regulations to be implemented elsewhere in Malawi and more broadly in the African Great Lakes region. However, it is important to consider the equity of such regulations regarding how fines are applied across women and men.

Man at Jette Market: “We have rules here that we should not have sexual relationships within us especially if we are married. So that controls us. We have a committee that has rules in place once there’s a sexual relation there’s a fine to pay MK15000.”

Value chain opportunities

Value chain opportunities are analyzed to understand what is currently being done well. The only theme that emerged from focus group discussions in a positive light was the enforcement of the closed fishing season to protect spawning fish. However, this focuses directly on fishing rather than on the post-harvest sector; focus groups participants were not able to identify any interventions that are specifically helping fish traders. Closed season regulations in Malawi are based on the type of fishing equipment rather than species. Beach seines, gill nets, and trawlers currently have closed seasons, but chilimira, the primary gear used to catch usipa, does not.

Woman at Chikwawa Market: “We are just grateful for the government’s enforcement of the closed season, such programs are very welcome as they ensure sustainability.”


Utilizing a mixed methods approach, we find that (1) there is nearly equal participation in fish retail between females and males, (2) there is a statistically significant difference in marketing margins between female and male usipa retailers, with female retailers earning less, (3) there remains a dominant discourse among men that gender does not impact economic benefits from usipa trade, (4) the primary constraints for all retailers in usipa trade, which manifest differently for women and men, are (a) lack of formal financial services, (b) poor transportation, (c) price volatility, (d) lack of storage, and (e) gender-based violence, and (5) gender norms indirectly impact marketing margins by (i) disproportionately constraining time for women, (ii) shaping household decision-making regarding women’s spending, (iii) limiting women’s access to resources including financial services and fish, and (iv) maintaining patriarchal power relations.

Gender norms shape how retailers experience the five primary constraints identified in this study and indirectly shape their marketing margins, through three main pathways. First, gender norms disproportionately constrain women’s time (Manyungwa et al. 2019; Stacey et al. 2019). Second, gender norms shape intrahousehold decision-making (Pearse and Connell 2016; Lawless et al. 2019; Manyungwa et al. 2019; Stacey et al. 2019). Third, gender norms determine access to resources and maintain asymmetric power dynamics between genders in society (Pearse and Connell 2016; Manyungwa et al. 2019; Stacey et al. 2019).

Gender norms place the majority of household and domestic responsibilities on women (Lawless et al. 2019; Manyungwa et al. 2019; Stacey et al. 2019). As a result of the time investment required by household and childcare activities, women often have less time than men to devote to fish trading activities. We qualitatively found that, due to childcare responsibilities, women often arrive at the market later in the morning and leave earlier in the evening, spending less time at the market each day than men. Gendered time constraints may explain the quantitative finding that the difference in sales price between female and male retailers is statistically significant, with female retailers selling at lower prices. Men may have a greater capacity than women to wait for better prices at a market. Men may also have more time and greater ability to travel further distances to find better prices at different markets. Literature has shown that women’s physical mobility is restricted by gender norms (Lawless et al. 2019). Time constraints may also be associated with lower prices by limiting a trader’s ability to build and utilize social capital. By limiting the size of a trader’s social network, time constraints thereby limit their access to market information. Because there is not a centralized market information system for fish prices in Malawi, traders rely on their social networks to make several phone calls each day to obtain price information at various markets.

Gender norms often determine the roles that each gender is expected to fulfill on the individual, household, and societal scale (Manyungwa et al. 2019). These gender roles can shape intrahousehold dynamics and decision-making activities (Pearse and Connell 2016; Lawless et al. 2019; Manyungwa et al. 2019; Stacey et al. 2019). For instance, we found that women are often expected to spend their earnings on household necessities (e.g., food and educational expenses of children), whereas as men are not expected to spend their earnings on household needs. The impact of this expectation on intrahousehold spending is twofold. First, it gives men greater opportunity to invest in their fish businesses than women because they have more money available to do so. In contrast, women spend most of their earnings on household needs; therefore, they have less money available to spend on their fish trading activities. This creates differences between genders regarding available capital for fish trading activities which may explain differences in the volume of fish traded between genders. Although not significant, we found quantitatively that women trade smaller quantities of fish than men on average. Operating in smaller quantities is one factor that contributes to differences in overall earnings between women and men. Second, intrahousehold spending expectations may help explain our quantitative finding that female retailers sell at significantly lower prices. Women may feel additional pressure to accept lower prices despite the volume they have purchased to have some money to take home each day, money without which their household may not be able to purchase nutritionally diverse foods for dinner. Although men also work to sell their fish by the end of the day due to issues like lack of storage, the pressure to do so may be less for men than for women because their household’s evening meal does not directly depend on it. The role of gender norms in constraining time and shaping intrahousehold decision-making helps to explain how men may be better able to confront barriers such as price volatility and earn higher margins.

Gender norms also determine access to resources and help to maintain asymmetric power dynamics (Pearse and Connell 2016; Lawless et al. 2019; Manyungwa et al. 2019; Stacey et al. 2019). For instance, women have less access to formal financial services than men due to patriarchal gender norms. Gender norms may also shape access to public infrastructure such as formal market space, transportation, and storage. Further, men fishers control access to fish resources for women traders. In controlling access to fish, men hold power over women, and asymmetric power dynamics facilitate gender-based violence (Merten and Haller 2007; Béné and Merten 2008; Fiorella et al. 2015; Fiorella et al. 2019; Medard et al. 2019; Moreau and Garaway 2021). Our qualitative finding that women often trade low-value species to avoid engaging in fish-for-sex has implications for our quantitative finding that there is a significant difference in marketing margins between female and male retailers, with females earning less. Our quantitative analysis was based on trade data for one low-value species, usipa. Therefore, the gap in margins between female and male fish traders across the entire sector may be much greater as men tend to sell high value species and women tend to sell low value species.


This study helps to explain the role of gender norms in shaping differences in marketing margins between women and men. While women and men are operating at the same markets, they face different constraints, and the ways they experience these constraints are mediated by gender norms. We find that gender norms indirectly impact marketing margins by disproportionately constraining time for women, shaping intrahousehold decision-making regarding women’s spending, limiting women’s access to resources including financial services and fish, and maintaining patriarchal power dynamics. While this study examines the small-scale fisheries sector, these key findings regarding the role of gender norms in shaping earnings contribute to knowledge across sectors (Table 5).

Table 5 Summary of key findings

We also find that there remains a dominant discourse among men that gender does not impact marketing margins. This key finding reveals a broader misconception that, once equality in participation is reached, gender equity has been achieved. However, this study indicates that gender norms continue to constrain actors after equality in participation has been achieved. This finding supports existing literature which indicates that gender parity is a poor indicator of gender equity where gender norms and power imbalances persist (e.g., Rabbitt et al. 2022; Lawless et al. 2022). The case of usipa trade in Malawi illustrates a gender gap in which equality in participation between genders has not translated to equity in earnings between genders. This key finding contributes to global conversations regarding gender gaps and gender pay gaps across geographies and sectors (e.g., Bishu and Alkadry 2017; Szymkowiak and Rhodes-Reese 2020).

In connecting specific gender norms, revealed through qualitative methods, to specific livelihood outcomes, measured through quantitative methods, this study reveals gendered inequities in Malawian small-scale fish trade. The mixed methods framework utilized in this study can be broadly applied in future gender research to understand the impact of gender norms on earnings in any context.

To build on this work, future research should examine differences in livelihood outcomes between women and men in the small-scale fisheries sector across different species. Further, future work can focus on identifying avenues to strengthen local institutional innovations, which has been identified as a principle for community-centered conservation (Armitage et al. 2020). At the community level, actors are already developing strategies to overcome the constraints identified in this study. For instance, lack of access to formal financial services has led to self-formed informal financial groups, primarily of women, that lend among one another. Further, the issue of gender-based violence in Malawi has begun to be addressed at the community level through locally enforced fines. Understanding how to improve existing local institutions and strategies rather than imposing outside solutions is a key area for future development work in small-scale fisheries and beyond.