Ebuka Mgbakor sits on a wooden bench propped up by bricks, slaughtering and eviscerating catfish, beside his brother, Aboy, who is perched on an empty 15-litre paint bucket. They remove the intestines and place the cleaned fish in a basin as they prepare them for smoking.
“They are about to spoil, which is why I am preparing them to be smoked,” says the 28-year-old, who hails from Imo, in the Niger Delta.
Fish production is an important sector in Nigeria, supporting about 7 million people, of whom 80 percent are from the delta. Although there are some large-scale producers, small-scale fish farmers in the delta supply 82 percent of the country’s domestic fish production annually.
The United Ufuoma Fish Farmers Association (UUFFA) is one of the largest farming cooperatives in the delta, with about 800 registered small-scale commercial fish farmers, largely growing catfish in around 1,000 ponds.
Warri, a town in the delta, is where Mgbakor – himself a member of the UUFFA – has a fish pond. After six months he harvests his catfish with the hope of selling them fresh, while he salts, spices and smokes any unsold surplus. Traditionally this was done in drums but Mgbakor has invested in a Chorkor oven, which allows him to increase their shelf life and smoke at least 250kg of fish at a time.
“The oven works well and has an impressive capacity. And when the fish dries, the oven does it more properly than the traditional drum. Even when you put off the fire and leave the charcoal, it retains the heat from the time you put it off until the next morning. The result we get from the Chorkor oven is far better than that of the drum,” Mgbakor explains.
In the delta, 50,648kg of smoked catfish is consumed weekly. Through the use of the Chorkor oven, farmers are increasing the number of fish they smoke in fewer hours, improving their ability to meet the ever-increasing demand for smoked fish, both domestically and for export. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has indicated that the quantity of dried and smoked fish exported from West Africa to the UK is estimated at over 500 tonnes per year, with a retail value of nearly $20 million. Nigeria alone exports 5 tonnes of smoked fish to the UK per month.
Immaculate Ufa, another UUFFA member, who also smokes fish, explains: “The Chorkor oven can take over 200 kilos of fish. How long it takes to smoke the fish depends on the quantity. If not many, it will dry within hours. The traditional drum will not take this quantity of fish and it takes more than three days to dry.”
Mgbakor and Ufa are currently the only members of the UUFFA who use the oven, which was introduced into the region by the Foundation for Partnership Initiatives in the Niger Delta (PIND).
Tuoyo Omagbitse, PIND’s aquaculture market development advisor, explains: “The idea behind the Chorkor oven is basically to create an alternative market for farmers. What farmers do basically is to produce their fish and sell them fresh – but we discovered it’s not profitable to sell fresh fish in the market, as the market women dictate the price.”
This means the margin on fresh fish is often too slender to support a viable business. But what if you could make the produce less perishable, sell in greater bulk and thereby avoid the demands of local market traders altogether?
“We then thought of appropriate technologies, like smoking kiln but the Chorkor oven proved the most appropriate and easy to relate to,” continues Omagbitse.
Mgbakor and Ufa have one Chorkor oven each and have been using them since 2015, mainly to smoke catfish.
“In terms of making the fish last long or if you want to export it to other countries, Chorkor oven does it better. You can dry them and export them to any country in the world. It’s presentable. It does not spoil,” says Mgbakor.
The ovens have the capacity to smoke seven times more fish than the traditional drums and many people bring their fish to be smoked by Mgbakor and Ufa.
“If farmers have fish that might spoil at home, they bring them to us and we dry them to their taste. Instead of throwing the fish away we smoke them and increase their value,” says Ufa.
The Chorkor oven, which was first developed in Ghana and is named after the Accra suburb where it became popular, is now being deployed by PIND in other Niger delta states. The NGO performs demonstrations to create awareness of the oven for farmers, giving them an idea of its effectiveness and how it works.
At Ode Etikan in Ondo state, fish processor Kemi Olusanya is trialling an oven as a possible replacement for her four traditional drums, which she says are too slow. At Olusanya’s wooden smoking house, 17 baskets of small fish, fresh from the Malokun river, are placed on the ground waiting to be smoked.
“People say Chorkor ovens are very good and do not consume too much firewood. I like them based on what I have seen. And if the oven is good, I will stop using the drums,” she says.
Steve Akinbulumo is a fish technologist and PIND’s consultant who builds Chorkor ovens for female smallholders in Ondo state. He explains how Hydraform blocks are used to construct the oven:
“It’s made from granite with a mixture of cement. We mix the granite together with the cement and add little water then put it under a machine. We pass it to the mould. We incubate it for seven to 14 days and cover the bricks to be able to generate heat. We cover the bricks to bind well so they will not break. After we will open it and begin to water it. When it is able to absorb water it becomes very strong.
“As the maker, I go to the women and lay the brick foundation. I make sure it’s on a level and solid piece of ground so that it will not tilt,” continues Akinbulumo.
“The women are low-income earners and many of them cannot afford the Chorkor oven. The smaller one costs over N75,000 [£158], the big one N110,000 [£232]. We need to increase the use of the oven because it requires 50 percent less firewood than the drums. By using the Chorkor the women make more income and the taste of the fish is better too,” adds Akinbulumo.
“The Chorkor oven has made my fish business profitable,” agrees Mgbakor. “It’s a lucrative business and I encourage other people to use the ovens too.”