A Timor-Leste fish market. Photo by Dirk Steenbergen, ANCORS

Social networks key to increased fish consumption in Timor-Leste

Social networks key to increased fish consumption in Timor-Leste

Utilising existing relationships between fishers and traders can improve food and nutrition security

Improving the way that fish get to market, thereby increasing their availability and affordability, can play an important role in improving food security and overcoming malnutrition in developing countries such as Timor-Leste.

Timor-Leste’s National Development Strategy has identified increased fish consumption as a development priority to raise its rural population out of food and nutrition insecurity.

Efforts to improve the distribution of fish from coastal regions to inland areas and urban centres have mostly focused on improved infrastructure and technology, such as modernizing fishing capacities or upgrading storage facilities.

However, a University of Wollongong (UOW) led study that looked at how a Timor-Leste domestic fish market operates found that the social connections of people along the distribution chain were the most important factor in determining how fish got to market, and could be leveraged to increase the availability of fish in inland communities and urban areas.

The researchers tracked transactions from catch landing sites into adjacent villages through trade, barter, gifting and sharing, and in doing so mapped the trade of fish to consumers further inland and in the capital Dili.

Lead author Dr Dirk Steenbergen, from UOW’s Australian National Centre for Ocean Resources and Security, said social networks were a determinant factor influencing how fish gets distributed in rural areas of Timor-Leste.

“People's social networks largely dictate their ability to trade and ultimately how far they can coordinate distribution of fish,” Dr Steenbergen said.

“The relationships between fishers, local resident traders and mobile traders who travel daily between coastal and inland areas are critical. These have evolved through personal relationships and strong social and kinship ties.

“Skilled entrepreneurs use these networks to develop ways of trading with perishable fish under simple circumstances.”

Physical geography and infrastructure also had an impact on the volumes of fish delivered to inland and urban markets, and the routes they took to get there. Improved roads promote distribution, for example, whereas extreme topography and treacherous conditions inhibit it.

“Meeting the national targets for better access to nutritious fish will require more fish to be traded further and more consistently,” Dr Steenbergen said.

In looking for ways in which national and international development actors can best help to improve distribution, focusing support on utilising and empowering the social capital between the various local market actors and their collective ingenuity to overcome barriers will do more to improve trade and distribution, Dr Steenbergen said.

 “Our findings highlight the importance of local practices that have evolved over time. These determine how fish is delivered to household consumers and how benefits are derived along distribution chains.

“Building on and improving what people are already doing, in ways that are locally familiar and allow new adjustments to become part of local social life, is more likely to deliver lasting impacts.”


‘Following the fish inland: understanding fish distribution networks for rural development and nutrition security’ by Dirk J. Steenbergen, Hampus Eriksson, Kimberley Hunnam, David J. Mills and Natasha Stacey is published in Food Security (https://doi.org/10.1007/s12571-019-00982-3) .

The research was funded by Charles Darwin University through a North Australian Marine Research Alliance (NAMRA) grant, SwedBio, Australian National Centre for Ocean Resources and Security (ANCORS), Australian Centre for International Agriculture Research (ACIAR) and the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research (CGIAR).