FEBRUARY 2014 NEWSLETTER
Hold on tight and enjoy what is about to unfold. Our February newsletter is a recap of the enormous progress and change that the Beninese Atacora operation has undergone since the beginning of my visit in mid-September and I wanted to take this time and share it will all of our loyal followers, valued customers and friends.
We finally got our USDA NOP Organic certification renewal from Ecocert SA last week! This is the result of a huge amount of work to redress issues uncovered during inspection. The rules for certification will never adapt to the on-the-ground cultural realities. We visited every one of the 500 producers of Baobab to put all the needed documentation where it needs to be, and uncover any problems that exist. We ran organic production trainings in local language in all the producer villages; not just for the producers themselves, but for every living, breathing soul who may play a role in baobab production. We established a tight system of documentation and traceability that spans every movement associated with baobab throughout the year. We
fielded and trained a group of 20 village based relay agents to guarantee a permanent presence and effective interaction. Now, everything is done according to protocole (of course we still must supervise diligently).
We are on the path to get certified for HACCP (Hazards and Critical Control Points, for food safety) as well. This structure is relatively unknown here in Benin, so we are passing through the Government agencies who work in this domain and who have their own standards. Along the way, we are trying to bring their leadership up to speed on HACCP, as it is of great importance for export food stuffs and thus the economic future of the country.
We realized that in order to be competitive on the global market, we would have to seriously expand out production capacity. We really needed more storage space, work space, drying areas for seeds, as well as better transport and delivery capacity and equipment.
We started a large construction/renovation project in November. Our friend and long-time collaborator Abel Adje is a skilled construction manager who brought teams of masons and carpenters who stayed on site in Kouporgou to get the job done. We are in the final phases now, and about ready to start Baobab production.
Abel also helped us immensely by going to the Port of Lomé in Togo and buying an awesome new (1990) Mercedes-Benz box truck for us! It is helping so much with Baobab harvest, because it can take almost three metric tonnes of fruit in one load. Our driver, Masta is very skilled at maneuvering it on unimaginably rough and remote paths.
Our tired little Toyota bears quite a burden too!
We made a new friend and colleague who lives in Glazouè, in central Benin, who is a genius metal fabricator and who shares our vision of a prosperous Benin based on its own human and natural resources. He is designing simple hand/foot powered machines for us to scrub the Baobab Fruit and remove the husks from the seeds. Here’s a prototype that still needs some work:
‘Tis the season! “Make hay while the sun shines”. Our teams of drivers, field agents, documenters and laborers (and me, the Boss) are out in tiny remote villages every day weighing, buying, transporting and stocking Baobab Fruit. We started about the 8th of January, and we’ve got 45 metric tonnes in stock already! Our attainable goal is 100 tonnes.
DOCUMENTATION, TRACEABILITY, AND PERSONNEL
A production system, especially an organic one, needs a strictly documented traceability. What we have instituted since I have been here is remarkably precise. We can see the movement of stock from the tree all the way to the customer. To this end, we created dozens of registration forms and booklets, and trained our staff and relays how to faithfully observe this protocol.
Human resources are an ongoing battle for Atacora. Finding people who are from the Otammari ethnic group who have a reasonable amount of education, relevant experience and the will to do their jobs thoroughly is really hard.
We recruited Nicolas as Lead Field Agent, and despite his education and some IT/clerical skill, he just really can’t hang in the other departments…and he wants a big salary. He can be useful to us, but needs a lot of training, supervision and motivation. His future is still up in the air.
Bella (Isabelle) has some good experience and fine motivation, but lacks education and also has another job. She is a great Secretary/Treasurer/Bookeeper, whose documentation is precise and exactly what we need. We just need more of her… for a reasonable salary.
Fiacre has been with us for a few years. I’ve wanted to fire him many times for being lazy and incompetent, but he is finally coming along. He is poorly educated and, like most of the others, is not particularly apt at creative or critical thinking, thanks to the French educational system in Benin. He is a sensitive guy as well, and gets yelled at a lot. I think that since I told him that I knew that he could do the job well if he put his mind to it, and gave him some challenge goals, he has really started to take thing much more seriously and deliver better work. Oh, and the raise helped, I’m sure!
Veronique, our Undersecretary for Whatever Needs to be Done (Gal Friday), gave birth to a beautiful daughter, SIMBIATOU N’Kwa Sarita on January 21st! We welcome baby Sarita to the Atacora Family, and are happy to report that mother and daughter are doing well!
Dave, our AWESOME Peace Corps Volunteer has been instrumental in bringing about all of the positive changes you are reading about. He is well educated and experienced in many aspects of business, and is bringing the rest of the staff up to speed. He’s also well-integrated into village life, funny and dedicated. Kudos, Dave.
We are discovering that there are great differences in the performances of different relay agents. When one village sells us 10 tonnes of fruit, and another with similar resources one tonne, the difference lies in the motivation of the relay and his ability to animate the producers. Now, we are gathering the best relays to train the others, and using their success and the example of the money they earned by their steadfastness to make the whole system better.
RESEARCH AND DEVELOPMENT
I’ve spent a good amount of time working on bringing new, sustainably sourced products into the Atacora portfolio. Virgin Red Palm Oil, Cashews, Shea Butter, Miracle Fruit, Cotton and others are all in the works.
Well, I guess you can tell that this has been an intense and very productive trip to Benin, and Atacora’s future is only getting brighter!