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Executive Director Jacob, Peace Corps Volunteer Technical Assistant Dave and I are on tour all around Benin, making contact with producers of African Amber Honey, Unrefined Shea Butter, Moringa, Virgin Red Palm Oil and Fonio. Atacora’s philosophy is, from the farmer who owns the trees, all the way to the end consumer, wherever in the world they may be, that creating the most personal relationships possible is the best way of going about things.

UGKAP_Atacora

There are two major goals we hope to achieve on this trip :

  • First, to come to a mutual understanding with producers about the impeccable quality of products that is needed to satisfy and surpass the standards of the international marketplace, and how best to ensure that quality.
  • Second, to come to agreement on the Fair Partnership standards of socio-economic justice that are Atacora’s moral underpinning, and see that they are applied by every producer when working with the grass roots actors ; a large part of which is that women be promoted as primary economic actors.

Benin has bountiful and sustainable natural botanical resources, and a population willing to work for fair prices and wages. Thus, the key to unlocking this society’s potential and throwing off the burden of poverty is already in the hands of the people. It is just a matter of understanding how to properly condition their products to international market standards and be consistent about it, as well as how best to engage with grass roots producers and workers to uphold a decent standard of living for all those implicated in production that is needed to unlock a bright future for this beautiful country and her beautiful people. This applies to all of Africa and the developing world, as well.

Unrefined Shea Butter 

Last Monday, we visited three shea organizations in and around Parakou, in the Northeastern Province of the Borgou. Parakou is a fairly good sized city, and there is a lot of influence from the Sahelian countries of Niger and Mali there. The area is predominantly Muslim, with the Bariba being the largest ethnic group. We have a good friend and customer there, Daniel Lippert, whose company, Pôles ( www.polessarl.zxq.net ) produces essential oils, soaps, creams, lotions and healing tintures for the local market. He uses our Baobab Body Oil and African Neem Oil in his recipes, and helps us with logistics when we are in town.

UGKAP

Anne_UGKAP
UGKAP is an association of 365 women producers who have formed cooperatives in their localities, and is headed by Anne, a very serious and dedicated promoter of the product and the women who produce it. They also make cosmetic products from all local products under the name SOMBOU. A friend from West Africa Trade Hub directed me to them, saying that their’s was the finest shea butter she has ever known.. Well, she was right! Atacora bought a big barrel of butter from them to test the U.S. Market, and initial reviews have been more than outstanding! Anne explained that Benin has been slow to adopt universal quality standards and slow to create an internal trade guild or infrastructure. Thus, despite Benin’s butter being the finest in the world when made right, the international market has been slow to open for large scale production. Ghana and Burkina{{cta(‘d483c317-911f-4788-bb0d-dd3337d39aad’,’justifyright’)}} Faso in particular organized early on, and now supply many of the largest clients like Jergen’s, L’Oréal, L’Occitane and others. Benin is producing way under capacity, depriving thousands of women of gainful employment. We aim to help change all that !

Anne formerly worked for the government as they were trying to organize the shea sector. She travelled throughout the shea producing area training women’s groups how to produce the finest butter, and how to keep up consistent quality. The govenment tends to badly mismanage things here, and money has a way of evaporating, so the initiative barely dragged along. As you will see later in this blog, a dynamic private initiative is picking up the challenge and doing a great job !

As we always do when making contact with producer groups, we got to meet some of the women shea butter producers themselves. We asked a lot of questions along the lines of our Fair Partnership model. What are the daily and monthly financial for each woman given consistent production? How does this income affect their standard of living in terms of health, nutrition and children’s (especially girls’) education? Is this presently a viable income stream? The response was poisitive, except for the fact that there has yet to be sufficient market overture to create consistent employment.

UGKAP_1
The way the UGKAP system works is that the producer women gather or buy the shea nuts themselves, and produce the butter according to the standards Anne trained them to uphold. UGKAP then buys the product for a price that leaves the women a good profit margin, screens and , if need be, reworks the butter for quality at its facility, and fulfills orders. All they need is a bigger and better market !

We were really impressed by Anne and her team’s dedication, and by the optimism that the producer women expressed for the future. One really great effect that the added income has had for the families is that, with their newly found economic influence, women have lobbied their husbands and even the government to bring the tradition of forced child marriage to an end, and it’s working ! They were very warm in welcoming us, and very open in discussion. Atacora and UGKAP are now good, solid, Fair Partners !

One thing Atacora will never do is try to squeeze producers for a lower price which could keep the women’s producer groups in poverty. This is common practice among buyers without conscience. We are here to promote positive economic advancement and social change. We envision a future for African people which they themselves can determine, based on Fair Partnership in trade relations for their sustainable resources and efforts. As I said before, it all boils down to personal relationships.

Zikora: Friends and Partners

The second shea association we met with on that day is called Zikora, headed by Madame Zikora herself. She worked with Anne from UGKAP as a lead trainer for the government shea sector promotion initiative for a long time. Her style is very different. In order to obtain the same results, she approaches her group work with an air of joviality, friendship and humor, whereas Anne is strictly business, with strict adherence to discipline and protocol. Both do a great job.

ZIKORA_Fair_Partnership

Our meeting with Zikora was very light-hearted and fun, even as we discussed serious business decisions. Like Atacora, Zikora has a Peace Corps Volunteer Technical Assistant, a lovely young woman by the name of Gwendoline, who takes her job very seriously. She’s newly arrived in country, but seems to love it already and is adapting well to the culture and climate.

Zikora is a client of Atacora’s for baobab and neem oils, and are interested in sesame oil which we sometimes produce as well, when there is demand. They produce a nice cosmetic line that is truly of very high standards and could work in foreign markets as well. They had come to Boukombé to meet us the previous week. No one had told me about this, and Jacob was not around, but I put on my CEO hat and we had a good meeting. It was on a day of civil unrest in Boukombé, and town was quite tense. A young guy with a hot temper and a sword was being really loud and obnoxious toward me right in the middle of the meeting, and I was forced to yell at him in Ditammari and finally physically eject him from our presence. Calmly I sat back down, and Madame Z commented that I had become 100% African. Quite flattering, really ! They had come to discuss (i.e. squeeze us hard) pricing. Truly, Jacob is the boss here in Benin, so I graciously deferred any decisions to him, while making them understand that there was very little wiggle room on the prices. We picked up that discussion in Parakou, and, sure, it was a little tense, but we all came to agreement while moving back and forth between gritty negotiations and light-hearted, friendly chatter. Good thing we had a meeting planned for later in the day, and did not accept their offer of beer and food, or we would never have left !

Zikora is structured much like UGKAP, as an umbrella for many women’s producer groups. We were again delighted by their commitment to the well-being of all involved. The Fair Partnership model comes very naturally to them, and I can see a beautiful consortium of like-minded Beninese producer organizations emerging. WE ARE BENIN, STRONG, SOLID AND PROUD !

Association Béninoise du Karité

UGKAP_3
The Association Béninoise du Karité (Beninese Shea Association, or ABK) invited us for a dinner meeting. I hate dinner meetings. I like to be finished with work and reflect on my day while planning the next by that hour. The meeting proved to be well worth messing with my usual program. The Executive Director of ABK is a man named Urbain, who is one very dynamic guy ! He brought along their Peace Corps Assistant, a retired gentleman by the name of Richard, who brings with him a wealth of experience.

I had my misgivings about such a blanket national organization. Once the Beninese government gets involved, chances are that things will be all screwed up (not so different in America, I guess). I was glad to hear that they were, in fact, a private organization! They are the super-umbrella covering the smaller umbrellas like we had previously met with. They provide a lot of training for producers, set and monitor quality standards, provide important laboratory analysis and certifications, and issue a product with a very credible seal of approval. This is extremely important when trying to get a foothold in the global marketplace. Atacora can now offer large quantities of consistently excellent unrefined shea butter to big clients ! Even better, the Fair Partnership model is a natural extension of ABK’s philosophy. Their effort to expand the market for Beninese shea butter is inextricably linked to stewarding the welfare of all those involved in the process, and their standards of social justice are very high.

ABK is very environmentally conscious as well. Unfortunately, Shea tree wood makes excellent firewood and charcoal. Given that the market for Beninese shea has been lagging behind, it is often exploited for these unsustainable purposes. Shea trees are very slow growing, and can take up to 30 years to bear fruit. Cutting them down to burn is destroying an extremely valuable resource. ABK has, for example, begun planting Acacia auriculiformis trees amongst shea trees in the savannah because they are fast growing and produce a great, renewable wood resource. This helps to preserve the shea resource. This works very nicely with expanding the market and thus the production of butter, which also inhibits resource destruction.

All this may mean that the price will be somewhat higher for the product than it would be if sourced from less well-intentioned organizations, however the rise of conscious consumerism in the natural products industry indicates that the added value of social responsibility is likely to be very well-received.

As we like to do with all of our collaborators, we really made good friends with Urbain. We now count on each other to work really hard in order to unlock the enormous potential of the shea sector in Benin. If we do it right, thousands of households will gain great economic advantage, which is a the root of positive, sustainable social change. I really love my job when I know I’m working for the greater good!

And so went a very long day of shea butter relationship building. Moringa in the morning!

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