The Amazing Baobab Blog has its first contribution from a guest blogger! Steve Smith is a Peace Corps Volunteer in Boukombe, Benin, and is primarily assigned to assist Atacora Essential in establishing and running its Baobab based Fair Trade – Sustainable Development organization. Steve is the third consecutive Volunteer to work with us, and his help has been immesurable. Having been a Peace Corps Volunteer in Boukombe myself 20 years ago, and having absolutely LOVED it, sometimes I’m a little jealous of his position! Check out his article! -DAVE
As a Peace Corps volunteer working in Community Economic Development in Benin, West Africa, it became very clear shortly after arriving how difficult and full of unknowns the process of development truly is. All of that theoretical and historical information I had learned in school suddenly seemed very incomplete. And of course, if development were an obvious and straightforward process, it would occur relatively quickly; by now, we would have seen many more cases of poverty reduction around the world; and somebody would have won a Nobel Prize for discovering the process.
Here in Boukombé, in the Atacora Mountains of northwest Benin, I work with two organizations, both aiming to help improve the lives of local women, their families, and in turn their communities. Both place women at the center of their efforts, yet both seem to have made contrasting assumptions about what is required and/or missing in terms of local economic growth, and both have taken contrasting strategies in their plans for helping to make development occur. For me, a volunteer who is trying to understand what really works in development and what doesn’t, I couldn’t have a better environment for observing and participating with development at the implementation level. I get to work with two different models that, in many ways, ought to be contradictory.
At least they would be contradictory in a world where things necessarily compete; however, I am beginning to see that in reality development is not at all a zero-sum game between competing philosophies. Instead, just as the causes of poverty are complex, real development solutions will also probably need to be complex and comprehensive. Solutions will need to address challenges that change drastically by region or village, and that also change with time, by using different types of strategies when they apply and when they are appropriate. When I ride my bike sixteen miles away from the town of Boukombé, the language changes, customs change, the villages and houses are different, the people look different, and I’m sure that the set of requirements needed for development in that context, are different from those in Boukombé. Therefore, when truly successful development takes place, I would bet that aspects of both of the two following strategies are at play.
One of the groups that I work with takes the stance that by increasing the efficiencies involved in work, for example, by replacing hard manual labor with machines, that women can save time and use this time to do other things like take better care of their families, grow gardens, learn other skills, and perhaps do things like read and go to school. This new free time can also allow women to become more politically empowered and organized. In Africa, women are indispensible for the daily functioning of the family unit, they are extremely busy, and in aggregate they often constitute the economic backbone of the local economy; therefore, if women can increase the value of their activities, and be more deliberate and autonomous with their income generating activities, development will occur naturally.
By contrast, Atacora Essential believes that moving towards efficiency is sometimes an inappropriate strategy for economic development for several reasons: Africa is a place where things take longer (work days are slower, they start earlier, and they end later); work – particularly agricultural work – is a communal activity, and each trade or task has a cultural history that is inextricably woven into the work of the day; culture and tradition have their own types of efficiencies that Westerners may not be able to appreciate, and if one wants to preserve the culture of a place and foster its advancement on its own terms, then following a Western model of development may be the wrong decision; and most concretely, in the case of work such as shelling seeds and milling powders, increasing efficiency by using machines invariably means decreased work opportunities for women.
It is in the framework of this last point that I believe Atacora Essential was created. Most of the 22 women that work at the processing center transforming the raw materials into the naked grains suitable for pressing into oils and powders, have no real other work alternatives. Most of them could sell local beer and perhaps vegetables, but remarkably this is often with no economic benefit, and sometimes they actually operate at a loss.
This is a vision of development that, even just within this small area, is no small endeavor. But, Atacora Essential’s founder, Dave Goldman, himself a Peace Corps volunteer in Boukombé in the early 90s, believes it’s possible, and he’s going for it. Clearly, Dave loves Boukombé. I think he feels at home here, and that his friends here truly are his family. I would say that his priorities are to preserve the cultures of the local communities and to help create an environment in which the Betamariba people (the predominant tribe in this part of the Atacora region) increase their wealth by capitalizing on the unique, indigenous products of the region, as well as the unique skills and customs of the their culture, but in a way that does not create a system of dependency on the West for “aid”. Dave’s mantra is “aid doesn’t work”, and while there are many evident aid projects in the area – mostly American, European and Japanese – it is also true that many of these projects are abandoned or in disrepair. But more significantly, despite decades of these aid projects, there still remains a mentality of reliance on the “exterior” for solutions.
USAID has been criticized for fostering such a mentality around the world, and it looks like the newest American development agency, the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), might have been created as a way to test out an alternative form of assistance that breaks from the USAID model. MCC purports to use a model that is less reliant on aid; that is more dependent on local decision-making and local accountability; and to use an overused industry buzzword: that is more “sustainable”. I’m very intrigued by this experiment. I am hoping that large projects based on this new model will succeed and will lead to accelerated development in poor countries, and I am also hoping that ‘micro development’ projects like Atacora Essential will also prove to be significant forces in this process. I don’t know what Dave thinks about MCC, but I am inclined to agree that “aid doesn’t work”.
Western consumers’ tastes are changing. We are no longer only concerned about price, and are now more sensitive to other criteria. Now, the story behind the product matters. Provenance matters. As Westerners become more interested in obtaining their nutritional and wellness needs through whole foods that are rich in antioxidants, that are organic, that are produced through socially equitable/fair trade practices,and that generally inflict fewer negative externalities on the world, there are new options for communities like Boukombé that would have formerly had great difficulty in finding a market. The products Atacora Essential offers, fit well into this new Western nutrition niche, and I think much of the work now consists of educating customers about heretofore unknown products, a problem that I witnessed recently in myself. The other day while I was ordering an assortment of vitamins and nutritional supplements from the U.S. – and paying dearly for it, I realized that part of what I was ordering was available here. Due to a lack of vegetables in my diet, I ordered a mixture of ‘greens’ powders that includes many vegetables and pre and probiotic nutrients, some of which are present in our Baobab powder. I’m not sure why using Baobab powder wasn’t obvious to me, or why it wasn’t already part of my diet, but I balked at it. So clearly, in understanding and assisting in the sales of our products, I need to start consuming our products so that I know what I’m talking about, and also so that I’m not as mal-nourished.
I think for Atacora Essential, this nutrition niche may be a practical and successful way to bridge very traditional African products with new Western/American needs. In Boukombé, probably nothing symbolizes Betamariba culture more than the Baobab tree, and there are more Baobab trees here in Boukombé than anywhere else in Benin. They are imbued with spirituality and heritage, and both the fruits and the leaves are used for food and medicinal properties, and it really does seem like a magical tree. Therefore, on the Benin side, there is tradition and pride that is motivating the production and sale of Baobab products, and on the American side, there are the scientific, nutritional, and health interest that generate purchases. So maybe “aid doesn’t work”, but starting small projects, finding small niche markets, thoughtfully coaching within small communities, a bit at a time, maybe that works.