Creating Sustainable Baobab Powder and Baobab Oil
This is the second installment in a three-part blog series, part 1 linked here, discussing the nine Principles of Fair Trade as put forth by the Fair Trade Federation, and some additional Principles of Atacora Fair Partnership which distinguish our business model in the larger field of Fair Trade. Each Principle will be discussed in regard to how they are manifest in Atacora’s actions in Benin, West Africa. The first two installments will focus on the FTF Principles, and the final installment will introduce readers to our unique Fair Partnership model. Enjoy!
FTF #5 : Pay Promptly and Fairly
Atacora has a pretty unique system for compensating our Baobab producers. They are classified by zone, village and collective. The collectives are organized geographically to enable us to create temporary micro-marketplaces during harvest season, as well as to best organize our trainings and organizational meetings by locale. Producers bring their harvest, which is codified and weighed, and we calculate their earnings, verify it with them and pay ON THE SPOT. They like our system because, if you take the example of cotton, the buyers come and then issue notes to be paid at a later date. That lag time is not only inconvenient, but allows for corruption to filter in. When we first started buying Baobab, it was sorely undervalued on local markets, and much went to waste because producers did not want to waste time for too little, return. We responded with a much more interesting price, as well as relieving them of the need to laboriously transform the fruit and transport the seeds and pulp to market. Producers started coming out of the bushes eager to sell. That began to drive the local price up, and we reevaluate our price annually to keep ahead of the market.
This brings up an interesting point about Fair Trade pricing. Can paying too much be ultimately detrimental? How much is too much? Isn’t paying the highest price possible the whole idea ? We have come to discover that there is indeed a price threshold that, if surpassed, can create negative, unintended consequences.With the added demand for Baobab resulting from Atacora’s influence, the local price for semi-finished products has increased significantly, and there are many people, mostly women, who earn a pretty good living from the seasonal trade. Atacora prefers to maintain a symbiotic relationship with this micro-industry rather than outstrip it. We take a specific quantity of whole fruit with a known value, and perform village processing demonstrations to show the market value of the processed products and then compare that to our own price. We always stay ahead of the market price, and people know it, but the market price isn’t too bad, so if they choose to sell on the local market, to get needed cash before we can purchase at their collective, they can opt to do so. This way the market ladies can prosper, too. We are very deliberate and thoughtful before we act.
Lets say another Baobab operation were to come on the scene and pay a very exaggerated price in the name of Fair Trade. Producers’ pockets would be initially fuller. What might also likely happen ? First, producers will likely sell their entire crop, reserving none to nourish their children. The market price will go through the roof, and Baobab seeds and pulp will become locally unaffordable (the only reason the local market has become viable is because of Atacora’s added demand). The local market ladies will be out of luck, and the market could simply collapse and vanish…along with most or all of the nutritionally and traditionally valuable products at the root of the cultural identity and well-being of this community. This is an important point when considering Fair Trade pricing that I am not sure has been well-analyzed by the Fair Trade ‘powers that be’. A Fair Trade paradox.
In the case of our producer-partner organizations who furnish other valuable products, we are aware that our exacting quality, socio-economic and environmental standards increase their production costs. When negotiating prices with them, we always acknowledge this and respond with above-market and mutually agreed upon prices to compensate for their extra effort.
FTF #6 : Support Safe & Empowering Working Conditions
We built and then expanded and remodeled our Baobab and Neem transformation center in the tiny village of Kouporgou, right in the heart of Baobab country, starting in 2009, with the original members of the Atacora Fair Partnership Women’s Cooperative working right along with us. In 2016, over 65 Co-op ladies joined the Baobab production line, earning good wages where there are no other paying jobs. Their testimonials attest to the improved standard of living they enjoy, including better access to health services and improved scholarisation for their children.
We built sanitary facilities and provide access to potable water. Baobab transformation is a dusty job, so we made full coverage uniforms for the ladies, and provide dust masks and gloves. Certain aspects of the job are more difficult than others, so, in order to dilute the burden of the most difficult parts of the job, we instituted a work station rotation in our production line, as well as several scheduled breaks during the work day.
The Co-op has its own internal governance, and has collective bargaining rights. Our plenary meetings arehighly participative. We at the administrative end of the organization pay close attention to the Co-op’s concerns and suggestions. They are the keepers of the traditional knowledge of transformation activities, and they know exactly what they need to do the best job while applying the most efficient effort.
At the root of Fair Partnership is the fact that these ladies are our family. The Atacora Family is tied together by not only bloodlines, but by decades of mutual respect and adoration. We look after the ladies in many ways, including building a flour mill in Kouporgou, distributing cereals, providing no-interest loans and often using our vehicles to transport sick, pregnant and injured family members and helping with costs.
Among these noble women are very few that have any education at all. Only a few speak a little French. They dream that their daughters will have a future of greater opportunity. The Fair Trade wages they earn help to ensure that their dream will become reality.
In fact, Atacora’s Baobab outreach has created a renaissance of community. Better transportation and communication infrastructure has taken a toll on the inter-village and inter-clan interactions that have traditionally marked the calender in the Boukombé region. The Atacora umbrella is a unifying force. Our 32 relay agents are from villages throughout the region, and the fact that they bring economic opportunity earns them status and respect. They disseminate a universal message, and adapt it to the individual village realities. We have helped them organize themselves as a force for multi-faceted social change, and now they also organize women’s health, domestic violence prevention, vaccination and other events in collaboration with other agencies. Village elders and Chiefs from all over are always included in these activities, and often attend Atacora events, whereas this inter-village exchange was diminishing prior to Atacora’s involvement.
FTF #7 : Ensure the Rights of Children
Children’s rights and futures very often figure into our village training and meeting protocol. In any agrarian society, kids help their parents with agricultural and household chores. It is a cultural reality. We try to advise our constituents to not exaggerate this to the point where children don’t attend, or miss school because of these duties, or perform tasks that would compromise their safety, such as climbing trees to harvest fruit, or bearing excessive loads.
We advise producers to always keep enough Baobab at home to nourish their children and fulfill the traditional rites in which Baobab plays a significant role.
Sending kids to school and keeping them there as long as possible is indispensible to a better future. We often ask producers and workers what they intend to do with their revenues from the enhanced Baobab market. Typically, they respond that health and education are among their priorities, and we reinforce that notion with the advice that these are, in fact, enormously important, as children are the future, and should have the right to make it the best they can.
FTF #8 : Cultivate Environmental Stewardship
The trees that yield the raw materials for Atacora, and the supplemental income earned by producers provide many more services than just those two. Whether it is Baobab, Shea, Oil Palm, Neem or Moringa, each provides essential secondary products, helps to maintain soil fertility, controls erosion, helps to regulate climate and much more. Trees are at the root of Atacora’s triple-bottom-line business model, supporting people, planet and profit.
By opening markets for these forest products, we instill the trees with enormous added value to stakeholders, who in turn protect and propagate them to keep the resources sustainable. As part of our training programs, we offer information on best practices for resource management to maximize and sustain the benefits for all stakeholders. We advise against slash and burn agriculture, where valuable trees are removed in favor of cash cropping. We explain that agroforestry management practices where there is sybiosis among trees and annual crops is the most beneficial approach. In fact, we are reinforcing indigenous land management practices that are endangered by demographic pressure and Green Revolution-style monocropping and industrial agriculture.
Atacora has already certified most of our Baobab resource organic, and intend to expand the breadth of certification to include other essential resources we count on. Not only does the market greatly prefer organic products, but removing agricultural chemicals from production will benefit the environment and human health.
In our area, cotton has become a major cash crop, and is grown in the most unsustainable manner imaginable, with deforestation and poisoning the environment causing a host of problems. Atacora is now trying to reinforce Fonio production, which is chemical-free and harms neither fauna nor flora nor people. Revaluing this traditional ancient grain and promoting the value of its cultivation could begin to supplant unsustainable cotton cultivation.
FTF #9 : Respect Cultural Identity
The single-ingredient products we offer are essential parts of West African cultural identity. However, much of their production has become mechanized to the detriment of the traditional knowledge and practice surrounding them. Atacora stands behind the Co-op ladies’ indigenous practices, and chooses to employ more women rather than to introduce machines, to the greatest extent feasible. All of our products are similarly artisan produced. We also start every day at the Co-op with a little traditional rhythm and dance session to keep up the good cheer !