Friday

Cameraman Raymond at Kasalgu

Last week, Sekaf began filming at The Shea Butter Village per the Planet Finance project addressing quality butter issues in West Africa's shea industry. This video will be used as a seminal training tool for processing techniques throughout the region (see former post) and demonstrate our mission on keeping quality and job creation at the center of this industry while being globally competitive. The preparation and actual filming was a lot of work but we managed to get the necessary footage for the first part of the filming, although several hours of editing await ahead. Besides our own struggles organizing for scenes and preparing the site, it was difficult to communicate to our processors how to conduct themselves for a demonstration only and not processing as normal. Usually, every time the women show up for work at the processing center, they self-organize and immediately begin without need for instruction or interference. In fact, you wouldn’t dare interrupt. They are professionals and know exactly what they are doing and the best way to do it. Their processing becomes a

well-choreographed routine to the average outsider and it’s damn impressive. Now, they arrive and must perform specifically for the camera in a very sequentially staggered order
and instructional fashion. Instead of continuing with their normal
flow of processing efficiency, they must wait for the camera before moving their nuts onto the next of many stages as to ensure we capture all the scenes. They must show both the do’s and discouraged don’ts in processing techniques. They must make exaggerated motions to demonstrate properly. They must look “natural”, never walk or stand directly in front of the camera. And all communication was done with one translator.



But in the end we all had a good time, and the presence of a camera really validated the significance and uniqueness of the womens roles as model processors in the region. We look forward to completing this project and getting this information out there to move the industry, and it's women, forward.

TAMA Black Soap...We got it! Moisture intensive, creamy lather, healing & naturally scented black soap

While we are continuing with filming project, we’ve also been progressing with our TAMA shea product line. Finally, we’ve closed in on our final formula for our black soap. Like developing any product, it’s been a series of trial and error but its yielded a great outcome…and we managed to keep to our intention of it being 100% natural, including it’s fragrance from essential oils. TAMA Black Soap is a new genre of black soap, and the first of its kind.

Black soap is a traditional soap in west Africa but I’ve seen so many different variations that it makes me think there is no singular agreed upon formula for a truly “authentic” black soap. So the environments and available resources of those environments vary, so do the inputs in the soap. But there are some staples that are always present that give black soap is unique “black” nature, which is found primarily in the use of cocoa pod ash (which substitutes for a lye), palm kernel oil, honey and coconut oil. The combination is highly medicinal and considered an effective antiseptic, claimed to treat eczema, body acne and blemishes, but often made in a way that is at the cost of moisture. Many manufactures have added aloe vera (also a fan) but it still doesn’t prevent a noticeable loss in moisture that stands up to the soap. So, we’ve compensated with the most effective (and healing) moisturizer in nature’s inventory, and in our savannah backyard, raw unrefined shea butter. It’s a perfect solution. We added the maximum amount of our own premium quality shea while still preserving an intensely rich creamy lather (I hope pictures speak for themselves!). TAMA black soap is scented with a combination of lavender, lemon grass and eucalyptus for a sweet and earthy aroma with a bright citrus top note.

The women working at our processing center have already taken over the manufacturing of the soap so they can hit market as soon as the boxes are printed. I am really anxious to see how it takes to the local market. So far, our trials have been positive, but I am curious to see how it will compete with the cheap petroleum based beauty products mostly from Asia. Anything that is foreign sees to be better than a locally made alternative. So we are kinda up against a cultural mindset but quality is a standard that also speak for itself…and I think we have reason to be hopeful.

Tuesday

PlaNet Finance Asks Sefak to Collaborate on Premium Shea Butter Education

Couple pieces of news to report. First, the women have all returned to Kasalgu to resume full processing activity at our shea production facilities. The chieftaincy conflict down the road has had huge impacts on all of the surrounding communities, so we are grateful that some sort of normalcy has returned, and it’s a good thing because we’ve had a pending project to carry out this week...which bring me to our second piece of news—we’re filming at the Shea Butter Village! Sekaf been asked by Planet Finance, a non-profit organization that contributes to development through the microfinance sector, to develop a film addressing quality issues afflicting the wider shea industry. Together, we will help design several trainings that will carried out in the northern sectors where the film will be used as both an educational and instructional tool on how to process grade A shea butter. The trainings are just part of the broader scope of the project’s aims to more critically evaluate and reinforce the various inputs along the value chain that prove effective in helping the women access international markets and satisfy quality standards. In fact, several hindrances exist to the fair and equitable advancement of the shea sector, but the quality issue remains a very pertinent barrier to women’s fruitful participation in the industry and ability to benefit from the value added profit of their shea. Other factors that are worthwhile to examine include the lack of both educational and financial investment in the communities, the poor infrastructure and unhygienic processing conditions, access to capital, poor group management, interference of middle-men and a skewed power dynamic that can reinforce disempowerment at it’s base…but perhaps we’ll save that for another post! This assignment bodes well for Sekaf, a company that strives to repute themselves as pioneers in the quality shea market, and the women processors who are begin recognized for their hard work and achievements.


As I write, I am just putting the final touches in the first draft of our script...that is due at the end of the day—yikes! We will be doing the first shooting for Part 1 at the end of the week in Kasalgu. Then, we will venture into the nut collector communities at the end of April for the second half. Stay tuned

Sunday

Cheiftancy Dispute Disrupts Life and Work at Kalsalgu


Shea Village quiet during conflict
I enjoy work in Ghana but offers it share of challenges, too. Some of which maybe I’ve alluded to in previous posts—basic infrastructural constraints, corruption, lack of education, poor health, etc. But then there are the more conspicuous elements in the culture here that have implications on local productivity and investment. For example, funerals draw in scores of people, on the spot, for the multiple day engagements and their subsequent festivities (they are often taken for parties). If there is a community meeting or group processing scheduled in a particular community the day that such unfortunate news passes, it would be wise to put our energy into rescheduling than trying to push on with the meager attendance. Most relevant at present are the chieftaincy disputes that are especially common in our area here in the north.

Last week, one of such power related disputes broke out in Garizegu, a community neighboring Kalsalgu, the worksite of our shea production center and residence of our women processors. The newly installed chief was ambushed when returning from a nearby village to perform the traditional formalities and greeting and slain by internal community member opposed to his chieftaincy. It triggered more violence in the community, several houses being set on fire and resulted in the arrest of forty-seven people. Some children even took for the bush in fear of the conflict, three are still claimed to be missing.




Boiling Pots abandoned


We are thankful to have learned none of the women associated with the processing center were injured but still must endure the residual fear and disruption of daily life that any such conflict would provoke. Communities here rely on a high degree of internal cooperation for the every day functioning of their local economies and power structures, not to also mention the basic maintenance of their social cohesion, the very pulse of its peace and vitality. Consequently to us, no one came to work at the Shea Butter Village for two weeks. Women hailing from the affected communities remained reasonably scared to leave their households and walk to the work site.

Fortunately, things are getting back on track again, and more women are showing up passing day. Military are now patrolling the community, which, of course, has its consequences too, but we are at least slowly returning to some normalcy. I can only hope that people can find a more democratic and peaceful way of resolving such community level power disputes in the future, lest the impacts continue to hinder not only the peace and safety but also the further progress of those most vulnerable.

Monday

From Nuts to Butter

Hello friends,

I wanted to post some more pictures of our quality shea butter processing trainings. To me, it is such a visually exciting process, and one that even evokes some confused gastronomical impulses-- not only does it share an uncanny resemblance to cake batter at some stages, in color and texture, but I could swear that it carries a roasted cocoa smell too. And then there is the marshmallow stage at the very end…but I digress! The nut undergoes several different stages and physical manifestations on its way to become butter, and yet further fractionated before it yields a pure and stabilized oil, shea nut oil, which is considered a more specialty type product.

Shea processing represents one of the more a unique displays of traditional wisdom in Africa that I’ve encountered. It is kind of amazing to follow the logic they use through what I would consider to be a sophisticated chemical and time sensitive process. And yet still, processing techniques will differ from region to region. We are fortunate that the local processing methods in the northern region of Ghana are favorable, from a quality standpoint, to most other regions. Here, the women will par-boil the shea nuts before processing, preventing germination of the seed and other bacterial risks that will likely occur otherwise. For all trainings, we are conscientious not to “change” the pre-existing methods, but rather “improve” upon with some encouragement and reemphasis on the right steps (unless conducting trainings in other regions like Burkina of Nigeria where par-boiling is not customary and has adverse effects on the butter and on its end marketability). I feel like the women here already know how to make quality butter and also understand that there is no short cut. But given the right support and profit incentive, they can produce great quality butter which positions us at that ideal place that is a win-win for all—Sekaf, our coops and our customers.













Shea nuts are rinsed several times in warm water to remove surface mold and possible oxidized oil emitted from bad nuts. This step is not usually customary in local practices but is implemented to satisfy the quality focused markets abroad. The nuts are then laid on a clean platform to dry













One bad nuts can compromise the batch. Women comb through nuts removing all those unfit for processing. Nuts are then collected from platform and sent to on-site crusher in preparation for the roasting process. Individual households that don't have access to machinery will use mortar/stone for this step













The crushed nuts are rotated in the roaster to ensure even and consistent heating and avoid burning of nuts.

*Sekaf encourages the recycling of harvested millet stalks to use as fodder rather than firewood















Crushed and roasted nuts are then spread out again on clean platform to cool again before entering a grinding mill, where it is finely grounded again forming a paste and then let to cool over night. A finely grounded paste will yield a high oil content that can be extracted during the kneading process, as seen below.














The paste is then carefully combined with cool water to form the right consistency for kneading. The kneading process will take 1-2 hours for one basin of paste, depending on the efficiency of the kneader.














The mixture gradually lightens in color, signifying the the emergence of the fat. Once the color reaches the above color, vigorous kneading continues and breaks the emulsion completely. Cold water is then added to force the fat to rise above the water, as shown above. Now, you have to further filter and clean.


The butter is collected and heated again to dehydrate the oil completely and expose remaining sediments and impurities. The butter then undergoes a second filtration through a microfilm into a proper storage container.



And, voila...we have shea butter!

Saturday

Gumu Shea Butter Processing Center

Trainer Senyo Kpelly conducting quality butter training at new Gumu facility

Everyday here I witness signs of progress and development alongside the inevitable setbacks. Like you will see a nicely completed structure go up, like a school that received some generous funding from outside, and then ownership disputes arise and its ultimate fate is that as a grain storage facility used for the “big men” of the community (yes, the term “big men” is as serious and practiced social identifier as is “small boy/ or small girl”...although its may seem like the former is more condescending? My American instincts of political correctness have been under trail since being in Ghana. It’s like you have that immediate cringe sensation when you hear “big man” coming from your mouth but it also immediately eliminates any question about that person’s role in the community. Nonetheless, still trying to learn to take myself seriously when uttering such socially descriptive titles!). Likewise, working within Sekaf, I see several examples of ways businesses can build constructive partnerships with local people and communities, and not ones based on charity but two way partnerships that have profit incentive through building and utilizing skills of local people. And as a sentimental Returned Peace Corps Volunteer serviced in Ghana, I believe development happens in the minds of people. It is measured by the development of the social capacities and not quantified by the number of structures erected on the ground. And I see the shea industry as a perfect place to test that meaning of “development”.

Trainers Senyo Kpelly and Madame Rabi

So, I was encouraged last week to partake in the 4-day training in the new Shea Butter Village communal processing facilities in Gumu. Similar to Kasalgu, Gumu will serve as a learning base where “improved butter processing” methods are applied for the controlled production of a premium quality shea butter. The processing is semi-automated, where women are provided technical support and machinery to assist with the most arduous steps, namely the grinding and roasting of the shea nuts. Over 40 women attended the training and their enhanced skills will be employed at the center. Trainer Senyo Kpelly, Sekaf managing director, describes it as “processing with consciousness and intention”. He taught the same quality and quantity enhancing methods that he’s been asked to promote in government-organized trainings in neighboring Burkina Faso and Nigeria. Madame Rabi, the cooperative organizer for the women, and myself assisted. She made sure every question and concern was well represented and that the women were understanding the message and its relevancy to their pocketbooks. I was basically camerawoman BUT I hope that the pictures properly convey what it is we do in our processing villages and the hands and faces that are involved.
Women preparing for meeting at their new processing center
The Gumu project is adopted and financed by Akua Wood, who founded UK based cosmetics company Sheabutter Cottage. Like Sekaf, Mrs. Wood also represents the progressive development of shea cosmetic industry by establishing close partnerships with her supply base and investing directly into the women, providing the technical support and know-hows necessary for the delivery of a controlled production of premium quality butter for her cosmetics. We agree that the only way to move the shea sector forward responsibly is by keeping women at the center of the industry and empowering both their contributions and access to gains. This is exactly our intention with setting up our shea processing villages in west Africa, and no less important is implementing a strong managerial structure that can govern the progress of centers like Gumu in their successful engagement in the global shea economy.

Enjoy the pictures I am posting. I hope that it will help lead to a better understanding and appreciation of shea butter and the faces and hands behind it.

Cheers to you all!

Friday

Beginning a New Year with New Ambitions



Greetings and very Happy New Year to you all! Wishing you all the courage and prosperity to boldly step to 2010 and make even the most dormant of dreams come to be this year.

The past year for us at Sekaf has been one marked of several changes and growth for the company. We inaugurated the first Sekaf Shea Butter Village in Kasalgu, which remains a keystone feature of our strategy to bring quality shea to the world markets through the focused integration and centralization of our women processors. They undergo several trainings on improved processing methods to standardize quality and maximize oil yields from their nuts. This past week, I have been assisting with new rounds of quality-focused trainings at a recently constructed Shea Butter Village on the outskirts of Tamale. Its been interesting to see the impact small modifications in nut preparation and processing techniques can have on the final quality and quantity levels achieved in their butter. We hope this new processing village will enjoy similar momentum to the one in Kasalgu in the course of the year. This year also marked our fruitful partnership with Solidity Trade, who has contributed their sales force to embolden our reach into the global markets. We are grateful this partnership has revealed more growth potential for Sekaf and allowed us to concentrate on our core operations- organizing and training women to prepare a premium shea butter for delivery in the world market. In 2009, we achieved our ECOCERT organic certification after many hard efforts on the part of Sekaf, our interns, our women and supportive field staff and volunteers. The improved processing methods for organic butter yields an additional 10-12% more oil compared to the industrial averages. We hope this success will continue with our Fair Trade certification we are going for using IMO.


Finally, in the latter part of the year we started to put together a shea product line, TAMA, a very interesting project for my own involvement as I am a firm believer in shea butter’s use in cosmetics, not to mention its important roles in shaping female labour structures and identities in the rural savannah environs of Africa. There is absolutely no other oil with more medicinal benefits for your body than shea, when processed in a way that maintains its biological integrity. This has been a project Sekaf has intended on doing for some time but finally feel they’ve achieved a favorable enough market position and desired reputation to do it with the intended impact and success. TAMA represents Sekaf’s interest in making a locally made shea based body care line widely accessible and popular to both internal African markets and those abroad. It seems sometimes that any imported product is perceived as containing more inherent value than those that are manufactured locally, even if the local quality is superior. Sekaf’s goal is to reverse this trend, take a local product with already significant value potential, like shea, and develop the local industry for a professional production and promotion of the value-enhanced end product. Marketing a shea based body care line was therefore essential to this end, and we hope to see it have the desired market traction locally and abroad.

Last year, we invited soap maker expert and founder of UK based Shea Butter Cottage, Akua Wood, to Kasalgu to conduct a series of soap making trainings with women groups at Sekaf. Together, we’ve developed the formula for our Shea Butter Soap (incorporating an impressive 48% shea butter per bar…enough for intense moisturizing effect but not too much to compromise a rich lather) and traditionally made Black Soap enhanced with shea butter. The women have already started the production and we only wait to finalize the packaging details. We have just finished a TAMA Shea Body Oil which already hit with tremendous popularity in the local markets. Shea Oil contains all the medicinal benefits of shea butter but in the oil form desired for easy application and practicality. I’ve sent some samples of the above to my friends and family back home who rave about the changes their skin has witnessed. Women at Kasalgu Shea Butter Village manufacture all of the TAMA products. We look forward to bringing these products out to the market by March.

We anticipate 2010 to be filled with success in our ambitions, especially the most recent in launching our TAMA line. Be sure to check back when we officially release our products. They will be available through our website, www.sekafghana.com, and several online distributors.

Until next time, all my warmest wishes for a fruitful new year for you!

Saturday

Who and What is Fair Trade??

On my fourth application of chap stick during a one hour sitting, it became official that harmattan had arrived, with its bone-dry skin and dusty saharra feet. This is the season when the wind from the desert north blow southward, bringing its intensely dry air and leaving a trail of red dusk behind. The days resemble that of a desert, where the sun is harsh in the daytime and nights are cool, and I would qualify even cold (although remember this is coming from a girl who hasn’t experienced anything below mid 70s for several months). I actually enjoy this season, for all its harshness and desert allure and more so because it serves as a reminder of the role and value of shea butter. Locals in these climates have sheltered their skins for hundreds and thousands of harmattans, applying it to their entire bodies for its intensive moisture and healing properties of shea butter.

So, in this truly authentic spirit of shea, I wanted to give a little update on where we are at with our projects. The past month we have been studying the criteria for fair trade and strategizing on our approach for its implementation. Not surprisingly, it is a lot of paperwork. We are organizing several documents for office use- proof of fair pay, granting of all legally required benefits and pensions, evidence of hired staff’s understanding of workers rights, etc., and for field use- develop traceability documentation to distinguish between fair trade shea nuts and conventional, help develop the coops internal control system documents (contracts, constitutions, MOU’s, roles assignments, etc.) and I’ve been doing my best to diligently put things together in time for our audit. This coming month we will be making more trips out to the community for training sessions with the intent of educating the women on how to manage a fair trade system and decide on a use for the premium fund (the additional profit from sale of the butter that will put back into a community development project fund). I will be sure to update you with our field excursions, including our 3 night overnight in Daboya during the trainings ( :

We are excited about working with our certifier, IMO, for our fair trade project. We believe that their definition of “fair trade” is indeed, most fair, and approach more realistic and practical for our situation as a company working along several levels of the supply chain, from the tree to the shelf. It has been an interesting experience to learn how “fair trade” in theory translates into application with different “fair trade” certifiers. As the ethical motivations governing fair trade have become more popularized in mainstream culture, the actual practice of fair trade and its ability to deliver the intended effects to its beneficiaries seems to have become unfortunately diluted in the larger picture. In my own experience, I strated to perceive the famous “Fairtrade” logo as becoming more of a corporate symbol, exclusive to larger sized producer entities that could afford all the associated fees and the additional required kickback that goes back to the certifying organization, which, depending on who certifies you, can be quite expensive. Of course, most of it is reasonably justified as administrative costs but several certifying bodies are criticized for setting the returns beyond what is necessary to maintain a seamless internal administrative functioning therefore taking more away from the profits that could return to pockets at the producer level, which may occur as somehow contradictory to the intent of fair trade or deceiving to the supporting consumer base at best. So the question remains, is fair trade really the best way to make the right changes in this often biased global market place? And what organization best represents the ethical aims in their policies and certification mandates? I don’t know if I am able to answer the former outside (indeed, it is still a healthy ongoing debate) of our immediate context as a shea butter manufacturing company but do believe within parameters relevant to us, IMO is the right organization for our intents and goals, of profiteering and empowerment for our producer women groups and us in the most direct way possible.

A few elements stood with IMO that made it seem most appropriate for us, and one that better addressed the shortfalls of more conventional fair trade schemes.
I was first attracted to IMO’s version of price setting, where rather than it being set and enforced by a third party arbitrator who is often not well informed about current market relevant data, it is rather set by a process of open, transparent and documented negotiations directly between the fair trade processor group and the buyer. I believe the latter gives the group more autonomy and ability to market to various buyers in changing market environments. I also think IMO strategy helps promote partnerships among various levels of a given supply chain, which makes fair trade more accessible to various producer groups who otherwise would find difficulty finding the necessary support for certification. It is a more qualitative approach to fair trade in our estimation as compared to most of its counterparts, and we believe will translate into the intended benefits at ground level.

So, all of this gives us confidence in going into this but the real proof will inevitably be after implementation, when we can get feedback from the women about the specific ways in which a fair trade scheme has impacted them, as individuals and as a group entity. Sekaf already practices fair trade aspects in many ways using micro financing with the groups, creating communal platforms for their collective participation and carrying out several skill building trainings, all of which we believe qualifies as a fair trade system. However, the establishment of real documentation system and producing of tangible evidence of these activities and its consequential advancements are equally important to legitimize fair trade and give more confidence in the integrity of its definition with the larger consumer base.

With that, I’ll leave you with my thoughts as far as they have progressed at this point until further development. Also wish to encourage every reader in a cold wintery and wet environment to APPRECIATE it with gusto. My dusty lungs are longing for some cold breaths of damp air!

Cheers to you all and happy holiday season from Ghana!

Monday

Press Release on Sekaf and Solidity Trade Partnership

We are thrilled to announce the new partnership with Solidity Trade. Below is a copy of the press release I just submitted about the news.

Solidity Trade CEO, Mr. Lam Tran, on left, with Sekaf Ghana's Mr. Senyo Kpelly, on right, at the International Shea Butter Conference held in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso in March, 2009

Sekaf Ghana LTD, a Ghanaian company specializing in production of organic and conventional shea butter and manufacturing of the shea product line, Tama, has announced the inception of a long-term business partnership with Solidity Trade. Solidity Trade is a US-based marketing and venture capital firm working with various institutions to secure trade relationships with West African commodities, particularly in the agro-sector. The formal collaboration represents a seamless convergence of the companies’ paralleling missions to address poverty in West Africa with market orientated solutions that develop the creative entrepreneurial capacities of the local people and their economies. While enabling Sekaf to primarily occupy in its core operations, the production of a cosmetic grade shea butter and development of shea based beauty and personal care products, Solidity Trade acts as the effective marketing force needed to give the company its global reach into the most competitive of markets.

Managing director of Sekaf, Senyo Kpelly, signed a MOU with Solidity Trade CEO, Lam Tran, in September 2008 under a mutual recognition of the critical role of the shea industry in bringing about profitable and responsible development to the region through the emphasis of cultivating a new industry image for quality shea butter. Sekaf’s quality achievements are recognized through pioneering a progressive production model as demonstrated in the Sekaf Shea Butter Village, located at Kasalgu, near Tamale.


On the topic of partnership, Sekaf’s Senyo Kpelly says:

Mr. Kpelly states that, “This is a strategic partnership for growth that with enable Sekaf to build more Shea Butter Villages across the three Northern regions of Ghana, increase job creation and our production capacities for premium handmade shea butter to satisfy the increasing global demand for our product. Solidity Trade is a complimentary match to realize this vision. We will continue to promote this progressive production model that is a community based centralized semi-mechanized shea butter processing factory equipped with modern facilities that enable local processors to produce premium quality handmade shea butter in the best controlled environment. This new strategic approach we believe is the panacea to address the critical quality and marketing issues that plague the traditional African shea butter industry”.

Mr. Tran of Solidity Trade similarly recognizes the significance of this relationship in the global shea butter industry and the potential impact it can have on west African economies. His statement regarding the mastership with Sekaf is below:

"By linking the international markets with West African producers, SEKAF revealed to be an excellent source in the industry of shea butter and allows Solidity Trade to change the image of the West Africa by providing top notch quality shea butter to the world. The growth over the last year has been tremendous. The skills that we brought to SEKAF was a perfect match with Solidity Trade in terms of cooperation among the decision makers. This match is critical in reshaping the shea butter industry and create more jobs every year and reduce the poverty in the rural areas of West Africa."

The partnership is indeed an ambitious step forward for Sekaf and Solidity Trade, and a hopeful representation for the forward progression of the larger shea industry itself.

Thursday

ECOCERT Awards Sekaf Ghana EC and NOP Organic Certificates








Greetings! First news- Sekaf is now enjoying its formal status as a supplier of organically certified butter. Well, not new news, necessarily, we were expecting the certification to come but now have tangible proof of the glossy certificate bearing important signatures that validates our green positioning. Yes! It hangs on our wall this very moment. Each year, we can chose to renew our certification and be subject to the annual audit, which ensures our practices are up to snuff with all organic criteria. And with each passing year, Sekaf, in turn, will have to run a cost benefit analysis to determine whether our program is financially viable. The organic business is unfortunately no different from any other business and really comes down to a matter of finances. Is the project able to generate enough revenue to be self-sustained? Does the profit margin satisfactorily compensate our efforts to maintain the more vigilant management system this project requires? We are hoping the answer is yes. There is no doubt several people representing all levels of the chain benefit from the value added shea nuts, and of course our mother earth ( : If the numbers are positive, we hope to expand on our organic catchment area and invite participation from new communities. But for now, it seems more sensible to maintain a modest level of organic production, and then re-evaluate our ability to expand as we move forward. Entering this certification phase, we are mindful of the greater economic climate and how it may affect the organic business. Certainly, we have seen the adverse affects on the organic food industry in the US, where several farmers have been unable to find the market for their higher priced organic goods and are forced to go conventional again. But we hope to find the necessary support to carry on with our activities here. Most of our stock is considered conventional, and therefore relatively safe from any niche market assaults that may occur during rough economic times. So, we remain confident, but vigilant still, that our efforts will undergo the necessary support to continue and hopefully attain new ground for growth in the near future.

Tuesday

Sekaf Fair Trade Project- A Bridge of Hope for the People beyond the White Volta River



DABOYA- Our Fair Trade Community

Besides our organic project, we continue with our fair trade, where we will be working with one community to establish our terms of trade on a mutually agreed upon platform. Let me introduce Daboya.

Daboya has a unique profile that renders itself ideal for fair trade certification consideration. The community, sitting across from the White Volta, a major river in Ghana, is separated from trading opportunities in Tamale, the capital of the Northern region, and its peripheral markets. Their disadvantaged positioning makes it difficult to not only access outside markets but also to attract outside investment in. Any trader is subject to high fees (unjustifiably exorbitant, actually, in my opinion) to use the monopolized canoe system required to cross from one side to the other and must take into account the poor road conditions (yes, even by Ghanaian standards) that vehicles endure to travel the 60 km from Tamale to Daboya (and trust me, there is not direct way to get from point A to point B). Community traders must additionally pay the higher price that Daboya goods must claim in order to recover from their own the transport costs. So virtually no outside or private investments of any significance trickles into this community, aside from some, excuse me to say, somewhat defunct government initiatives with their eloquent deliveries of empty promises that come right around election time. None of this really encourages any real economic growth in the community. Indeed, Daboya is not favorably suited in these ways BUT it does have resources and is situated amongst a sizable reserve of shea trees that, given the opportunity, their community could profit from.

Last week, John, my Fair Trade project partner, and I set out for Daboya to meet with our volunteer representatives to collect some more information about the developments of our women groups. This was our second visit to Daboya after first visiting the chief to seek permission for our project and meeting with various women leaders explaining our mission and gauging interest levels. The chief received us very favorably after it was understood that we are not a NGO (non-governmental organization) but rather a for-profit business.

Side note on NGO's
-

NGO’s sometimes can be branded as ineffective in these communities and blamed for encouraging a mentality of dependency with the same people it tries to help. The nurturing of this mentality not only limits opportunities for their own development, but also competes for community cooperation when private for-profit business proposals enter in without offering “free” help and are rather interested in starting a mutually invested economic partnership. Basically, it makes people like us look cheap!

Upon return to the community, the reps informed us that six separate groups had formed since our previous visit, each had self-appointed their own leaders and brought in literate secretaries, if none were within the group. Things seem to be moving smoothly. We later met with those women leaders to share some more information about the fair trade process and established a realistic time line and pace we can both move with. Sekaf has offered its full support to the groups in the development of certain required documents (work contracts, MOUs and any other document used for the coop’s internal business policies) while fully committed to ensuring a clear, and compulsory, understanding of the meaning (and specifically IMO meaning) behind “fair trade” and what each party is responsible for for its productive relationship. We have developed a series of workshops for the coming months to educate group members on these issues-- their rights as individual workers and as a collective coop, collective bargaining agreements, pricing systems, health and safety concerns, group management issues, a use of the premium fund for their community, etc. I need no convincing that this will be a rather time consuming endeavor that will require lots of patience but know these women are equally invested, or enough of them to motivate the remainder of their group.

I am eager to move forward and see how these things actually materialize in the coming months. What is unique about IMO, as compared to other Fair Trade certifying bodies, is that it really gives full negotiation power to the partnering groups, assuming that when decided between the affected parties, transparent negotiations will have more positive impact than an outside third party decreeing what is necessary by their terms only. For instance, some certifying bodies arbitrarily establish minimum price points for a commodity that will sometimes not correspond favorably with market fluctuations. In this case, having a commodity tied to a universal “fair trade” price can render these groups uncompetitive discouraging potential buyers who can find a cheaper alternative elsewhere. I wonder how the women will respond to the idea of having collective bargaining power in a formal business partnership. If and how will this new sense of economic empowerment translate for them? And how will the larger community respond to all this? Will we maintain the momentum, cooperation and interest we are experiencing now throughout the course of this project? I certainly hope so. In the next entry I will update you on our progress and results of these upcoming trainings. Be sure to check back!

Friday

Organic takes the Field


We are currently completing the final leg of Sekaf Ghana’s organic certification process, and for those who don’t know what its like to take a company through a certification process as such, let it suffice to say it is a lot of work-- field work, paper work, and constant collaboration with the various operators involved and company agents of our certifying body, ECOCERT. Our two former interns both contributed immeasurable efforts towards this project alongside various Sekaf staff members (I came in at the very end and basically pushed papers through). Together, they interviewed dozens of farmers and women processors in six different communities, carried out education campaigns on the actual meaning of organic and the standards in which we must comply to be considered for organic production, trained selected personal on oversight jobs and how to use the new documentation system. Beyond the social aspects, we had to create several new documents to compliment our existing traceability system (virtually overhauling and replacing the entire thing!), bring in professional surveyors for 18 km of our organic land and respond to every control point for both ECOCERT standards and that of the National Organic Program to prove our full and absolute (and enthusiastic!) compliance for certification criteria. Whew! Now that the audit has been carried out and we have put all the recommendations in place, we eagerly await the final response. Hopefully you will soon see our shea butter bearing the ECOCERT and National Organic Program endorsement. ☺

On the tail of this project we are initiating another (and one I originally came here to do!) which is to establish and certify a Fair Trade partnership with our women shea butter cooperatives. Sekaf believes this is an essential step to validate our position as leading social entrepreneurs in the shea butter industry while bringing more profit into our business and directly to the pockets of our women producers. I think it will be an interesting process and one that will even shed light on some questions I may have asked in the past…what is considered “fair trade” and how are its terms decided, what are the different interpretations from one certifying body to the other and what is the actual impact to the relevant parties on the ground? My thoughts on this topic will likely be sprinkled throughout subsequent blog entries (their relevance subject to opinion), alongside confessions of my own cultural mishaps (hey, some of us are new to this stuff!), but I hope you will continue to check back in to see the direction this takes. It will surely be a learning experience for us all!

Thursday

Sekaf Shea Butter Village Inauguration



August of 2008 was a momentous time for both Sekaf Ghana and our women cooperatives when we inaugurated the opening of Sekaf Shea Butter Village in Kasalugu. The ceremony cumulated over a year of construction work carrying out the detailed plans for our visionary center. Indeed, the village is emblematic of not only a business plan but a philosophy by which our success abides; that is, the inextricable link between our ability to deliver a certified quality shea butter and the level and scope to which we support and invest in our women processors and their communities .


Our centralized processing facility employs more than 250 workers for the cooperative production of both organic and conventional shea butter where women are paid a premium for the assiduous labour that ensures a high quality product.
The benefits of this center extend beyond the economic realm, serving as a platform for group management trainings, education on innovative processing methods and technologies and environmental issues and consequences of various agro-processing activities. Such a production and labor structure provides women processors a professional sense of identity outside of the home, a venue where they can exercise resource control in an acceptable realm outside of the strictly domestic and gender spheres, an independent income and opportunity to invest individually or jointly in outside activities, and finally a sense of pride that comes from independent ownership over their activities among many other unquantifiable benefits.


Sekaf has financed machinery to assist with the more arduous stages of production and standardize those that are necessary for quality control and consistency. Every batch of butter is produced under close supervision and tested to befit the quality demands of the buyer. Together, we have achieved a productive partnership we believe will continue to fuel our future success and growth. In the coming months, our company will embark on a few new projects, including finishing up an organic certification and setting up one for Fair Trade. We will also be launching our Tama line of shea based products so be sure to come back and follow us as I document the developments to these projects!