In our third blog about key people who make a remarkable contribution within the shea supply chain, we talk to Barbara Macon, Sustainability officer for Bunge Loders Croklaan (BLC) in West Africa. She tells us how BLC works together with its partner Fludor (BLC’s supplier of shea in Benin) to improve working conditions for the female shea collectors and enhance their production environment in the shea industry in the Northern Region of Benin.
It is 11:45 PM when Barbara Macon enters the village of Tebou in the northern region of Benin and she is enthusiastically welcomed by local children running up to her car. Today, a ‘stove donation ceremony’ will take place for the women who are part of Fludor’s shea collecting network. The event is part of a distribution scheme set up by BLC.
The women gather in the central square of the village as they wait for Barbara to start the ceremony. With anticipation they hear Barbara inform them of today’s agenda: a short introduction, followed by a theory session and a training session where the women will practice working with their new stoves.
“I hear you thinking,” Barbara says during our Zoom meeting. “A stove: why is that such a big deal? But, for the female shea collectors, it is a very important business tool. They use the stoves to parboil the shea nuts after collection. After cooking the nuts, they dry them and pack them in pp-bags for transportation to warehouses. The old stoves that they have been using need a lot of wood and created lots of smoke, which is unhealthy for both themselves and the environment.”
This type of practical solution can change the livelihoods of women and their families in the shea regions. The stoves serve as a supporting tool to the women groups in the Fludor supply chain. Over the years, BLC has been strongly involved in Fludor’s program, providing material and financial resources to strengthen the managerial and technical capacities of women cooperatives, developing leadership skills, improving their working conditions and impacting 36 women’s groups and 4,000 women in total in the northern region of Benin.
“Fludor has set up the program in direct relationship with groups of female shea collectors in different communities. The main focus is on supporting the farming communities, encouraging positive and progressive changes to meet the needs of international markets and contributing to the establishment of a sustainable and equitable system for all actors,” Barbara explains.
Fludor’s sustainability program integrates economic, environmental, and social responsibility. “A program that Bunge Loders Croklaan is proud of to support”, says Barbara. “Together, we are working for the success of the whole country, with a very long-term aim.”
But how to facilitate growth and well-being in environments where the absence of education doesn’t facilitate the organization of people and work? Where economic activities are seldom undertaken in groups and infrastructure is downright nonexistent? “The success of this program can be subscribed to the methodology and long-term perspective of the Fludor team. It entails an extensive group identification process to select which communities we can support best, various training modules to enhance the women’s shea collecting and storing, donation of materials and an ambitious system based on contracts and quality bonus to encourage women groups to improve the quality of their products,” Barbara explains.
“Besides providing the right training, it’s also about providing the women with the right tools,” Barbara says. “For example, the shea rollers that BLC donated facilitate safer picking of the shea nuts in the bush by preventing women from snake and other animal bites, back- and kidney problems, and allows them to pick more nuts in a shorter span of time.”
Back to the village of Tebou, where the ceremony starts. During the theory session, the women are explained how the stoves work, what the role of each part is, how to light the fire, what to use to make the ignition, where to put the stove for cooking and the amount of wood to use. But also, how to protect their children, how to extinguish the fire, how to clean the stove and store it.
Then the most important part of the ceremony starts and we see the wonderful effects of practice. The trainers prepare two fires, one according to the old method and a second one to use for the new stove. After the trainer’s practical explanation, two volunteers are asked to assist. The rest of the group gathers around them. Each volunteer has her own fire. The women start seeing the first big difference: how easy it is to light the fire with the stove and how much less wood is needed! Previously, the women had to walk very far to find large quantities of wood to make the fires. Now, only three pieces of wood are enough.
Next, two pots with the same amount of water are put on the fires. And that’s when the women see the other big advantages of the new stove: the less smoke that emerges, the very little wood that is needed to boil the water in less than 10 minutes while the other pot has not even heated yet, and the possibility to do other things at home once the pot is on the fire instead of having to watch it all the time.
The women express their joy and happiness because in addition to having the shea rollers to pick up nuts faster, they now have a new tool to cook the nuts faster while having health and environmental improvements.
These are the days that give Barbara the most energy, the days when you see progress taking place right before your eyes.
On the subject of future ambitions, Barbara tells us that they are looking to continue and expand current partnerships. “Together with Fludor, Bunge Loders Croklaan is looking for the possibility to facilitate the construction of storage and drying infrastructure such as warehouses. The shea collecting season takes place in Benin during the rainy season. This complicates the work of women because drying shea nuts under the best weather conditions is a difficult task. We were pleasantly surprised to see rudimentary drying racks in a village which allowed the women to yield better quality nuts.”
“We are also looking at supporting with alternative tools to the ones we have distributed, for example electric stoves or stoves functioning on solar-energy. 2021 will bring exciting new opportunities. We are looking forward to continuing our efforts. After all, we are building today for a better future tomorrow.”