11 July 2006

The Critical Point

The Micro-Enterprise Development projects of West Gonja have reached a critical point in their development of the partnership between the women co-operatives and Opportunities Industrialisation Centres. For the last 13 months, eight of the newest groups have been taking training sessions which cover the process of packaging and marketing processed cassava, to learning how to price their product and make it marketable. In all, there are 13 modules that the women encounter, usually done in one to two hours, once a month. This process takes place before the delivery of the equipment to keep the women focused and to measure their interest in the partnership (done through regular check-ups and attendance records).

The marketing of a product seems unrelated to increasing the livelihoods of a group of rural women, but it's role is suprisingly integral. Products from an initiative such as the gari being processed by these women, or the shea nut oil they also produce (critical to many cosmetics products), is usually marketed in clear plastic bags or in clumps by the roadside and is often very competitively priced when many women sell in a small roadside market area. The little cosmetic appearances that can separate the products can mean a good day of sales for one women or opportunity lost for another.

So we sit in a circle of carved wooden benches under the shade of a date tree and discuss what it takes to make a sale; determine who the customer is and focus on appealing to them.

There are only six groups receiving their equipment this rainy season, however. Six of eight groups for which we are slowly providing proof of our commitment to the partnership, and the last two groups whose queries for proof are still atleast a few months away due to funding.


The partnership is drawn out specifically in certain areas, such as building construction. The women are to produce a structure measuring 16' x 14', and a veranda around the front of the structure 10' x 14'. Upon receiving word of completion of the 26' x 14' structure, OIC sends out a roofing team, a lorry containing all the lumber, aluminum alloy roof tiles, and cassava equipment necessary for full operation.

The arrival of the lorry and OIC NGOSUV is the culmunation of over a year of training and promises from both sides, and an exciting time to be involved in the project. However in June, the roofing was completed in only one village, with only one co-operative. The June 15th deadline approached and quickly passed with only one group finishing their side of the partnership. This represents a huge setback for the project, which OIC had hoped to implement by the peak of the rainy season.

Reasons for the other five groups not reaching the deadline are many. In some instances, rains were constantly delaying the construction of the mud-walled structure, and in some extreme circumstances, even damaging them. This led to the insistance from some groups that OIC complete roofing before the structure was finished to protect what had remained, and then the structure could be completed underneath. This request, while valid, uncovers problems and setbacks in its implementation. The structure is the responsibilty of the group to construct. It is their role in the partnership. If it is incomplete, OIC is unable to continue in its current capacity, because the partnership is not being followed through. The added costs are also quite significant if it is an incomplete structure being roofed. These added costs include additional lumber to prop up a premature roof. The result is a higher investment from OIC than other groups which have met the partnership deadlines on time and completed their structure.

What then is to happen to these five groups of women who have passed the June 15th deadline without completing their structure? Will OIC end the partnership? Will they not receive the equipment? While OIC makes it clear that the matter is serious, at no time do they consider denying these groups the fruition of their full year of training. The problems that have arisen must be analyzed and resolved as quickly as possible to allow the project to continue. Besides the refusal to continue construction, which was explained above, some other problems were found in the unfinished sheds; poor construction materials and know-how in rural areas was due to a lack of skilled labourers in the art of construction. Indeed, it is an art, as these sculptors are able to take piles of earth, add water, and create structures which are resistant to the rains and the wind. However in some villages, husbands were jealous of the opportunities presented to their wives, and would refuse to help construct the shed or find skilled labourers. This resulted in having the women begin construction themselves, on top of all of the other tasks they encounter on a daily basis. the resultant shed was often not square, would collapse easily, or was not to the original specifications agreed to in the partnership.

These projects will in time get off the ground, but it is the understanding of the consequences of the delays which have kept both sides working in the partnership. OIC's patience with the co-operatives, and the women's perseverance to complete the structure is awe-inspiring, and from the rain-soaked earth rise mud huts which will house the enterprise on which these women are about to embark on.

So what then, of that one village which has met the deadline?


Of the eight gari groups a bright light shines from the 18 women who reside in the village of Mognori, a tiny settlement precariously perched on the edge of Mole National Park, the largest wild game park in West Africa. Not only was the Mognori group the first to finish their structure, but they also used mud-brick construction. It is the second of its type in this village, behind only the mosque, and more commonly found in populous centres such as Tamale or the South. In the middle of a picturesque setting of straw-roofed huts and flat-topped mud kraals lies a brick fortress which took the ingenuity and commitment of an entire village to complete. Myself and Patrick are both suprised that they have been able to complete this structure in such short time.

The roofers are quickly summoned from Tamale and allows me to spend a few days in this village to investigate what has allowed this project to flourish. Some positive deviance analysis uncovers some interesting facts. I meet some teachers in the town who live their to teach at the village school. They are some of the few people who speak english, and are able to enlighten me to what has been occurring in this small community. I discover that until the project was completed, the leaders of the group met nightly to discuss the progress, how they would acquire the bricks, and who would be responsible for ensuring the construction site had plently of water, essential for the mortar. The women understood the partnership - they saw the opportunity, and acted accordingly in order to meet the deadline. But how did they do this?
I am suprised to see some men helping out during the roofing phase of the cassava shed. When they take a break during the blazing afternoon sun, I approach one husband who has sought shelter in the shade of a palm-nut tree. After a few minutes of questions about the project, I enquire why he has decided to help. His response is something I will not soon forget.

"They are our mothers. Our wives. Our sisters... when you give opportunity to a mother, you give opportunity to an entire family."

Certainly a phrase that is heard quite often in development, and indeed the very answer I received when I asked OIC of their focus on women. To hear this at the level of the village is to begin to understand what is taking place here, in the village of Mognori.


Anonymous Trevor Freeman said...

As usual, an awesome post Kyle. Thanks for giving us a little glimpse into the challenges you are facing. It's an interesting situation you described. How does an NGO take on that role of "stern business partner"? I'm very interested to see how this plays out. Please keep us updated on what happens with these villages.

What an awesome comment from that husband who was helping with the construction. As you said, it's something that you hear in development, the benefit and need to empower women. But reading it in a development book, or even hearing it at EWB functions (member ed., conference, etc.) is complelety different from hearing it spoken by those who will actually see and experience this benefit. I can only imagine how empowering it must have been for you to hear that. How much it would have justified, for lack of a better word, the work you are doing. Very cool!

Hope all is well.


12 July, 2006  

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