The Power of Small Scale Infrastructure

Palm Oil picBy: Beth Grabau Our guest writer Beth Grabau does great work with Self-Help International, demonstrating the similarities of women in agriculture all over the world, while showing us in the US how grateful we should be for our infrastructure.

We in the US are fortunate to have a well-established agricultural and processing infrastructure, however we often forget that in many parts of the world manual labor is still the norm.

“Women in Ghana typically process palm oil manually, a very labor intensive process that is hard on their bodies and tough on the environment, “ said Nora Tobin, executive director of Self-Help International. Self-Help International, a non-profit based in Waverly, Iowa, is well aware of the differences and works to assist farmers with palm oil production by improving processing, which in turn improves their lives.

“Most are small scale producers who struggle daily to make ends meet,” Tobin said. “They need access to capital in order to mechanize, increase productivity and expand their businesses. But banks won’t work with them because they don’t have any savings or collateral to obtain the loans they need to grow their businesses. It’s a vicious cycle. That’s where we come in.”

Cultural differences regarding defined gender roles add to the changes women face. In Ghana, men own the land and complete the production activities that include land preparation, planting, transplanting, weed control, pruning and harvesting the crop. Women complete the processing and marketing activities of fruit fermentation, bunch chopping, fruit sorting, boiling, digestion, mash pressing, oil purification, nuts-fiber separation, second pressing, and nuts drying.

Since women determine how the produce is to be marketed, they also determine the degree of processing they are willing to undertake. Women sell directly to the local markets and private marketers for distribution.

“The traditional process requires women to buy or cut down and haul a lot of firewood and to haul a lot of water to boil the fruits at various stages of the process. Women pound the fruit with a large scale mortar and pestle to separate the fiber from the kernel. The whole process is so hard on the body, and causes major joint damage over time,” said Tobin. “Self-Help offers small loans to enable women to purchase manual screw presses and palm fruit digesters to mechanize the process. This increases productivity and reduces the burden on their bodies and the environment.”

“The women in Self-Help’s micro-credit program are involved in a variety of businesses, so we link the palm oil producers to soap-making groups,” said Tobin. “Across the board, women love having access to the screw press because it’s easy to use. Those who live in villages with electricity and have supportive, mechanically-inclined husbands are able to purchase and maintain digestors as well. That mechanization is often the difference that allows women to send children on to senior high school, which is expensive in Ghana.”

Most of the women Self-Help works with have about a third grade education level and varying levels of literacy, so Self-Help provides frequent oral and visual training prior to issuing loans. While illiteracy remains a root cause of challenges women face, the women take pride in the difference they are able to make for their children. With their increased income, women processing the palm oil are able to better nourish their children and send their sons and daughters alike on to senior high and in some cases even college, enabling them to escape the cycle of poverty.