How we apply systemic change in a traditional community, breaking the chains of poverty
Dagomba tradition and Gender Equity in a modern society
Tamale is the third largest city in Ghana. It is in the Northern Region. Though most of us see Ghana as one country, the diversity and the differences between the different regions is large. Northern region is the poorest area of Ghana, partially this is because of the life conditions. The sub-Sahara area is less fertile than most other areas in the country and is struck hard by climate change. It has been the home of people from the Dagomba tribe for many centuries.
Most Dagomba are Muslim, though mixed marriages with Christian members of the Dagomba tribe are not uncommon. The tribal bond is more important than the differences in religion. Dagomba consider each member of the tribe as family – families are large, but the bond goes beyond the bloodline of what we in the West call family. For instance; the wife of a best friend is called ‘my husband’ by the other best friend who is not actually married to her. More specific: if I would be a Dagomba man, I would call the wife of my best male friend ‘my husband’.
Though there are not too many Dagomba people living up to their own tradition, it holds some key elements the average Westerner (and African) could learn from and should be humbled by. For instance, family takes care of each other. Another important principle is that the man must provide food and protection for his family. There is no gender equity in the way that Westerners experience or value. We can be judgmental about that, but if you truly understand and live up to the tradition it doesn’t really matter.
In Dagomba tradition the group is more important than the individual. This starts with family. The man is not more important than the woman, nor is the woman more important than the man. They both have their specific role in the collective (family) and together they need to be sure that everyone in the family benefits from their individual actions and collaboration. Both man and woman must be submissive to the collective, each in a gender specific way. This is hard to understand from Western norms and – more important – extremely hard to live up to in an individualized economy.
How traditions extinct
For understandable reasons, there are not so many Dagomba people living up to their tradition. I was privileged to be able to speak my harsh truth with the Na Yaa, the Dagomba king about how members of the Dagomba tribe themselves scrutinize the tradition or abuse it for personal reasons and greed. It gained us his trust, respect and support. I could write a whole article on how the rules of modern society make it harshly impossible to live up to the tradition. Instead, I’ve chosen to find ways to give tradition a future in modern society, together with the people who honor and value it.
Unfortunately, the people living up to Dagomba tradition are either the poorest in society or the few who try to be honorable tribal (wo)men in a society that doesn’t seem to value the roots and origins of the tradition. The poorest don’t have any choice, tradition. They have no access to proper education and tradition is all they have. The wealthy traditional Dagomba are not enough to compensate or choose not to because it costs them a lot of money but doesn’t bring change.
Even those that do go to school do not learn the things an African should learn, especially in rural areas this is the case. A chief in Zambia – a former bank manager educated in the City of London – once said this in a way that summarizes this best. “We are still educating our people to become British clerks. But the Brits have gone, and we don’t need clerks”. What he meant is that people need to learn practical skills, not just to survive, but to be able to live in alignment with their context and tradition.
A farmer needs to learn how to take care of the land in a way that next generations also can benefit of it. A man needs to learn that masculinity is not depending on how much money (or wives and children) he has, but on how he serves his family best. Most people in rural areas are better off learning how to build a house, a road or fix a motorbike and how to grow their own food than to learn English from books in a school system that is of the 1970’s.
Of course, does tradition evolve over time but that is not what I see happening. It is being destroyed, from within and from outside. With that also the positive elements of Dagomba tradition are disappearing. What comes in place is not specifically positive. People learn how to take care of themselves, not of each other. People learn that the individual and self-expression are more important than the collective and collaboration. People learn that you need to grow and survive in a competitive world of scarcity and in a reality where you either win or lose.
I write specifically about the Dagomba tribe and their tradition because that is the context I have been working and living with for the last 7 years. Most of those years I am living in the Netherlands, but I have spent significant time with traditional Dagomba to understand the key values of their tradition very well. But what I write basically goes for all tribal communities; look for instance what happened with the Aboriginals, the native Americans and the tribes living in the Amazon.
Stop dreaming and face reality
So, these are the norms of modern society, a society where money and Ego rule. And where has this brought us in the West? Most countries in the so called ‘developed world – the US and Europe – are rich as a nation but struggling with the gap between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’. Most Western societies are struggling with tensions between freedom of self-expression and intolerance/extremism. And even in the richest countries in the world many people are struggling to survive instead of thriving to be alive. In the Netherlands, one of 10 richest countries in the world, over 10% of the population lives in poverty.
Instead of being too judgmental about this I (we) have chosen to find a way where we could have ‘best of both worlds’. Well, there is only one world, but there are many different realities we live in. Instead of trying to convince each other of our own truths, we are trying to find ways to create a common reality that benefits all. This might sound naïve or idealistic, but the reality is that every human being – without exception – is dreaming of such a world. So why not create it?!
Well, because it is not the easiest path to go and because it doesn’t leave space for compromise and opportunism. There is no space for denial of the harsh reality we have created as a collective and no space for self-denial of your/my own individual role as part of it. It requires authenticity, compassion, trust and hard work. It is much easier to close your eyes or walk the other way.
Core values each tradition holds
Basically, every society has agreements on how the members of that society should behave. There are written laws to create unity (union) and unwritten rules of engagement to create community (communion). Since money has become an important part of our lives, each society also must make specific agreements on what is fair in relation to income and divide.
Relationship is crucial in each society. In traditional societies relationship comes first. There are three basic principles we have derived from the Dagomba tradition to work with as a professional family:
- Relationship towards the land
- Relationship towards each other
- Relationship towards money
The professional family consists of Dipaliya Women’s’ Association in Ghana and Leap into Life foundation in the Netherlands. Though the life conditions in Ghana are different from those in the Netherlands we apply our principles both in the women’s’ cooperative and in the foundation.
The land is not ours, but we are part of the land. Like a mother gives birth to a child, Earth gives birth to us. It is a living, intelligent being that provides us in everything we need to live; air to breathe, water to drink and food to eat. We must take care of the land in such a way that future generations will have benefit of the actions we take now. We do not inherit the Earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from future generations.
‘We’ is more important than ‘me’. What we are trying to achieve as a collective comes first and we expect each member of our working community to contribute and to make choices that benefit all. The common purpose that we have formulated is the center of our actions and what binds us in the collective. Each will have her/his benefit when we collaborate and support each other. Each of us has specific qualities and skills and everyone has a basic right to exist and be part of the community.
Money is the positive impact of our actions, rather than the purpose that drives us to act. Well-being of our community members is more important than individual wealth. We share resources, knowing that not all have – or should have – the same. A fair divide is more important than an equal divide; we must make sure that no one is left out and that there is ‘food on the table’ for all that contribute.
From a sharing family to a professional family that shares
The core principles that we have adopted as Leap into Life foundation have its origins in the Dagomba tradition. However, we also set boundaries that are not there in Dagomba tradition. We need to do this – and are trying to apply boundaries without excluding members – because we want our impact to grow and become ‘sustainable’. Starting with nothing and a large group of people who are living below poverty rate we are still depending on the kindness of others. But where we want to grow into is a community that can create its own resources, sufficient to have enough for all included and to build reserves for future investments from our own earnings. We want to break the ‘chains of poverty’ but are coming from a situation where poverty still is a significant part of our reality.
As I wrote above, sharing is very common in the Dagomba tradition, but in the professional family we choose to share only with those who share with us. This starts with giving. To use the reality of our farming activities as a metaphor: there are many people who want to help us with the harvest, because that is the moment of divide. But there are few who want to help us with the planting and the weeding because it takes much effort without a direct benefit. We share with those who help with the planting and the weeding.
This implies some changes that are not so easy to apply, firstly because it is new and, secondly, because we do not want to lose the basic principle of sharing but to divert it in a way that our sharing will lead to more (to share with a larger group).
We work with the traditional order of the chieftaincy, but we do not work with all chiefs. We have chosen to do ‘cherry picking’ and make a very specific selection of the chiefs and communities to work with. Too many chiefs are selling the land they should preserve for the community to make personal profit out of it. Too many chiefs choose to work with chemicals where we want to apply organic farming to create healthy land and communities. Too many chiefs believe they are the boss and above the traditional laws because they have the position of power. Too many people in government and business give them the example to act like this. But, again, instead of looking at the black sky at night and complain about the darkness of the night, we choose to focus on the shining stars that show a bright example and bring light.
We are trying to build structures that include the positive elements of the traditional order and rules of Dagomba chieftaincy and support individual growth and self-expression in a way that benefits the working community as a whole.
Wisdom and decision making in traditional groups
In every village you see them, some tree trunks in a circle under a tree or self-made couches solidly stabilized in the ground. These are used for community gatherings. In Dagomba tradition men and women gather in circles to discuss issues and practicalities in the community. It is in these circles that Dipaliya womens’ Association was born.
The (men and) women gather in circles to discuss, but also to help each other. Every week they come together, and each member contributes a small amount of money to the group. This money can be used to help one of the group members, for instance to buy seeds for farming or a new bowl for Sheabutter making. Amongst the men also work is shared. Traditional farmers help each other on the land. Today we sow the seeds on your land, tomorrow we do the weeding on his land. Others help each other with contracts, for instance in construction. For example; the constructor works with the plumber or electrician in his group to build a house for a client.
The traditional groups are well organized; not in the way we know from modern companies but not so differently either. Each group has a chair, a secretary and an organizer. The chair is chosen by the group for his/her wisdom and capacity to voice what is best for the group. The secretary often is the one people trust most with money and the organizer often is the person that is best in organizing the group to come together to perform a certain task.
There are checks and balances; they are simple and practical, and they do work. For instance, the money is saved in a box with a padlock. The treasure keeps the box in his/her house but doesn’t have the key to open it.
It is very interesting to see how decisions are made by the group. In the West one would talk about self-steering teams and consent-based decision making. These are unfamiliar words for the average Dagomba, but they practice it much better than the average team in a Western organization. Here, again, it is the tribal genetic code of community that enables decision making through what we would call the ‘wisdom of the crowd’.
In Dipaliya the women making Sheabutter receive an individual fee per kg Sheabutter made, they receive an individual bonus for high quality and a group bonus for high performance. Until recently both the individual bonus and the group bonus where paid out to the individual women. Together with the women leaders, Umar and I proposed to use the group bonus for the group instead of dividing it over the group members. One can imagine this is not an easy decision to be made. The decision is not ours to make and, though the money is small, it is a big decision to give up a Euro when you are living of less than 2 Euro a day.
The process was very interesting and educational for me to follow. It made me humble and respect the wisdom of tradition even more than I already did. Naturally when the Magajia (Leader of the group) made the proposal all hell broke loose. What followed was an infuriated discussion amongst the women. Some were in favor and immediately agreed, other where strongly against it and fought for the small money they perceived to be entitled to.
During the conversation one could see that the women were really listening to each other; even those who strongly disagreed with each other were able to let the other voice an opinion they did not share. During the meeting perspectives started to shift; some that were against the proposal turned in favor of it, others stayed strongly in their resistance.
At a certain moment ‘something’ happened. I do not know exactly how to give words to it, but it seemed like the whole energy of the conversation in the group changed. The leader voiced the arguments in favor and the arguments against the proposal and then expressed what she thought is best for us as a group. If we save the money, we will be able to buy the things we have been talking of that we need for such a long time. Though each of us must sacrifice, we will all benefit of it. Resistance still was there and there was some talking before the decision was made. Then came the moment that I still call magical.
The leader voiced the decision that each had to give up her claim to the collective group bonus for the benefit of the group. When she expressed it, the whole group nodded, even the women that were still against it. The decision had been made by the whole group and was accepted by each individual member. This is what a Westerner would call consent.
Where in most Western setting there still would be resistance or so called ‘pocket veto’s’ none of it was there. Everybody in the group could feel the shift that had been made. A decision had been made by the group and for the group. The leader voiced it as a channel, not because she is the boss. I still believe this was only possible because of that strong traditional sense of communion.
The price of leaving tradition behind
None of the 1.000 women in Dipaliya has gone to school. They can’t read or write, let alone speak English. Every day they and their families are struggling for basic human needs like water and food on the table; every day again. The families live of farming and of Sheabutter making. Sheabutter is important in many ways. It doesn’t only provide direct income for the women, providing them a certain amount of financial independence. It also brings dignity; Sheabutter making comes from a centuries old tradition. It gives the women status, in the community and in the family. It is their way to contribute to the family’s basic needs and it shows how women are important in the community and tradition of the tribe.
Most men in the families are illiterate as well. They have the obligation to provide the food for the family. But without proper education they will never find a job in modern society. To be honest it is also not something they are aspiring. An office job, often far from the family, is not the future most men and women – in the communities we work with – dream of. The men want to earn a decent living as farmers (plumber, electrician, carpenter, block maker, …) and the women want to upkeep their traditional role as leader of the family household. They want their families to stay together and they want togetherness in their communities. They are dreaming of a little bit more (financial) stability and a chance to break through the chains of poverty without giving up their tradition. Most men and women do not want to break up the family bond and the traditions of their tribe for the sake of money. And why should they?!
However, most educational and developmental aid programs do not bring an alternative other than a choice between either living a traditional life in poverty or to let go of their core values for the sake of – what we call – progress. But even with proper education their chances of a better future are very small. Over 50% of the population in Ghana Northern Region is under 35 years of age and unemployment is much larger than the average in Ghana. Even if one leaves the village to find a job in town (or abroad) those with a job are highly underpaid. Here you see the ‘shadows’ of the ‘free market’ and of modern business. It creates debt-based poverty in Ghana and modern slavery outside.
The tradition of community is the only thing that protects poor families from business(wo)men taking advantage of the difficult situation these families are already in. Without it, most are pushed deeper into poverty, having debts or jobs that they do not like and are underpaid.
The largest export product of Ghana Northern Region is cheap labor. Men building the soccer stations in Qatar and the hotels in Saudi Arabia in inhumane conditions. Men risking their lives to find wealth in Europe ending up as slaves in North Africa or – at the best – as street sellers and cleaners in Europe; women ending up in prostitution where they were promised a job in the household (in Arab countries African/Asian house-girls and nannies are often raped by the men in the families they work for).
The tradition of sharing is not only a way poor the poor to survive. (I have some rice, you have some tomatoes, she has some peppers; together we have a meal). It also is an important fundament to build upon, preventing negative expressions of self (Ego) to manifest and take over. Already one can see how the principle of community is abandoned – primarily by young people – and how it breaks communities down, creating separation and distrust.
Every parent whish for their child to have a better future with less poverty. The young people see examples of wealth on TV, in advertisements and with the Westerners who are in Ghana. Most of the youngsters want to copy what they see on TV; they want to drink Coca cola (Malt) instead of the local drinks; they want to spend their money rather to ‘top up’ the credit on their phone to use Facebook instead of sharing the little they have to pay for medication of a family member; they want to use the expensive soaps and perfumes made by the large (foreign) companies instead of the local ones; they want to use the chemicals in farming because it looks so easy; they do want the wealth, but are not willing to work for it nor capable to see how high the price is they are actually paying. Crime is increasing and without the bondage of community or without the man close to his family, gender equity is also declining.
People are more important than numbers
Despite all efforts to solve the major issues our global society and Africa are confronted with, we are not making the progress we should and can make. We went from 7 Millennium Development Goals to 17 Sustainable Development Goals. Despite billions and billions of Dollars/Euro’s ‘invested’ as developmental aid or ‘Fair Trade’, those at the so called ‘Bottom of the Pyramid’ do not really benefit of it. The chains of poverty are not broken and still for every Dollar/Euro that goes into Africa, more than 6 are taken out of it. Africa is the largest continent in the world and the richest in terms of natural and human resources. But most people are still living in poverty.
Nobody wants to be part of a losing team or contribute to something that does not seem to be working. That is one of the reasons why we see the UN, World Bank, NGO’s and Social Enterprises only show us numbers of success. But numbers can easily be manipulated, and numbers can lie.
According to reports and headlines in the news the percentage of people living below poverty rate has decreased. The reality is that the number of people living below poverty rate has increased with more than 5.000.000! More people than ever before are benefitting the global wealth and more people than ever before have access to clean drinking water. The reality is that still over 90% of the people in Nigeria do not have access to clean drinking water. NINETY PERCENT! Nigeria is the largest economy in Africa and one of the richest countries on the continent, together with South Africa. Over 15% of the global population is deprived access to a safe home and considered to be a refugee; that is about 1.500.000.000 human beings, men women and children. I can assure you that the exact number of people probably is even larger than the numbers in the statistics. There is a lot of ‘hidden poverty’.
These numbers represent people and it really frustrates me how the numbers seem to be more important than the humans they represent. In Europe I speak with policy makers and decision makers. They can hear my comment on the numbers and the policy, even if they disagree (which most do). But what is painful to me is that when I give small individual examples of what it means to the people I work (and live) with in the communities in Ghana, most close their ears and turn their heads.
Even those willing to listen and help are having difficulties to comprehend the reality the women and farmers from Dipaliya are living. A proposal needs to fit into an SDG or in a format; the standards are Western, often too complex to comprehend for the average Dagomba in our communities. But we work with poor, local people and engage with the limited reality they live in. The daily, practical issues Dipaliya is facing often does not fit in a single or a few SDG’s, they do not fit in a business plan by Western standards.
There are some major systemic defaults in the way we have organized modern society, developmental aid and international trade; there are some serious biases and blind spots in how we think of human (personal) development, community. progress/growth and impact. I can’t ‘solve’ the global challenges, nor can I change the biases in modern thinking or policies. But I can ‘fight’ for the people that I care for, though I can’t even solve their issues for them.
The wise fool
Seven years ago, I was invited by representatives of the Dagomba tribe and I accepted the invitation, not knowing it would bring me where I am now. I came with a story about education and a plan to bring Western managers/leaders to Africa to learn from the wisdom of Africa. Very soon it became clear to me that my story and program would not serve the communities I met in Ghana. I didn’t want to bring people from Europe to Ghana without the local people having benefit of it and I didn’t want to become a ‘helper’ of the poor, trying to solve their problems for them.
It took me 3 years to truly understand the specific dynamics and traditional values of the Dagomba tribe and to be able to see the global systemic patterns that are not part of their perception, though deeply influencing their reality. It took me another 3 years to fully understand what would serve best – how I could serve best.
With the capacities and network I have, I could have become a top consultant in change management, a business leader in innovation and technology, or a director of a large NGO or UN related organization. But life made a different choice for me and – though I am still struggling with that – I’d rather choose to follow what life is expecting of me instead of what I want to achieve and expect from life.
Some of those leaders have asked me why I am not one of those people like Otto Scharmer or Kate Raworth, writing books and travelling the world giving lectures on the change that the world needs. My answer in reply are always 3 questions: Who are the people holding their capacities that are really DOING the work they write about? Who does the nitty gritty work on small scale that brings the transformation on large scale they are writing and talking about? Who does the personal (inner) work and sacrifice that is needed to make those stories real?
Some say they admire me for my courage (most think I am a naïve fool) and some even say they envy the life I am living. But, to be honest, that doesn’t bring me much and doesn’t serve the work we are doing as Leap into Life and it doesn’t serve the communities in Ghana. Though my role is important, this is not about me. Though I am the one who is trying to bridge different realities that are not communicating, I am very much aware that I am not the only one and probably not always making the ‘right’ decisions.
Praise or judgment doesn’t help us, nor contributes to what we are trying to achieve. What matters to us is that people engage with their hearts and contribute with their heads and hands. Instead of convincing people to help us we are grateful for the people that work with us. It’s not help or support that is needed, it is concrete action that brings the progress we believe in. Fortunately people are stepping in and a growing number of people is working with us.
Meet them where THEY are
“The white man knows best” Though hardly expressed, this is what most local Africans and most Westerners tend to believe. The poor in Northern Region see their leaders and the Westerners living in airconditioned houses, driving new cars, earning a lot of money, living in wealth. Most Westerners, with all good intentions, are trying to help the poor to think like us and become like us. It doesn’t help and never will.
A very popular saying in the communities I engage with in the West is: “You can catch a fish for someone, but it is better to teach the other how-to-fish”. This is a very limited and – I must say – stupid expression. What we are doing as Leap into Life is helping others to take care of the pond. If you know how to fish but are not learn how to take care of the pond, your (grand)children will not be able to fish anymore.
Future generations need to be able to benefit of what we are doing now. This brings me to the interpretation of impact. Impact is often defined in terms of how many people are exposed to an initiative end often expressed in short term objectives. We define impact in terms of generations. Yes, we have defined our objectives as “the amount of hearts we touch and the number of mouths we feed” but our purpose is to create a situation where there will be sustainable, incremental growth. But what is sustainable growth and how to achieve this?
First, the initiative needs to come from ‘within’. Earlier in this article I wrote about the desire of the communities, their leaders and the women. That is the starting point of all our activities in Ghana. Secondly, one must take the perceived reality serious. We work with traditional people in Ghana and use the tradition as an entry point for our activities. We work with governance systems within the chieftaincy, we strengthen the chiefs in applying their roles in such a way as it is meant by tradition. Thirdly, one must take life conditions seriously. When people are struggling to survive today. It doesn’t make much sense to talk about tomorrow. Our focus of attention is to resolve concrete issues that matter NOW. The purpose is to create a situation where the community will have more time, physical energy and mental space to work on aspects that matter for tomorrow. A fourth significant principle is that those in the community know best what is good for the community. The women from Dipaliya and the farmers in the communities are uneducated and illiterate; this doesn’t mean they are dumb or do not know what wise action is. They know best what is good for the community.
It is the life conditions that are determining and are preventing communities to grow beyond the trap of poverty. When most of your time is consumed in finding ways to feed your family today, it doesn’t leave much energy to make plans or work on solutions for tomorrow. When you see your leaders take community money or sell land for personal benefit and get away with it, it is hard not to follow that example. People know the traditional and economic value of the Shea tree, and yet it is hard not to chop it down when you need firewood for cooking. It is basically impossible not to use chemicals in farming, even when you know it is unhealthy and killing your land. Chemicals are ‘pushed’ into the country and severely subsidized. And the consequence of losing your crops is simply even worse than the consequence of consuming toxic food. And when you do not have enough money to provide in your basic needs for today, it doesn’t make sense to talk about saving money for tomorrow. Etc.
We use tradition as an entry point, but that doesn’t mean tradition can’t change. The key questions are, does it change for the good of the community? And: is the change in such a way that one can keep the positive elements tradition holds? Does the new include the good of the old?
I shared that we did ask the women to save their group bonus for investments for the whole group. I described the process of the meeting where that decision has been made, but it did take us 2 years to work towards that meeting and decision to be made. Sustainable change is not something that can be achieved in a 2-3 years project. We see it as a natural process that takes time (patience and effort), just like it takes the Shea tree about 15 tot 20 years to give its first Sheanuts.
We have been working with Dipaliya for 4 years now, the last year as a foundation called Leap into Life. What made me grateful and proud was that the women this year decided to give up their individual bonusses as their contribution to finance the Sheabutter production center we are going to build. It was a decision made by the women leaders and accepted by the groups. This is one of the small examples showing that systemic change is happening and that it is happening in a sustainable way.
Dream big, act small, get real
Leap into Life foundation its motto is “Moving towards a Value Based Economy”. We have a big dream; to create a local economy based on Sheabutter making and organic farming that includes the traditional values of the Dagomba tribe. As I described above, we come from far and we started with nothing. Our first steps were to create a shared dream (vision) and to create some basic stability. Our approach has been that of experiential learning (action learning); we started doing things to learn from our mistakes. Now we are at a stage that we are to implement our learning into a next stage of maturity.
After 3 years of experience with Sheabutter making in the traditional way for international clients and 3 years of small scale organic farming we are going to build a Sheabutter production center. The choice to focus on the Sheabutter making has been made by the communities after many conversations with the chiefs, elders, the women and their families. They want to speed up with the farming activities as well, but they also understand that we must choose, given the circumstances we are in now.
The Sheabutter production center we are to build in Sakuba village is going to bring a lot of change. Our major concern is to have this change take place in such a way that it doesn’t bring conflict within the communities and that the new rules we are going to apply are not replacing the traditional rules of community and engagement.
Many individuals and some institutions/organizations have trusted us by giving a lot of money to build the center. Though we still need more, we can start. We want to be accountable for the money and other resources that have been given to us by individuals and institutions in Western societies (Europe, the US and Argentina). We want the center to be commercially successful and realize that we need to apply regulations, administration procedures and financial management in ways that are unfamiliar for most working in the center. We want the center to be self-sustainable, the community to have ownership and the women to be able to run it themselves. But the women and the community can’t run the center on their own and it will – most likely – take a minimum of 3-5 years before they can.
The center is going to be organic certified, which implies that we must engage with the Western standards of the certifying entity. The women need to be trained in how to work in a center and how to do that in such a way that the Sheabutter they produce qualifies as organic. We also must engage with local government to register the land and to have our building plans approved. Both are challenging. The certification will cost us several thousands of Euros and we need to find ways that working in the center strengthens the tradition of community collaboration and subscribes the traditional values of Sheabutter making as craft(wo)manship. For the necessary registrations we need to find ways how to deal with government procedures that are unfamiliar to the community and with government officials who want extras for their personal services.
For our accountability and financial sustainability, we need to apply administrative procedures and financial management procedures with which none in the communities are familiar. And we need to reorganize the women in small groups that will collaborate in the center instead of helping each other making Sheabutter from home.
We have continuous conversations with the women leaders and the chiefs on how to take our next small steps, given the big leap we are making as a working community. As important as the actions we take are the words we use. In our ‘business model’ we have taken some decisions that are not very common in Sheabutter production centers. Most centers are not community owned and are run in a Western way, making the women employers instead of co-owners. I’ll give a few examples on how we do things differently.
Concrete next steps – building and running a Sheabutter production center
We have chosen to honor the tradition of Sheabutter making in the way we organize the production process in the center. The women are going to work in groups of 20; each group will be working on a contract given to the collective. When a badge made by one of the groups doesn’t qualify as organic, we will hold the group accountable instead of the individual women. The traditional circle of the group needs to self-correct. We know this will work, because we have seen how it does now.
We specifically speak of the center as a “working community” and of Dipaliya as a “professional family”. This creates space to set boundaries where there are none in the Dagomba tribe. We do not replace the tradition by new rules; we set new rules that embed tradition and transcend at the same time. We keep the tradition of the smaller groups to come together on a weekly base to discuss the issues in their working community. The women understand that change is required, and we try to implement change that they can comprehend instead of the change we believe is needed. We ask the women to speak of collaboration and community, to share what their values are as a professional family and how this differs from being family only.
We choose to be more effective without having efficiency lead us. Most Sheabutter production centers have a kneading machine that can knead in 1 hour as much Sheabutter as it takes 20 women to knead in 6 to 8 hours. We have specifically chosen not to purchase a kneading machine. Instead of providing work for one operator, we want the women to spend those 6 to 8 hours together! It slows down the production process with 1 day. We have made this decision to keep the practice of community intact and to honor the craft(wo)manship of traditional Sheabutter making. Those 6 to 8 hours together give the women an extra opportunity to have conversations amongst each other while doing their work. Dipaliya Sheabutter is, and will be, traditional handcrafted Sheabutter.
Working in a center means that the women can’t do other things at home, things they are used to do and that are expected from them (taking care of the children and cooking). We take this in consideration with the working hours in the center and by building extra facilities like a place for prayer, extra sanitation and a safe space for the children to play and for the women to rest. We have made some other adjustments on the original building plan, based on the expressed needs by the women. We still need to find additional funding for those.
The construction work starts in Januari 2019, to be finished in July. In July 2019 we need the center to be turn key operational, including the finance management, logistics and administration processes. This means we need to employ people who can run those business aspects of the Sheabutter center. We want to select those who can work with the women in master-apprentice relationships to teach the women those necessary skills. We need to apply for additional funding; to guide the management in their role as trainer on-the-job and for the selected women to learn how to read and write and how to apply administrative skills.
The next steps we are taking as Leap into Life and Dipaliya Womens’ Association are a giant leap forwards and will bring major change. The women are not so much aware of it, but the center will also change their position in the international Sheabutter chain. Making Sheabutter from home makes them vulnerable; almost every woman in West-Africa knows how to make Sheabutter from home. The women are now producing for a buyers-market; prices are low and determined by the buyers.
Organic certified Sheabutter, however, is scarce and the market is growing. We will be able to establish more and larger contracts for better prices. Even without one stone of the center in place, (international) buyers are approaching us. Our current clients have stated that they would like to purchase the full capacity of the center, which is 120.000kg a year minimum. This implies an increase of production by 30-40% in organic Sheabutter only. If we find funding for 3 additional engines for the grinding mills we could even multiply that production and have more women working in the center. For contracts in traditional (non-organic) Sheabutter we can involve other women than the ones who are producing now.
We have new challenges to resolve and it is not unlikely that we will make new mistakes to learn from. However, with the spirit within the communities, the qualities in the Leap into Life team and the professional guidance of professionals surrounding us, we are sure to overcome these.
You can still contribute for us to realize the center or support Leap into Life foundation with a donation: https://www.leapintolife.nl
Alain Volz, August 2018