I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Boukombe, Benin in the early-mid 1990s. I pedaled my bike to lots of remote villages in the region to work with farmers, women's and youth groups to promote, initiate and implement projects related to ecological sustainability and agro-forestry. I relied heavily on the principles of Permaculture and the desires and knowledge of stakeholders to guide design. The most successful projects were those that participants understood to improve agriculture and generate income, thus there was a huge component of awareness raising involved. I found that acceptance for novel ideas was closely tied to building relationships with stakeholders by just talking, eating, drinking and showing a personal interest in their lives. In the best cases, the participants were the ones who eventually reached out to express their willingness to try something new. Some of the results were orchards, integrated agroforestry fields, dry-season vegetable gardening, soy cheese production and fuel-efficient cookstoves which have had lasting results. There have been Peace Corps Volunteers in the region for many years, and, although we hardly saved the world or crushed poverty, we all have had an impact and have gained a sense of pride.
So, about relationships as the basis for community development...building them was and remains the strength of Peace Corps when compared to other development projects. There are plenty of European NGOs operating in the Boukombe region in health, environment, education and other domains. Generally, their initiatives are conceived in offices in Paris, D.C., etc. by World Bank, USAID, etc. types with limited cultural fluency but loads of money, cars et al. The field agents often showed little interest in the nitty-gritty relationship department. They would hire locals to promote their projects and pay them far beyond the local pay scale, give them motos, and even send them abroad for training. My observation is that the resources to results ratio was fairly poor. I attribute this to the lack of time spent getting to know the place and its people like we PCVs did. Also, they have created a culture of dependency where stakeholders await external knowledge and capital to improve their lives, nearly forgetting their own rich resources and incredible capacity and ability to create a better future.
I've learned alot through experience and education about the need to engage stakeholders as OWNERS of their individual and collective future. I don't think the aid-based development model is very effective, and that applying local resources (natural, human, market, financial, etc.) to the problems of poverty and inequality is a better idea...Jobs and fair prices, not handouts...market access, not subsidies...sustainable local means, not imported material and technology (of course, there is some cross-over). So, I went back to Boukombe in 2007 to see what was possible according to those principles, and in 2009 created Atacora Essential as a fair trade co-op promoting gender equality, ecological sustainability and fighting poverty.
This is where Baobab (and other resources like Neem) comes into play! African people know all about the nutritional and medicinal value of Baobab Fruit Pulp. I know it too. Local markets just do not yield a decent income, and cannot absorb the magnitude of the resource, thus wasting time, effort and resources while letting poverty remain unchecked. People in the West (Global North) are just barely catching on to the immense value of these resources. Seeing the burgeoning market for natural health products and the rise of conscientious consumerism, I figured that this amazing product could be a vehicle to a better future for the region, where poverty has a firm grip despite the latent potential.
Trying to bust in to the US market is no easy task, let me assure you! I have managed to organize the production end of things in Benin quite effectively, but need that market access to blossom to achieve the goals I've set forth with my stakeholders. Again, the strength is in the relationships. I have known our Co-op members and most of our producers for nearly 20 years. They are my Aunties, brothers and friends. They know me and have shown an incredible willingness to work with me to bring Atacora Essential to fruition. By paying for commodities and work according to Fair Trade standards, we are confident that Baobab can be a major factor in creating a sustainable human development and a sound environmental stewardship in the region and beyond!!