Cashews, Co-ops and Constantine: One Woman Entrepreneur’s Remarkable Story, by Konate Issa, Olam International

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    Are women the key to alleviating global poverty? The evidence is overwhelming: in the BRICs markets (which have accounted for 45% of the global growth since 2007), female earnings are growing twice as fast as male earnings and women now control two-thirds of consumer spending; in emerging markets, women reinvest 90% of their earnings in their families and communities; women contribute as much as 60% of labour on family farms in Sub-Saharan Africa; and, as stated by the Gates Foundation, evidence shows that if women farmers across the developing world had the same access as men do to resources such as land, improved seed varieties, new technologies, and better farming practices, yields could increase by as much as 30% per household, and countries could see an increase of 2.5 to 4% in agricultural output.

    However, in my time living and working in my home country of Côte d’Ivoire, I have always found that stories are more powerful than numbers. This International Women’s Day, I would like to shine a spotlight on one particularly incredible woman who I have had the pleasure of working with for the past 7 years. I first met Mme Amenan Constantine Kouadio when she arrived on the doorstep of Olam’s regional office in Dimbokro, central Côte d’Ivoire, armed with an idea and solid determination.

    The story of Mme Amenan Constantine Kouadio

    Born in Djekanou, a small town 30 minutes by rickety bus south west from the capital of Yamoussoukro, Constantine is the only child of Mr N’Doua Kouadio and Mrs Fatoume Kone, who both came from a long line of family farmers stretching back generations. Despite her modest upbringing, she completed her primary school education and moved to Côte d’Ivoire’s second largest town, Bouaké, to take up a job as a secretary in a local pharmacy where she learnt the skills of business administration. However, the civil war soon drove her and her husband to return to her hometown, with their two children in tow. Without a job, and with little prospect of employment in the town, Constantine turned to the family trade.

    Two years later, after tending to a small plot of cassava to feed her and her family, and cultivating coffee for sale in the market, Constantine and seven of her friends – also female farmers in her hometown – came together and decided to form a co-operative. Explaining their motives, she told me: “Because of the unrest in the country, the local school only had enough to feed our children lunches two days a week. We turned to farming as a way to raise money and grow maize for the school so that they could cook meals for students every day – you can’t learn on an empty stomach!”

    From modest beginnings – just three hectares between them – they reinvested their profits and expanded over the years to produce honey, herbal tea and a small plantation of teak trees. One day, 6 years into the project, they heard that the French Ambassador to Côte d’Ivoire had been talking about promoting women in business and resolved to write him a letter seeking financial aid to scale up the work of the all-female co-op. A few weeks later, delegates from the French embassy arrived and following a thorough inspection, awarded the co-op a grant of 10.3 million CFA (approx. £11,500).

    However, they were still experiencing the annual cycle of peaks and troughs of activity and income that comes with the seasons – at planting and harvest time they were working all hours, yet there were long periods of the year with little work to do and the bounty from last year’s harvest running low.

    At this time, Olam was six years into operations exporting raw cashew nut from Côte d’Ivoire and we’d spotted an opportunity: given that only 25% of the raw cashew nut is the edible product, around 75% of the product transported to processing plants many thousands of miles away from the farm – often in different continents – is in fact waste. Opening processing units and establishing first stage processing operations near to where the cashews are grown in Africa made a huge amount of sense, hugely reducing the cost of freight and the emissions produced from transporting on such a large scale.

    Constantine knew of Olam from her time in Bouaké, where Olam is the single largest employer, and heard the news that we were establishing manual peeling units staffed largely by women in Dimbokro, about 100km from her home. With the seed of an idea growing in her mind, she approached our team with a proposal: to set up a satellite unit in Djekanou, staffed by the women in her co-operative and other locals. With flexible working hours, women would be able to earn a living in the quiet season, while still being able to work in the fields when necessary.

    Even then, Constantine had her work cut out convincing many in our office of the opportunity – Djekanou is a small town, and we doubted if there could be enough willing workers to make it viable, or if we could even find a suitable premises for the unit.  However, Constantine’s persistence paid off as she pushed us for an answer, demonstrating the commitment of her co-operative both to staff the unit and to invest money in building it. Eventually she won everyone round, and we agreed to help establish a cashew peeling unit in Djekanou. The idea was that Olam would continue to buy raw cashew nuts from Ivorian farmers, but then outsource the first stage processing to Constantine’s co-operative.

    Olam provided training, loan support and materials such as tables and chairs, peeling equipment and buckets that were needed to help develop a profitable cashew peeling factory, and the unit opened its doors in December 2008 with 50 local workers. The factory proved to be a success, and Olam continued to support the development of the unit and its 120 workers through literacy classes, health awareness programmes and professional development initiatives. While not everyone is always keen on evening classes, all of the workers in the Djekanou unit attend classes in the adjacent classroom where they learn literacy and other skills that will help them to progress to supervisors or find other work.

    After four years, we identified the unit as a potential site for mechanisation – peeling cashew nuts is extremely labour intensive, and in order to keep up with consumption demand we have to increase capacity. However, machines are not as nimble as fingers, and often leads to breakages so we always seek to combine mechanical and hand peeling under one roof while meeting international working and food safety standards. Constantine recognised the chance for scaling up that this would offer, and seized the opportunity, playing an instrumental role in securing the land needed to extend the factory and obtaining approvals from the many authorities for its construction. Now fully operational, the plant in Djekanou employs 300 workers, 80% of whom are women.

    In 2013, we carried out a survey of almost 6,000 women working in our cashew supply chains (including in Djekanou) asking them what is the single most important reason they value their job, beyond the obvious financial benefits.  36% identified that working ‘gives me independence and choices’, 33% singled out the impact on ‘status and confidence,’ while 19% felt that ‘I learn useful information to take back to my family’. Just 11% of respondents answered ‘none of these’.

    Last year, Constantine successfully transformed her co-operative into a limited liability company, which is empowering local women and catalysing the economy of her hometown.  In her own words: “The town is more alive now, the housing market has exploded as people are building and buying better places to live and, most importantly for me, women can now look after their children without having to depend on anyone else.”

    Today I have told just one story, highlighting the remarkable achievements of just one woman in one community, but it is not an uncommon story – remarkable, yes, but not uncommon. Entrepreneurs like Constantine fight against the odds to make a difference to communities the world over. My advice is this:  if you have an opportunity to offer someone like Constantine the tools and support to help her excel – do it, and become part of their story.

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