By Konaté Issa, Cashew Procurement and CRS Manager, Olam Côte d’Ivoire
Are women the key to alleviating global poverty? According to FAO, women make up 43% of the global agricultural labour force, yet they face significant discrimination when it comes to job opportunities, as well as access to credit and financial services. However, in emerging markets, women reinvest 90% of their earnings in their families and communities; and Gates Foundation research shows that if women farmers across the developing world had the same access as men, yields could increase by as much as 30% per household and countries could see an increase of 2.5 to 4% in agricultural output. But I have always found that stories are more powerful than numbers.
I first met Mme Amenan Constantine Kouadio twelve years ago, when she arrived on the doorstep of Olam's regional office in Dimbokro, central Côte d'Ivoire, armed with an idea and solid determination.
This is her story
Born in the small town of Djekanou, Constantine comes from a long line of family farmers. Against the odds, she completed primary school and moved to Côte d'Ivoire's second largest town, Bouaké, to become secretary to a local pharmacy and learn business administration. However, the civil war soon drove her and her young family back to her hometown. Without a job, and with little prospect of employment, Constantine returned to the family trade.
Constantine knew of Olam from her time in Bouaké, where our cashew business is the city's largest employer, and had heard that we were establishing manual peeling units about 100km away. With the seed of an idea growing, she approached our team with a proposal: to set up a satellite unit in Djekanou, staffed by the women in her co-operative. With flexible working hours, they would be able to earn a living in the quiet season, while still being able to work in the fields when necessary.
Constantine had her work cut out convincing many in our office of the opportunity - Djekanou is small and we doubted if there could be enough workers to make it viable, or if we could even find suitable premises. However, Constantine persisted and proved us wrong, demonstrating the co-operative's commitment to staff and invest in the unit. Eventually, Olam agreed to outsource first stage processing of raw cashew nuts from Ivorian farmers to Constantine's co-operative.
A powerful partnership
Olam provided training, loan support, furniture and peeling equipment to help establish the factory, and it opened its doors in December 2008 with 50 local workers. Olam continued to support the growing workforce through literacy classes, health awareness programmes and professional development initiatives to help women progress to supervisors.
We also identified the unit as a potential site for mechanisation - peeling cashew nuts is extremely labour intensive, and in order to keep up with consumption we had to increase capacity. Constantine recognised this as an opportunity to scale up and played an instrumental role in securing the land needed to extend the factory. Now, twelve years later, the fully operational plant in Djekanou employs 230 workers, 90% of whom are women.
In her own words:
“Olam’s presence has positively impacted the livelihoods of the Djekanou population. We have seen the opening of several businesses, more buying power, kids are able to go to school because their parents have regular revenue now.”
Inspiring a whole community
Since transforming her co-operative into a limited liability company, Constantine has embarked on new ventures in the form of market gardening, beekeeping and cassava production, helping to empower more local women and stimulate the local economy. And it’s clear that her growing influence is inspiring other budding entrepreneurs: “Groups of women and men, with my advice, have formed associations to create agricultural businesses in the region. Some do market gardening. The men in cooperatives created cashew plantations and I was elected President in my region, councillor of all women and third assistant to the mayor of the town,” she told me.
These are the remarkable achievements of one woman in one community, but it is not an uncommon story. Entrepreneurs like Constantine fight against the odds to make a difference to communities every day. Where companies like Olam come in, who operate in these communities, is providing the tools and support they need to succeed. And with Constantine’s future plans for an agricultural training center, equipped with childcare facilitates to encourage female participation, our work here is far from done.