Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Serendipity in Bolgatanga

For the first time since arriving in Sandema, we willingly got out of bed before nature’s sounds and the morning heat woke us. We had a 9am meeting in Bolgatanga with Ruth Wallace from TechnoServe and were keen to get there on time. At 5:45 we made our way to the Sandema Central Market waiting for the 6:00 o’clock government-run bus to Bolga. After only 30 minutes’ waiting, we finally left Sandema with a privately run 9-seat Trotro that can somehow fit 13 people and still feel a little bit empty, from the driver’s perspective.

The main aim of the meeting was to find solutions to any of the business problems faced by the New ERA, a soap production business, which is run by local women from the Sandema Disabled People’s Organisation (DPO). This social enterprise was set up in 2012 with the help of a grant from Canadian volunteers and with help from the local Community-Based Rehabilitation Centre. It seeks to provide employment and an income for its members.

The most obstinate problem for New ERA is the fluctuating price of palm oil, currently a key raw material. So our main objective was to assess the viability of replacing palm oil with Shea butter, which is cheaper, locally sourced and much more environmentally friendly. 

We found out about TechnoServe, a Washington based organisation whose strap line is “Business solutions to poverty” from the previous International Service Team Leader in Sandema as well as from their webpage. At this point, all we knew was that, amongst many other great things, they work to connect Shea butter producers in Ghana with consumers, creating sustainable, long term employment and income for local communities in the process.

As we reached the building in Bolga we began looking for TechnoServe’s office, which we knew was on the last floor. A security guard very politely pointed us initially to the ‘last floor’ of the building, namely…. the roof. We did take a moment for a photograph with an overview of the sprawling, vibrant city of Bolga.

We have to admit that we had high hopes from the meeting, but tried to manage our expectations as we had been told that large NGOs are usually a bureaucratic and prefer to focus more on their own projects rather than collaborate. Oh, what a pleasant surprise it was to be proven otherwise!   
The moment we entered the office, Ruth made us feel like we had been colleagues for years rather than just meeting for the first time. Her amiable, warm manner broke the ice instantly and we started discussing about how we were planning to make a positive contribution to New ERA. We went through the current problems faced by the business and for each one we managed to find potential solutions using Ruth’s expertise.

Firstly, the quality of the soap made using Shea butter. New ERA has produce a batch of soap previously using Shea butter, but unfortunately it did not lather properly and their customers were not satisfied using it, hence would not buy it. Ruth told us TechnoServe have a contact who has all the knowledge necessary to produce Shea based soap that fits this requirement, and that they were happy to arrange for a training week with the Sandema DPO. Ruth shared that using Shea butter entirely is not feasible as its chemical structure does not allow for it to lather properly, which is what we had been suspecting all along. Still, using 50% to 75% Shea butter from the current 0 would be quite an improvement. Plus, the palm oil would be replaced completely by palm kernel, which is somewhat more sustainable.

I have to say, Ruth possesses a super-natural ability to read people’s eyes and find out what’s on their mind. As we were just thinking “awesome, now how about some other nitty-gritty details such as training and other fees”, Ruth gave us a print out with all the costing for the workshop, provided by the trainer herself, including the price of the raw materials which she would source too. So finally, the greatest surprise of all: TechnoServe were willing to fund all the training costs. After this set of great news, we had to cap our excitement a bit when told that unfortunately the trainer would not be available to hold the workshop until the end of June.

Furthermore, we discussed about implementing basic accounting skills within the business. We had a look at some excellent, simple resources designed by TechnoServe for similar businesses, and agreed we would produce something similar ourselves for New ERA. We also agreed that we would find out how many people of the DPO knew how to produce Shea butter themselves and whether we could source it that way, since doing so would further benefit other people in the community, who could pick the nuts and receive an income too.  

Overall, we felt like the meeting was very productive, and we are sooo very grateful to Ruth and the TechnoServe team. Now that we have a clear objective to work towards, we feel our work here will be getting as productive as it is enjoyable.

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