Monday, March 22, 2010

Global Shea 2010

Here I am at the Global Shea conference 

West Africa Trade Hub works with people to improve transport, access to finance, business environment and ICT to make West African businesses more competitive*.  They recently sponsored a 4 day conference to improve communication and quality at all levels of the shea value chain at Hotel de l'Amitié in Bamako, Mali which touched on topics ranging from maximizing quality to business planning and improved management to research, development and production to bulk trade in shea and expanding opportunities.

a shea tree and shea products from a shea store in San

Actors from all levels of the shea value chain attended including producers, buyers and exporters, from over 22 countries.  Peace Corps Volunteers from 4 countries in West Africa (Mali, Ghana, Benin & Togo) who work with shea in their respective villages - from forming women on improved practices to working on exporting large quantities of butter - also made the journey to the conference.  All forms of transport were exploited from buses on their last leg to first class airplanes and accommodations ranged the gamut from bunk beds at the Mali Peace Corps transit house to 5 star rooms at Hotel de l'Amitié.  

Here a man demonstrates how to make a shea butter pomade with aloe vera - all materials found in Mali/West Africa

The first day of the conference was dedicated to registration, sorting out the kinks of rooms, name tags and orientation as well as informal meetings between participants about their work in the shea field.  Day two is when things really got juicy as conference participants attended sessions ranging from improving the quality of their shea products (soaps, pomades, raw butter) to getting their shea butter laboratory tested, to bulk exporting of nuts and butter.  Participants benefitted from translations in both French and English depending on the nationality of the speaker (or their second language as the case was for those from Japan, Germany and Holland) as well as local language translations by Peace Corps Volunteers into Bambara.  Walking into the conference center on Day 2 booths lined the  second floor where women and men had carefully arranged bars of soap, tubs of shea butter and pamphlets advertising their products.  The back row was filled with women's associations from Mali and bright pagnes of Malian shea fabric were tacked onto the wall displaying the number of women's groups in Mali working with shea.  Other booths were occupied by women and men from Ghana, Burkina Faso, Senegal, Nigeria and England and their respective organizations.  
 Funlayo Alabi is a Nigerian woman living in Maryland who has incredible shea products - check out her products here (she went to Regent University in Virginia Beach, too!)

Leaving the conference, the scent of various body butters and creams lingering on my skin, I thought about what this conference meant for me.  I have never been closer to the source of shea butter than living here in Mali - women in my village collect shea nuts in the fields surrounding our village and sell them to traveling salesmen or whip the ground nuts into butter - and I have never been closer to the raw business side of shea butter than at this conference - buyers coming to the source for a base ingredient included in many products, from cosmetics to chocolate.  At the end of the conference we (PCVs) sat down and talked about problems facing the shea industry.  We concluded that the nut market is unorganized, there is a lack of good business partners, a lack of product diversification and development, and also the number of NGOs with their fingers in the various shea pots is overwhelming.  Also, it is unfortunate that food insecurity forces women to sell their nuts at sub-market prices.  One of the most interesting things I learned at the conference was from The Body Shop representative for Africa who said that 90% of the shea market is for nuts and 10% for shea butter yet 90% of the information exchanged in the industry is about shea butter and only 10% for nuts.  An incredible imbalance!

With buyers for L'Oréal, The Body Shop, Ghana Specialty Fats, export facilitators from Ghana, Senegal and Mali and producers from Mali, Senegal, Burkina Faso and Nigeria (among many others) I saw how much shea really can do for women in West Africa.  That when women can sell their quality nuts and butter at fair trade prices, business and trade really can be key to sustainable development. 
 Mark, Chrissy and Sam in the hotel lobby

Michael is ready to give you a flash drive!

Drinks after a great week of work

Listening to the translated speeches

See more pictures from the conference here 

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

24 hours, 24 years

After 10 hours on a poorly ventilated, dusty bus, Sonef transport drops me, Cassie, Joe & Ashley off in  Hombori in an unlit gas station parking lot.  The village, between Mopti and Gao, is surrounded by sheer cliffs and staggering plateaus.  The moon is close to full at 1 am and we scan the horizon trying to pick out which rock formation is Hombori Tondo - the highest point in Mali at 1,155 meters - and the mountain we have come to climb.

Lelele, the owner of his eponymous campement, graciously wakes up and shows us to a terrace where, for 2,000 CFA/night (about $4), we sleep on lumpy mattresses and, after unloading our dusty daypacks, take showers from used oil drums with shower heads welded to the bottom.  Accommodations are sparse but for $4 a night we are not really in a position to complain.
Setting out with 6 liters of water each and treats for the trek 
By 6:15 the next morning I wake up to donkeys braying outside the compound (hoping for elephants - one of the last wild herds of them roams from Mauritania to Niger via Mali passing through Hombori) and a trickle of sweat down my cheek.  We lay out a spread of hard boiled eggs, laughing cow cheese and stale bread from San for breakfast and then head downstairs to haggle for a guide to the base of the mountain and gear to cable climb.  The bargaining is exhausting but in the end we settle on 2,000 CFA/person for a guide to the cables (and base of the mountain) and 2,000 CFA/helmet.  After a quick lunch of rice and sauce and double checking I have enough water we set out at 2 in the afternoon for our adventure.
All smiles before we clip in!

The hike to the base takes about 2 1/2 hours and I drink 2 of my 6 liters of water.  After a break to catch our breaths and secure our harnesses Joe clips into the first section of the cable and I follow.  Joe retraces his steps to help Ashley through a particularly tricky crevice and I continue on since it's too scary to stay still.  I move steadily but slowly until I come to an area I cannot pass (there is nowhere to put my feet!).  I check to make sure I am securely clipped to the cable and take a look around me.  A flock of birds swoops down and the collective rush of their wings makes me catch my breath.  I look down and hear Joe (a former Yellowstone National Park employee) coach Ashley through another tough spot and then let my eyes wander over the incredible landscape around me.  Silhouettes of imposing rock formations dot the horizon and dried river beds that will fill when the rains come in July snake below.  I have never been so isolated and the beauty of it all is overwhelming (the heights may have something to do with that, too!).  I hear Joe's voice and then he appears from the rocks below and clips in ahead of me to figure out the climb.  After spanning the rock Mission Impossible style I take a deep breath and follow, trusting my harness, carabeeners and the cable with my climbing companions' encouragement.
Mission Possible with Joe, Ashley and Cassie! 
After 2 1/2 hours of cable climbing (5 hours total) the sun has set, darkness gently falling around us and we have reached the summit.  After 'bathing' with wet wipes we prepare dinner - stale(r) loaves of bread, laughing cow cheese and a stick of gourmet, pinot grigio summer sausage (thanks Cassie!) with stars above and a handful of solar powered lights in Hombori below.

The night brings winds so gusty I find myself gripping the sloping rock on which I sleep and tucking myself tighter into my sleeping bag.  I wake up after the moon has set and catch my breath at the closeness of the stars weighing heavily above me, crowding one another as they fight to be someone's favorite.  A shooting star flashes by and I close my eyes to wish for more trips like this with these friends sleeping beside me.  In less than 2 years I have been to places I never thought I would go and places I will likely never go again (Sierra Leone, Guinea and Gao) with the Wollersheims and Cassie.  Risking my life on Hombori Tondo is another thing I will add to the list!
Joe was a great guide - and he didn't even sing annoying songs!
Soon after dawn, thighs aching from the climb up, we begin the descent.  Since I cannot rely on my (albeit minimal) upper body strength to move from one bolt to the next, as I could for the ascent, the climb down is scarier and I depend more on my faith in the cable and harness.  A group of boisterous Swiss climbers bound up the mountain and, after an animated rendition of a Malian song, continue to scramble up barely having broken a sweat.  It seems Hombori Tondo doesn't hold a candle to the Alps.
the summit of Hombori Tondo 
We reach Hombori-ville, dehydrated and delirious from the heat, and I guzzle a warm bottle of water in the gas station parking lot while looking back at Hombori Tondo where I pushed myself harder physically, and perhaps mentally, than ever before.  I make a wish on my bottle of mineral water that my next 24 years will include moments like the ones from the past 24 hours - adventures with dear friends, moments that take my breath away, meals savored to the last bite and water (or other delicious drinks) that quench my thirst.

Safely back in San after another exhausting bus ride, Cassie makes carrot cupcakes for my birthday and I have the chance to make another wish - that I won't have to take Malian public transport anytime soon!

See more pictures from our trip here

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