Saturday, January 15, 2011

Dem ligay (Getting to work)

Given the contents of my blogs until now you may be wondering “Wasn’t she going to Senegal to work?” Because my arrival was so close to the holidays there wasn’t a lot of work to get started on until two weeks ago. Most of the other people I’m working with were on vacation soon after I arrived. This gave me a chance to get to know my family, Yoff and adjust to life in my new home before starting with work. Thank goodness, because I feel so much better prepared to deal with all the complexities of beginning a fair trade project now that I’ve acclimated to my environment.

My work here has a few different components and so far the most difficult part has been identifying exactly whom I should be working with and what I need to be doing. Because the project coordinator is living in France, I don’t have a specific person to report to when I go into the office. Nola (the coordinator) offers me guidelines and we communicate through emails and weekly Skype video-conference calls, but a lot of the logistics on the ground are up to me. It’s a little daunting to have so much responsibility as a novice in the field, but also wonderful to have some liberty and be able to contribute so much to the project.

I’m learning a lot - not just about fair-trade or development, but also about how to take an idea for a project, find the funding and the support, and put it into action. I couldn’t do it by myself and I’m so glad to have all of the support and the guidance I’ve received from Zion, family, friends and my colleagues that are both international and in Senegal! Also, I’ve found patience and confidence to deal with daily trials by incorporating time every morning to pray and meditate for the strength and wisdom to carry out this work.

I’ve described my work in two main parts: Networking and Observation/fieldwork.


Developing a fair trade network in Senegal is a collaborative project that involves; Universities to help carry out research, NGO’s (Non-Governmental Organizations) that can contribute funding and help design strategy, and the Government (both local and national) to facilitate development. So it follows that a large part of my job is to connect with several people that have expressed an interest in partnering with Earth Rights Institute to develop the Beyond Fair Trade project. Until I arrived the project was just a proposal, but now that I’m here its time to mobilize all the interested parties and find out who is really serious about being involved and what they have to offer.

It’s been a little slow going so far. In some ways, that's just a characteristic of Africa (as compared to the US). I’ve been able to meet with several people that work for SEM fund (Senegal Ecovillage Microfinance fund) and Earth Rights Eco Village, but it’s been more difficult to coordinate meetings with others. I’ve learned that emails are seldom answered in less than a week over here, and being “on time” to a meeting means arriving less than two hours after the scheduled time. As far as the emails are concerned, part of the problem is the unreliable Internet connections and electricity outages. In fact, for the whole first week that people were back from the holidays, there was no Internet at the office because someone forgot to pay the bill.

Another lesson I’ve learned is that there exist many complex relationships between NGO’s here. Organizations have to work hard to get funding and sometimes that means making a partnership, but sometimes it means temporarily breaking partnerships and sometimes it even means shutting down a program completely for a few months or years. Before coming to Senegal I became very familiar with the websites of organizations that we would be working with to find out what programs were already in place and how we could join forces to tackle the problems together! I realize now that this was quite naïve, and while I still believe that partnerships are essential in development, I’m finding that its not as easy or as obvious as it seems when you’re looking at it from a webpage (duh Kayla). Websites are often outdated and don’t really convey the actualities on the ground. But hey, that’s why I came to Senegal, so that I could see the realities of working in the field and address the issues directly. It also helps that my international counterparts on the project have been very receptive to my observations and we’ve been able to move forward given the more recent information I’ve gathered by being here.

Observation and fieldwork:

The second part of my internship here has been to learn about fair trade through observation and involvement with an actual local businesswoman that has her own line of natural (organic) beauty products called Bioessence Laboratories Inc. Mame Khary has made it her mission to simultaneously create top of the line beauty cosmetics while ensuring that all of her producers (associations of women from various villages in Senegal) are benefiting from their business. This means equipping the groups with materials they need for harvesting, and buying Shea nuts and Baobob oil at about 4 times the local market value. I will be working with her to gain accredited organic and fair-trade certifications so that her products can be recognized as such and sold at a higher value internationally. I will also be gaining invaluable knowledge about the needs and difficulties of a small enterprise in Senegal, which will in turn give me insight into what sort of issues need to be addressed through the Beyond Fair Trade framework. Check out to find out more about her products.

As part of this internship I will be spending all of next week (Jan 16-22) in the region of Kédougou (a town in the south of Senegal) to work with one of the groups of women selling Shea nuts to Bioessence. It is Shea nut harvesting season and I’ll be assessing the women’s requests and helping to obtain data for the organic and fair-trade certification.

As an added bonus: Kédougou happens to be a beautiful area of Senegal with forests of Baobob trees, grassy plains, wildlife and waterfalls! I’m sure my next post will be filled with pictures. This is just a preview.