Tuesday, June 28, 2011

God bless the rains down in Africa

After living for 6 months in the dry heat of Senegal, it finally rained- and man did it rain! It happened the morning of June 25th at 10am. I was in my room when suddenly I realized how dark it had gotten. Then the wind started up, swinging my shutters open and shut and sending dust through the air like a tornado! Even before the rain started to fall, you could smell it in the air, and then it came down in sheets and I barely got my window closed in time to prevent my room from becoming a lake! It was magnificent! The past month or so, the clouds have been frequenting the sky more often and the air has been noticeably more humid. When it finally rained today it was like the clouds were breathing a huge sigh of relief and I did too. In fact I ran out on the rooftop terrace outside my room to dance in the rain and then ran downstairs to the rest of the family and proclaimed "Alhamdulillah" (Praise God!). Mama Africa joined me in my rejoicing, but not everyone was so excited. My host brother, Cissé, was disappointed that the rain had started so early (normally the first big rain isn't until July) and Marie, who had been out getting the bread, came into the house a little soggy and not smiling.
The rains cause a lot of flooding in Dakar, and even though everyone understands that the rain is important for rural areas, it makes life more difficult for two months in the city. I'm sure the novelty of rain will soon wear off, but for today it was wonderful!

Its been ages since I last wrote a blog, and a lot has happened over the past couple months. First, Bioessence finished their application for Organic Certification (we’re still waiting for the verdict). Second, I had some visitors and was able to take some time off work to travel with them!

Despite all my reservations, the inspector, M. Boukary (picture right), for Ecocert (the French organic certification body Bioessence is working with) came from Burkina Fasso to Kédougou to see if the procedures and the organization was up to their harsh standards. I wasn’t worried because Bioessence isn’t secretly adding chemicals or stripping the environment of its natural resources. No, the Baobab fruit is about as organic as it gets coming straight from the Baobab forests of southern Senegal and being harvested manually without bringing harm to the environment. What really worried me was the lack of organization and documentation that would help Bioessence to be considered professional and transparent enough to assure a product that is uncontaminated and traceable from harvest of the raw material to packaging of the finished product.

I went to Kédougou about 5 days before the inspector from Ecocert was to arrive so that I could prepare the women’s groups and make sure that all the facilitators were available. The inspector would need to see every production unit and also where the fruit was collected. He would also need to speak with the producers directly and all the facilitators. But since he was only able to stay in Kédougou for no more than 3 days, there was a lot to organize beforehand. Luckily I had some help!

My boyfriend, Dan, arrived in Senegal just before the big inspection, and while I’m sure he was hoping to have a more relaxing vacation, I really appreciated having his help and support! I also had Basse with me as our driver from Bioessence who did so much more than just driving us around. Our mission included:

1) Finalizing formal written partnerships between Bioessence and the women’s groups/ fruit harvesters of Kédougou.

2) Providing a short training on organic certification (what does it mean to be organic, why get the certification, quality and hygiene procedures required, etc).

3) Organizing demonstrations and interviews for the inspector.

Organization has been the real challenge since written contracts and documentation are not developing Africa’s strong suit. To build what Ecocert calls a “System for Internal Control” we used a mix of on the ground supervision by designated members of the production groups and a chain of documentation to record production and practices.

When M Boukary came to Kédougou, he was escorted by Adama Diop, the mother of Mame Khary (director of Bioessence). She is also one of the most enterprising, motivated women I’ve met here in Senegal (or anywhere, for that matter) and her presence during the visit really made everything come together! We made a good team because she knew how to communicate with the local producers (literally, she could speak their language) much better than I could, and I knew who to contact on the ground and the technicalities of the internal system of production. We were also helped by the fact that the inspector was not on a mission to seek out all the faults of Bioessence, but more to help identify areas of weakness that we can strengthen as we get certification. It turns out that they often deal with businesses that are much less organized than we were and he was fairly impressed by what we had been able to do so far.

So now we wait to. In my opinion, even if we don’t get the certification, we have succeeded. Just looking around the factory in Dakar you can see how this certification has pushed Bioessence to develop and raise their standards. In Kédougou also, there are new storage buildings, equipment, signed partnerships and promises for further development in the future.

It’s been very rewarding taking part in this process and the lessons I’ve learned about running a transparent and sustainable enterprise in Senegal will serve as a guide as I continue to work with enterprise development in Senegal.

To see more photos from the trip, check out the link to photo album "Dan and Kayla in Kédougou".