Monday, September 8, 2008

What I’ve Been Up To…

It was about this time last year that I swore in as a Peace Corps and made my way up to Nikki. Recently I’ve been realizing that the vast majority of blog entries in the last 12 months have been more about what I’m learning or miscellaneous experiences, rather than what I’ve been doing vis à vis “formal” work.

Truth is, a PCV generally has to work really hard to work, and this is especially true the first year, as you are learning the language and locality, and getting a better idea of the needs, resources, and assets of a community. These being the prerequisites to productivity, one could say that work wise the first year sees a lot of false starts: ideas that seem promising, but eventually fizzle out for one reason or another. Nevertheless, I have been doing my best to put those token tax dollars to palpable good use (consider this my yearly report), and will now attempt to satisfy the common question—most recently recited by my sister— “What do you actually do?”

Business Formations. The biggest priority for Peace Corps Benin’s Small Enterprise Development sector program objectives, developed with the Béninese government, is providing business technical training to artisans, small businessman, and trade groups. In the last year I’ve given classes (Formations) on basic Accounting and Financial Planning, Marketing, and Business Planning, with some individual consulting here and there.

Formations usually are completed in 6 to 12 one-hour sessions. It’s hard to gauge a success rate with these, and the real work always begins after the course ends, as you try to follow-up and ensure proper application. Aside from the couple participants whom you see trying to apply the material, there are at least always a handful of participants who seem especially engaged during classes or who come back again to take another course subject. I personally have enjoyed these interactions a lot, as they have helped me to improve my French and to gain important entry points into the lives and business realities of many Béninese.

Working with Shea Butter Producing Women’s Groups. This, almost verbatim, was what I was told would be my primary project at Nikki, in conjunction with a local NGO. The mandate started out vague, but over the last year the work with 4 Shea Butter-producing groupements (women’s groups) has managed to define itself, if only in several different directions. One front of this has been business technical support in the form of accounting lessons, given to each of the groupement’s leaderships. In June we set up a small quality control training, in which over two days one local groupement (who themselves have taken quality control trainings, and who produces quality butter) shared their methods with the others. Three of the women’s groups and my NGO have been working on Karité Tree (whence comes shea nuts) replantation projects, with which I’ve assisted a bit in the manual labor. Two groups have also built Foyers Ameleriorées, simple but more energy-efficient earthen hearths used for cooking and making butter. And preparations are being made to start a garden for one group during the dry season.

The grand vision in the Shea Butter domain has always been to equip the women’s groupements for and open them up to better market positions, ultimately ones that will earn them better profits for their trade. We’ve been talking for some time to a producer/exporter in the South named Natura (who produces groupement butter into soap, then exports it to an importer/distributor in CA), and may be soon selling a small batch.

In any case, a lot of valuable research and experience has been gained in the last year to this “marketing” cause, and myself my NGO are in the works of planning a district-wide Shea Butter training conference early next year, which we hope will open up significant opportunities for many local groupements. More on this to come soon.