Saturday, 20 December 2008

Ever wondered how Fair Trade really works? Going nuts in Burkina Faso

When you buy Fair Trade products how much really goes to the people who produce it? Do poor people actually benefit? How does it work?

I'd always wanted to find out so I went to the Wouol Cooperative in south-western Burkina Faso. It started the year I was born: 1980 and in 28 years they've done a huge amount. Not only do they make the best dried mangoes I've ever tasted, as well as delicious cashew nuts, they've also got a nursery with pineapples, jiatropha for biofuel and other plants to help farmers diversify - by growing different things they're less vulnerable if a particular crop does badly because of the weather or pests.

Next year they're hoping to pilot an insurance project (the weather's unpredictable: droughts and floods are really common so they've developed a grain bank to help in hard times - they want to expand this into a more comprehensive insurance scheme). They've even bought a minibus which they hire out and use themselves to do concerts and dances!

A volunteer set up their website and took great photos:

Working for Oxfam and Peace Child International I've visited a few development projects and this is a really good one. They take volunteers too.

Before coming to Wouol I hadn't realised that each cashew nut has to be cut up and cleaned by hand. Watching how much work it takes I've vowed to no longer wolf down cashew nuts in big handfulls without chewing properly. They take so much work to cut up the least I can do is enjoy them rather than seeing how many I can get in my mouth at one time.

The ladies sit in big open rooms to cut the nuts up. It's dusty work so they wear face masks.

No one wants dusty nuts so all the workers take their flip flops off before going into the factory.

After the nuts have been roasted this is where they get brought to be separated out.

Marie-Louise Sourabiu has worked at the Cooperative for over a year. She has a small farm and 3 children and the money she earns helps pay for school, medicines and household expenses. "We have a small farm but cannot grow enough to feed the family all year round. The money I earn makes a big difference: there's only farm work for 4 months of the year, but the cooperative is open all year round".

Despite looking like an untrustworthy second-hand car salesman the women at the Wouol cooperative were happy to show me their fine collection of fair trade cashew nuts. They're sold in shops in the Netherlands, Belgium and Britain.

Nuts are sent abroad in these air-tight 10 kilo plastic bags and then re-packaged into smaller bags in Europe. It's more difficult than it sounds. EU health and safety rules on imported food are complicated, quality demands are high and it's taken a long time and a lot of work to set up these fair trade links.

These are some of the nut-based products Marie-Louise and the other women make (89% of the cooperative employees are women and it's not just a job there are also educational courses). There's nut oil for cooking, cashew nut butter (tastes like peanut butter but less sweet) and a collection of nuts in small bags for nibbling - these are the best.

This lady is collecting the nut husks (shells) which are gathered up and used to make compost which they fertilise the fields with.

The ladies at work de-husking and cutting up the nuts.

These are the nut husks drying in the sun before they get gathered up for compost. There's not a shortage of compost in the village (there's plenty to go round) so a lot of it gets sold to neighbouring villages.

Dried mangoes are big business for the women of Wouol, but I was there at the wrong time of year so all the mango drying presses were empty and sad looking: that's why they're starting to grow pineapples. They can make dried pineapples during the periods where there are no mangoes!
Cashew nuts are brilliant because they keep for up to a year. This allows the women to work on their own farms when they need to as well as concentrate on mangoes during mango time. Before they got the drying machines there was always the same problem with mangoes: loads of them for a couple of months and then nothing for the rest of the year. Because they go off so quickly and are so squishy it's practically impossible to export fresh mangoes to Europe from Burkina Faso.
The nursery where they grow different plants was amazing. So was their way of looking at things. Fair Trade has helped these people help themselves. Education is one of the central aspects of the cooperative. Farmers are being taught new skills, women are empowered by what they learn at the cooperative and earn their own money. Antoine SombiƩ is the President and one of the founders, "the cooperative is one big family. We work out our problems together. We want to preserve our way of life but we don't want hand-outs. The weather is changing. It is less predictable. We want technology and information to be able to create a better future for our children'.

Schools in England are already learning about the work of Wouol.

These partnerships matter and make a difference.

When Harry Met Danny in Dakar

Harry, Zander and Dan on the balcony in Point E. With a ladder.

Harry and Danny outside the local eatery. Chez Ass does a good line in dodgy meat products available at all hours with flies. Danny has his post-Chez Ass face on. Harry enjoys his meat.

This was a beautiful moment. Neither man has a fondness for trousers.

Tourism is Life – Drive Slowly: Travels in Nigeria

Little about my week in Nigeria made sense. There is no reason why any tourist would visit Abuja, regardless of traffic speed but signs with the slogan above line the endless motorways.

This is a “planned” new town that makes Milton Keynes look like Venice: big roads everywhere but too few junctions so turning across traffic requires crossing the swampy central reservation, resulting in cars getting stuck in mud and being pushed into the fast lane. Traffic lights are common but none work so everyone drives really fast and plays chicken at junctions. Someone I met said their friend had decided to leave Nigeria when they were driving through a dodgy part of Lagos and saw a body lying in the road. Someone had been run over but no one stopped to move him and so the corpse became an increasingly slippery speed bump.

The Nigerian Space Programme on the road in from the airport had flocks of sheep grazing outside it and little obvious activity inside. The European Space Programme in Belgium has cows surrounding it but it also has a massive satellite, which Abuja doesn’t – apparently the Space thing is a left over from the Cold War. The impossibility of walking anywhere is American, but the food at the hotel, and elsewhere, was reminiscent of the Soviet Union. Ten dollars for breakfast that takes an hour to come and bread that’s hard and tastes like sugared cardboard.

I had a colleague from Oxfam’s Nigeria office staying with me in Dakar. The first time she cooked for me it was disgusting and I had the shits for a week. Foolishly a week later I accepted her offer to make me eggs for breakfast when half-asleep and hung over. I vomited before finishing them and thought it was just her lack of skill and hygene. My week in Abuja taught me otherwise. The only nice food was at Wakki’s, an Indian restaurant modelled on an East London curry house circa 1988 with kormas and vindaloos: English Indian food. You can also buy Hob Nobs and Ribena. However, as my French colleagues pointed out at each meal they left better food in Senegal than we did in Nigeria. Our internal meeting was held in French and after 3 months in Francophone West Africa I've got used to speaking to locals in my bad French. Abujaians were bemused by me getting cross at their unhelpfulness in French before apologising and speaking English.

Abuja was constructed as an inland capital to relieve pressure on Lagos. Like Brasilia and Rio, Washington DC and New York, Canberra and Sydney Abuja is the geeky, ugly sister with nothing going on beyond Government and assorted lobbyist groupies. It was built in the 1970s and 80s, which were cruel decades for architecture. There are still empty lots around the place along with a massive ugly concrete cathedral and a gold-roofed mosque. While we were there 400 people died down the road in Jos - victims of Christian vs Muslim ethnic tension. Everyone I asked about it said it was nothing and everything was back to normal.

Judging by how the buildings are weathering the ravages of time quite a lot of the construction money got nicked. This is something Nigeria is famous for: from spam emails to oil revenues since independence corruption’s been the big problem. Nigeria should be Africa’s India or China: there are a 140 million people in a country smaller than Tanzania (which has 40 million). A quarter of Africans live in Nigeria. There are more than 250 ethnic groups. Their music and literature are amongst the best in Africa. There’s something intriguing about the place. Across Africa you think: there’s so much potential if only things worked properly. In Nigeria this is even more pronounced because there are just so many people and Nigerians are so enthusiastic. It’s the weird contrasts: Nigerians are acknowledged as the best business people in West Africa and yet the country doesn’t work very well. In Abuja airport there are lots of smartly dressed folks with iphones tapping on laptops with designer glasses in the dark because the power’s gone again and the swanky, brand new Virgin Nigeria planes are all hours late for no apparent reason. Why doesn’t it work? Who’s nicking all the money? Why do 50 million people go to bed hungry? Why do they import so much food? Why do all the rhetorical questions stay the same?

I met a guy who runs an events company. He organised the African MTV awards last week. Trevor Nelson presented them. It only got a few hours behind schedule due to power cuts. In the capital of the world’s 8th biggest oil producer there's often only mains power for an hour or two a day. His business is doing well because Nigeria’s a massive market and there are opportunities: it’s just difficult and expensive to get things done because the infrastructure’s rubbish (he reckoned in his business that was a bigger problem than corruption). He said he prefered Abuja to Lagos because it’s not dangerous but admitted that it’s very boring.

Apparently the new President isn’t corrupt, and the last one was much better than anyone before him. The problem’s that in a federal system corruption works on many different levels and to win an election even if you’re honest you have to cheat otherwise you’d lose.

Unsurprisingly I didn’t get any closer to understanding how you get anything done in Nigeria after a week. But I got the feeling that a lot of people who’d been there a lot longer had no idea either.

PS – Back in the day there used to be fur parties (rooms would be air conditioned to be so cold you’d have to wear fur to be able to handle it even though it was 35 degrees and humid outside). That’s messed up.

Sunday, 7 December 2008

Hugo and Ciara are getting married!!!

When your best friends get married it almost feels like you're getting married. I danced around the Oxfam Nigeria office when I heard the news. All week I've been in a good mood because of it, smiling inanely and imagining them all happy and excited. Hatch, match and dispatch: this is when we look to religion; these are the moments that matter most. Much of 21st century living would be incomprehensible for a visitor from hundreds of years ago but in committing ourselves to one person in the sight of God and all those closest to us we do something powerful that they would recognise. The only bigger thing that happens in life than getting married is having kids and hopefully the former leads to the latter.

I'd been trying to reach Hugo for days on the phone with no success due to the failures of Nigerian telecoms but it was still exciting finding out by email.

Then today Hugo asked me to be his Best Man. I did another little dance in my sitting room. If he were a loser with no friends I would feel less honoured but the fact is he's got a fair number of very close friends. I was hoping to be some sort of usher or something and I hoped I might be his best man but we'd never discussed it. When I asked him 2 months ago whether marriage was on the cards soon he dodged the question.

I was pretty sure it would happen but following that chat in the woods of Gloucestershire I thought it wouldn't be any time soon.

Living abroad for 4 years separates the sheep from the goats: the best friends from acquaintances. Many fade away but those with deep roots hibernate: infrequent big gulps of time together keep you going until the next time.

Being a best man draws a line in the sand: this guy has my back and few achievements in life (finding your own wife hopefully being one of them) match that. Success is about more than a job: it's about finding and keeping people in your life you love and are proud to be friends with. You choose your friends and Hugo and Ciara are in my top tier. It's great to know I'm in theirs too.

Over skype Ciara said she'd approved of Hugo's choice of Best Man and he interrupted her and said "it was my decision, you're opinion had nothing to do with it". That meant a huge amount. I was there the night they met, I was the person Hugo said "I think I really like this girl" to, for the next 4 months I shared a tiny flat with them where they had a huge bedroom with a balcony and I had a windowless, damp cave with a single bed and mould on the walls.

I spent a lot of time on the sofa listening to loud music on my own.

But that was nearly 7 years ago and the fact that we've stayed close enough for me to be his Best Man, despite living overseas, makes me proud.

I hope I'm up to the task. I don't know where I'll be living in 6 months, I don't know what to have for lunch let alone who I want to spend the rest of my life with and I've never even been to a stag do and now I'm going to organise one.

Happy days.

Saturday, 6 December 2008

Scootering Burkina Faso

What do you do when you notice the key has fallen out of the ignition of your scooter and there's 70kms of dirt track in both directions to the nearest road?

I had no idea so decided to press on.

The chances of me finding the key were slim to none and looking for it would require using up precious fuel and increasing the chance of it getting dark before I reached a town.

Until noticing the loss of the key I'd been enjoying my scooter tour of rural Burkina. Getting out of Ouagadougou hadn't taken long (follow the main road to the end and keep going) and the main road to Mali and Timbuktu was empty save for the odd lorry or speedy Mercedes which blew me towards the ample verges. I'd stopped a few times and driven off the road to sit under baobab trees and reflect on how hot and quiet it was in the middle of nowhere.

Being driven in a NGO 4x4 to visit projects always involves big distances and long journeys. I wanted to travel slowly and see what it was like to do what a lot of people on the side of the roads seemed to be doing: very little. Occasionally a man would head to market on a scooter like mine unbelievably laden with food, boxes and in many cases live chickens (I counted one guy with chickens on long wooden poles that were attached to the handlebars and back of his scooter).

My sub-baobab chilling was given a slight edge by the difficulties of restarting the scooter, the broken fuel gauge and not knowing how many petrol station there were in Burkina's bush. These occasions expose how my enthusiasm for solo adventure is undermined by being a terrible worrier: there's no point heading off on a dodgy Chinese scooter if you're going to spend the whole time worrying about what a Dutch lady said over dinner ("I've heard stories of bandits knocking people off their motorbikes and stealing them - I thought you should know").

I guess that's part of the buzz: terror gets mixed with adrenaline and you overcome the fear to enjoy roaring along an empty road far from everywhere, getting strange looks from the occasional chap on a bicycle and stopping in little villages to talk to people who think you are crazy. Compared to many parts of the world West Africa, at least the arid Sahel, is a pretty safe place to do this kind of thing: the heat and the emptiness are more scary than the people.

When you arrive in a 4x4 people always tell you what's wrong with where they are. When you arrive on a scooter they ignore you. Normal life along this, and I'd imagine many other dirt tracks across the Sahel, is pretty normal: the track was lined with trees for much of the way, a bit like France. Every 20kms there was a water barrage. For more than 20 years this has been the law when building a new road: you have to build a little dam to capture water during the rainy season so that people can then use it through the rest of the year (they've been switched on to how to deal with climate change than most of the bozos in cities). There was blissful shade sitting by the trees and children splashed in the barrages. Maybe in the dry season life here is awful. In years when the rains fail I'm sure it gets really bad here. But this was November: the rains and the harvest have been the best in years. For the time being life is good. Pootling through shady clearings worrying was pointless. My bum was beginning to hurt but it wasn't so bad. Periodically I'd get off the bike, stretch the dodgy knee and sore behind and get back on keeping one hand on the throttle all the time to avoid getting stuck.

Because I wasn't sure if the scooter would restart if I stopped it I kept going till I reached the main road in Kadougou. I had planned to spend the night there but without a key I didn't fancy it. A mechanic aged about 12 stopped the engine so I could fill up with fuel - I shouted at him for trapping me in Kadougou but he managed to get it started again. It appeared I didn't need a key to restart the engine after all but if I was to get back to Ouaga before dark I needed to get a move on.

Off I went on a good, if pot-holed, road. Pot-holes on a scooter are no joke: one big hit at speed and it's all over so you go slowly, get into a sort of slalom rhythm and remember to next time insist that your scooter has mirrors and indicators to aid interaction with other traffic. Approaching the outskirts of Ouaga at sunset my shadow spilled out ahead of my puny scooter, a speedy Mercedes zoomed by with a Barak Obama bumper sticker and I was absorbed into honking, chaotic urban traffic. My arse at this point was in agony: it felt like a dwarf family was squeezing my buttocks with unforgiving small hands. Chinese scooters are not designed for long-distance off road travel.

Apart from singing along to 'Back for Good' in a pool hall in Bobo with the producer of a zombie movie set in West Africa (it's a road/buddy/horror movie: like Thelma & Louise with zombies) this was my best day in Burkina Faso.