A cloud of brown dust rises from the groundnut de-shelling machine at the Arafat Workshop agro-processing business in The Gambia. The workers are covered with a fine layer of powder as the decortication machine spits out the remnants of the nuts' shells. This business is part of an EU-funded initiative to further develop agro-processing in the country and create more jobs.
"Yeah its hard work, life's just like that, it's all been challenging," says Mohamed Bah, who has been working at the company in Bakoteh, Serrekunda for the past five years since finishing school. "Nothing but difficult - here or elsewhere you work - we work to improve our lives, our standard of living."
The company employs both full-time workers and occasional staff, including a number of young people. They earn between three to five euros a day according to the workload.
"It depends on the work," says Tamsir Saho, the owner. "When I have hard work I will pay them up to 300 dalasi - when I have plenty of groundnut," he adds, referring to the daily rate in the local currency.
The processing begins with de-shelling and cleaning the raw groundnuts, or peanuts as they are also known. A machine inside a large shed then produces groundnut oil, which is collected in large containers. The oil is left to settle so that the sediment can be separated.
One of the big challenges for Saho is financing. He finds it difficult to source loans to buy machinery as well as purchase crops from farmers. The equipment, and especially de-shelling machine, requires costly maintenance and breakdowns are not uncommon.
Arafat Workshop has recently received support from the Youth Empowerment Project (YEP), an EU-funded initiative aiming to help create opportunities for young people. It is part of an effort to support the Gambian government following the departure of former strongman leader Yahya Jammeh over a year ago.
A roadmap developed by YEP places emphasis on agro-processing because it sees opportunity in processing crops in the country, rather than have the raw materials exported processed abroad.
Arafat Workshop received a brand new de-shelling machine as part of the YEP initiative and is expecting delivery of another four. The expectation is that Saho grows his business and produces more groundnut oil, creating more jobs.
"When I have support - finance, working capital - it's possible I add to my staff maybe up to 40-50," says the small business owner.
The lack of capital in the agricultural processing sector is a major obstacle to businesses like Saho's. Access to financing through traditional banks or lenders is a major constraint, according to a report co-authored by the International Trade Centre, the agency responsible for implementing the YEP programme.
Taking Gambian cashews to international markets
A barrel of steaming cashew nuts is tipped onto the floor at the Jawneh and Family Cashew Processing Centre in Brikama. This is the first stage of processing after the cashews have been bought from Gambian farmers - the cashews are steamed and left to dry in the sun for 24 hours.
Cashews, like groundnuts, can be grown everywhere in The Gambia and this company currently sells the processed goods domestically, but has ambitions to expand abroad.
Once the cashews have gone through the first stage of steaming and drying, they are de-shelled, using a Chinese-made machine or manually when there is no electricity.
"It is opening the nut from the shell and after that it has to go for scooping to separate the nut," says Bobuba Jawneh, who runs the family business. "The nut is 29 per cent and the shell is 71 per cent."
The next step is scooping out the kernels by hand, before they are dried for another eight hours at 80°C. The skin is then peeled off the cashew by hand.
"It's not easy, all here it pains," says Saidy, a young woman peeling the cashews with a small knife, describing the aches in her hands. She earns 25 dalasi per kilo of cashews, about 45 euro cents. It is tough manual work, but provides employment for a number of people.
Eleven people are employed full time at the cashew processing company as well as up to 30 casual workers depending on the workload. Each kilo of cashews is sold for about 3.60 euros, mainly to supermarkets and hotels.
However, the business faces a number of challenges besides issues with electricity, according to manager Jawneh.
"We don't produce in large quantities," he says, explaining that Gambians living in the diaspora often buy their produce and take it home to sell it. Jawneh says they hope YEP will help them break into new markets.
"They train [us] how to do business, also to link us to the international market," he says. "YEP - the difference they have made to our business is they have done the capacity-building training for us."
The final stage of the processing is cashew roasting and packaging. But his business finds it hard to compete with Chinese and Indian rivals. Foreigners come to The Gambia and buy and export the cashews, before processing them abroad.
"There is competition on the cashew side," says Modou Touray, YEP's technical advisor and monitoring, evaluation specialist. "But there is a great deal of demand for processed cashew locally, which the processors cannot meet yet."
YEP wants to help turn the local demand to their advantage and support the ramping up of production for processors like Jawneh. YEP is providing a cashew kernel roaster and cashew coating machine in addition to the business training they are providing.
Flavouring the cashews could help open up international markets and help the company better compete on a domestic level.
"There is still a potential for this to grow," says YEP's Touray. "Even in the midst of the competition from these exporters."
Reporting assignment supported by the International Trade Centre
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