Benin: Feed the People! The Audacious Ambitions of Rural Benin Women

Cassava is a staple crop in west Africa, providing calories and energy - and nutrition when combined with a protein. The Gbenondjou cooperative in Benin uses cassava to make products it sells to provide jobs and incomes for its members,
16 October 2020

Produce innovative versions of a staple food for a regional market. Feed hungry people, now and in the future. While you're at it, train farmers - mostly women - in improved agriculture techniques, financial management and hygienic storage techniques. And, oh yes, provide jobs in your community.

That's the aspiration of members of the Cooperative to Transform Manioc into Gari - known as "Gbenondjou" - in remote southwest Benin. The group may be small, but its members dream big.

As nations around the world mark World Food Day on 16 October, that determination is an example of how agriculture-focused community organizations such as Gbenondjou contribute to reducing hunger.

Gbenondjou's president, Ms. Gbezounke Sylvie, admits that the coop's aims are ambitious. But she insists they are achievable.

Twenty-one women and four men are part of the coop, centered in the community of Ajahonmè - one of eight local areas of the town of Klouékanmè, with a population of over 30,000. Sylvie says the members have found a new lease on life in a country where half the population is desperately poor.

Their route out of poverty is cassava, a starchy tuber that provides energy and small amounts of a large number of nutrients. Processed into a flour called gari, it is commonly eaten with locally grown vegetables and nuts. Supplemented with additional protein from farm animals - eggs, milk and fish or meat - gari can feed entire families economically. People far beyond gari-consuming areas eat cassava - often without knowing it - through tapioca, another product of the tuber.

Breaking the cycle of low crop prices and hunger

Half the people of Benin are defined as poor. The World Food Programme (WFP) - led by David Beasley, a former governor of the U.S. state of South Carolina - won the 2020 Nobel Peace Prize for its work getting food to people in acute emergencies. WFP says that more than 70 percent of Benin's population depends on agriculture, but that productivity is low, farmlands are small, and "families are often forced to sell crops at low prices and reduce the quantity and quality of food they consume", which exacerbates food insecurity and malnutrition.

Gbenondjou aims to break that cycle. Spurred by a grant of U.S.$92,572 from the United States African Development Foundation (USADF) for 2017-2019, Gbenondjou made investments in capacity building, purchased equipment and began to develop new clients and products. The group is beginning regional distribution of gari enhanced with protein-rich soy, with coconut milk and with pineapple, among other added nutrients and flavors.

Sylvie cites, as an example, the group's shipment of gari from Benin's capital of Cotonou to Dakar, capital of neighboring Senegal, over 2000 km (nearly 1500 miles) away, across the several countries in between. The first shipment of a potential three-year contract has been delivered.

Since 1986, USADF has worked with groups in Benin, where its local partners manage a portfolio of 15 agricultural investments. The total commitment is greater than U.S.$2.3 million (1,274,806,050 F Cfa).

USADF is an independent agency of the American government that provides grants of up to $250,000 to early stage agriculture, energy, and youth-led enterprises to benefit underserved communities across subSaharan Africa. Last year, approximately 66 percent of grantees were women and women-led enterprises. It leverages its relatively small funds to prompt additional investment.  The government of Benin contributes up to $500,000 per year to reach the underserved populations at which USADF funding is directed.

From farmers to agricultural entrepreneurs

The lives of the women of the Gbenondjou have long been governed by external factors, often beyond their control, such as rainfall. The coop was evolving in a way that Sylvie characterizes as "unstructured", primarily due to lack of resources or of expertise in managing a growing organization.

Now, she says, the members' confidence has grown. They are proud of the skills they have developed and of the higher commercial standards their products meet.

"In the market, our products go first, because they are now better presented," Sylvie says. The organization understands that success requires not just a superior product but competent marketing and attractive packaging.

Increased profits have enabled the cooperative to acquire its own land and to expand the group's cassava farming areas. Over time, this should boost harvests, adding to the yields from member' small plots and allowing the group to sell a larger volume of products.

Sylvie calls the USADF grant a well-timed 'windfall', saying the strengthened competitiveness and professionalism of the eight women's groups belonging to the coop has already changed lives.

"Since this new situation", she says, "the women members of the cooperative spend less time in the fields and have more time to devote to their children and families, who now have better nutrition, clothing and health."

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