In south-eastern Benin, more than a third of the population — mostly young people and women — lives below the poverty line with less than US$1.90 a day.
Even though farmland is available, women are increasingly giving up food production — seen as inefficient and wasteful because of the lack of processing and storage facilities — to work at sand quarries.
Rosine Sossa is one of them. This mother of four did not have the capital to start a small business, so she chose the only option open to her.
“[Sand quarrying] was the only way to make money, but it’s too hard. You age fast in this job. “ - Rosine
To get women out of the sand quarries and train them in processing the abundant food produced in the region — fish, peanuts and cassava — the Government of Benin set up various income-generating initiatives in the five districts of the commune of Bonou, with a population of nearly 45,000 inhabitants.
Financed primarily by Japan with technical support from UNDP, the project targets vulnerable women, female-headed households, uneducated girls or single mothers with few or no resources, so that they can take care of themselves and get out of poverty.
In the town of Bonou, 20 women, including Rosine, have started a small cooperative to process peanuts into donuts.
“They knead peanut paste into donuts, which will be fried and sold in the markets. This is a traditional snack for the poor in Benin,” says Rachelle Kassouhuin, A UN Volunteers specialist in community development and gender.
In the village of Adido, a multifunctional platform has been installed on a two-hectare site donated by the community. The platform is equipped with a mini solar plant and includes processing units for plant, animal and fish products.
Now that traditionally female tasks such as crushing and grinding nuts are mechanized, women save time and are able to process about five times more cassava, maize and palm nuts than they did before.
Work on the platform is organized in a production line: nearly 300 women take turns peeling and washing cassava, transforming it into flour, cooking and packaging, working in teams at each step of the process. Everything is meant to optimize productivity, reduce costs and ease working conditions while allowing women to earn decent income.
“Compared with women at the sand quarry, who earn about 12,000 CFA francs (about 18 euros) a month, women working at the platform have an income of 40,000 francs a month.“ - Rachelle.
The platform benefits the entire community: a solar pump draws water for irrigation, a battery charging centre is available to neighbouring villagers for a small fee, and a community garden is accessible to poor households.
“Surrounding villages have no electricity. Thanks to the battery charging centre, phones and radios are always powered and communication with the outside world is easy.” — Karamatou Kochelon, President of the Zomatchi Cooperative.
Financial inclusion for rural women
The project also provides literacy classes to rural women and gives them access to financial services, by helping them open a bank account or developing their budget management skills.
But securing enough capital to contract farmers and buy their crops before the harvest remains a challenge for budding entrepreneurs like Rosine, who often has to settle for lesser quality products at the end of the season.
“Financial inclusion is an important part of the project: we are currently negotiating with micro-credit associations.“ - Rachelle.
For this reason, Rosine has not entirely abandoned her work at the sand quarry in case she needs additional income. She hopes that, with access to a micro loan, she can eventually give up the heavy labour and use her profits to launch other activities, such as smoking fish or palm oil production.
Text and photos by Sarah Bel and Elsie Assogba; edited by Laurence Lessire/UNDP