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Opinions of Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Columnist: Akapule, Samuel Adadi

Rural Women folks in GEMP operational areas in Upper East empowered

It cannot be ruled out that women are nation builders. History is there to prove that and cannot be doubted. It is, therefore, necessary women are provided with the requisite capacity building and tools to empower them play their roles very well to realize that dream of nation building.

It is also clearly obvious that when it comes to the developing of the human resource base of any nation, women play a very significant role in that direction and as such any nation that fails to acknowledge their role is bound to fail in its quest for development. In this regard, it is only morally right that they are provided with the needed support to empower them to continuously and effectively contribute to the socio-economic development of the nation.

Comparatively, it is a known fact that our rural women folks do not get much support like their counterparts in the urban areas which are opened to many opportunities. There is therefore the need for all stakeholders to pay special attention to such women to help bridge the gap between them and those women in the urban area who have the chance of getting more opportunities so that together could all contribute positively to entire developmental processes.

It is in this regard that the various alternative livelihood empowerment programmes rolled out by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and its partners with support from the Canadian Government for the implementation of the Ghana Environmental Management Project (GEMP) must be commended.

Being somebody who is always skeptical about issues, particularly when it comes to the implementation of projects, I was proved wrong this time around when I visited the beneficiary communities to perform my usual watchdog role as a Journalist.

Training in Shea Butter Soap, Pomade and Cake Making

In all the GEMP operational areas I visited and interviewed the beneficiaries, the success stories told by the beneficiaries were phenomenal, demonstrating that the GEMP livelihoods interventions had made some appreciable level of impact on the communities than before. In all, there were about 1,639 women from 19 women groups in 19 GEMP communities in the Region who had been trained in shea butter soap, pomade and cake making. To be able to get enough raw materials on sustainable basis for production, the women have influenced the enactment of rules and regulations that prohibits the felling of shea trees. This was not so before the introduction of the GEMP when women never have the voice in the traditional settings.

‘With the raw materials the shea tree provides to the rural women, there is now widespread understanding of simple yet a profound fact that the shea trees are more important left standing than cut.”, remarked the Chief of Buru-Kazugu Peter Thomas Alouh.

Baobab Fruit and Seed Harvesting

Furthermore, the EPA in collaboration with the Organization for Indigenous Initiative and Sustainability (ORGISS- Ghana), a local NGO based in Paga mobilised 450 women who were engaged in shea butter soap and pomade making to harvest baobab fruit for sale in order to provide an additional income. The Savannah Fruit Company based in Tamale and Aduna Baobab Company based in United Kingdom provides ready market for baobab fruits harvested by the women.

“The baobab tree has been identified as a multi-purpose tree. Other potentials of the baobab tree to the environment include the reduction of soil erosion, drought resistant. It withstands extreme stress from drought and therefore grows well in marginalised and degraded soils where other plant species cannot survive”.

Village Savings and Loans Association (VSLA)

What even amazed me more was that, closely related to the shea butter soap making is the introduction of a savings-led financial model called the Village Savings and Loan Association (VSLA).

Speaking to the Regional Director of the EPA, Mr. Asher Nkegbe who introduced the concept in the GEMP operational areas in an interview, he explained to me that the concept was pioneered by Care International in 1991 in Niger under its first “Matta Masu Dubara” (woman on the move) and said the VSLA program empowers rural women in various communities to take control of their personal finances for the first time. The women group meets at their own scheduled day each week to run the concept and subsequently gets loans in turns from what they had contributed to go into profitable economic ventures.

For instance in the Region, the Agency in collaboration with ORGIIS – Ghana organized a ten (10) day training session for 518 women (450 women, 68 men) in 14 communities to empower them on how to go about the VSLA.

It is quite amazing and surprising to note that just within one to the sixth months the 14 women groups in the GEMP operational areas which are very deprived could raise seventy-two thousand, two hundred and forty-six Ghana cedis, eighty-nine pesewas (GH? 72,246.89) through the VSLA.

Other communities where the VSLA has been established and working perfectly are Mognore, Gentinga in the Bawku West and Yinduri, Yameriga, Sateeng, Balungu in the Talensi Districts. Most of the women through the establishment of the Loan scheme have been able to undertake viable and profitable ventures such as shea butter processing and sales, fish , kenkey, groundnuts among others and are able to complement their husband’s efforts in the upkeep of the home and as well as cater for their children schooling.

Another amazing and a good thing I discovered among the women group was the social cohesion aspect of the women groups. The women see themselves as each others’ keeper and do communal labour together. The VSLA had also inculcated in them the culture of savings.

Testimonies of women beneficiaries

Mrs Janet Kondug, a 38-year-old trader from Yameriga in the Talensi District said the VSLA group which she belongs to have 100 members. She said through the Loan scheme and empowerment she received from the EPA Directorate through the GEMP, she has been able to establish her kenkey shop and drinking spot.

“But for the intervention of the GEMP, my colleagues and I including children from this community would have travelled to the southern parts of the country to do menial jobs and to return with little or virtually nothing. Most of us through the empowerment of the GEMP are now into petty trading and are making it to support the upkeep of the home and our children’s education.. Previously our husbands deny us access to land for farming because of the extra financial burden of the purchase of farm inputs . However nowadays our husbands willingly offer us land to farm since we have been financially empowered under the GEMP to buy farm inputs ourselves”, she indicated.

Mrs AkuruguYinbil a 30 year-old widow also from Yinduri in the Talensi district who took loan from the VSLA and now is into shea butter making said formerly, she used to commute at long distances into the bush in search of fuel wood to sell and make a little money to cater for her four children but indicated that with the support of the interventions she could now make much profits through the process of shea butter she makes. .

” I am very grateful to the GEMP and EPA. I no longer travel to far distances into the bush where I was exposed to dangers such as snake bites and sexual harassment by Fulani herdsmen. I can now adequately cater for my children through the good returns I often make from the sales of my shea butter. My colleagues and I are now respected by our husbands and we are now made part of decision process at our various homes . Before the GEMP it was not so”

Madam Tipaka , a 65 year old woman from Balungu community told a delegation from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) who visited the area to acquaint themselves with the VSLA concept, that she has been able to build a two bedroom house with a loan she obtained from the VSLA scheme and indicated that most importantly, the interventions had really helped them to greatly improve upon their financial independence thereby reducing the rural-urban migration which used to be a common phenomenon in the area particularly among women .

Another interesting thing that caught my attention so well and I thought I could share it with other stakeholders so that they could replicate it to bring about a positive change is that, as a result of the empowerment through the project, most women who were engaged in charcoal production which is adversely affecting the environment have stopped such a practice. This is as a result of the alternative livelihood provided to them under the GEMP. This approach reduces the dependency of community members on the felling of shea trees for charcoal. Instead, community members now ensure that the shea trees are protected all year round in order to sustain the shea butter pomade and soap business.

“I used to cut down trees for charcoal production to sell to enable me take care of my children’s needs in school and at home but with the training and empowerment and adoption of the various GEMP innovations, I have changed from cutting down trees indiscriminately for charcoal production to shea butter soap making which is so lucrative”, remarked a 48 year- old woman, Mrs. Hawa Issah from Gentiga community near the Bawku Municipal of the Upper East Region.

The lessons one must learn from this is that an antidote to the problem of charcoal production which is so predominant in the Northern, Upper East and Upper West Regions had been found and this must serve as a lesson for other stakeholders and policy makers particularly those who are into climate change to adopt.

To quote from the Upper East Regional Director in charge of EPA, “For one to be able to tackle and implement prudent Climate Change programmes and environmental interventions successfully, it is very crucial to consider the livelihoods of the people first. If the people in the communities are too hungry, you cannot get the attention of them to implement Climate Change programmes ”.

Gender Mainstreaming

As I gathered from the field and corroborated by the Regional Director of EPA, one thing stood tall and that is the gender mainstreaming component of the GEMP which is so perfect. Over 61 per cent of women are beneficiaries of the project and this is very remarkable and must be commended. As Gender Advocate myself I was so impressed and this is a lesson that must be learned by all institutions and policy makers. In development, there is the urgent need to consider gender mainstreaming if only one wants to achieve greater success. I am therefore not surprised that the GEMP has chalked an appreciable level of successes in its operational areas.

Impressions from the Implementers and other stakeholders

The Regional Director of the EPA, Mr Asher Nkegbe, said he was much impressed about the improved involvement of women in decision-making at the community and household levels and noted that women now have a say in the use of natural resources with the intervention of the GEMP to the extent of even advocating for rules and regulations in natural resource management.

He cited for instance that the shea tree which is a major source of the shea butter soap and pomade making is no more felled in the GEMP communities. This is a clear evidence of how women have influenced the enactment of rules and regulations that prohibit the felling of such shea trees.

“Although land ownership still remains a major challenge, there is an improved access to land for women in view of their economic empowerment through the VSLA concept. With their own capital, majority of the women have also begun engaging in livelihood activities traditionally reserved for men.” Mr Nkegbe stated. He said another good thing about the GEMP is that community members themselves are beginning to link the sustenance of the VSLA and the livelihood interventions to sustainable management of natural resources and prudent land and water management practices.

Furthermore, the Regional Director indicted that viewing the magnitude of environmental problems confronting poor and marginalized communities in the Upper East Region, working in traditional silos would not be sufficient but it is to integrate various interventions to build the resilience of vulnerable groups.

“What is required is an integrated approach which recognizes the current and future impacts of Climate Change and it is important to equip rural communities with relevant skills to enable them take advantage of existing opportunities at the community level.” the Regional Director stated.

The Chief of Gentiga ,Mr Bukari Issah who could not hide his joy about the positive impact of the project reiterated that through the empowerment of the women with the alternatives livelihoods programmes , they could now contribute to support their husbands at homes. He told me that under the GEMP he has mobilized the people in his community to plant more than 700 trees to protect the buffer zone of the White Volta River.

“Through the project the community members have been sensitized not to farm close to the buffer zone. Through the support of the EPA Director I have instituted bylaws which has stopped the community members from farming close to the river banks in my community”

The Chief of Buru-Kazugu remarked “among the several interventions by various stakeholders, the GEMP is among the projects that has made a very significant impact on the livelihoods of my people and this is due to the good leadership . Most projects have failed because of poor leadership and I would like to commend the donors of the GEMP and the Regional Director, Mr Nkegbe for his quality leadership that has led to the impact in my community we are seeing today.”

In conclusion the GEMP which is a five-year project funded by the Canadian Government is expected to end in February 2015. One of the questions that keeps on bordering my mind is what would happen at the end of the project without support from the donors’ ?. Can the project implementation be continued? But the Regional Director tells me that it would be sustained should the donors go off. However it is hoped that the project would be expanded to cover more communities and Districts for the benefit of the rural poor. One thing that is very important to note is that our leaders must learn the techniques in sustaining programmes after the donors have left the scene. Most projects in the three northern regions have collapsed just because of donors leaving and this must not be allowed to continue and must not be tolerated. There is the urgent need for Civil Society Organizations, traditional rulers including Religious leaders and the Media to collaborate to sustain the GEMP should the donors vacate the scene.

GNA