Cover image courtesy of CNFA’s West Africa Cashew Project.
Written by Kaylee Pittman, The University of Oklahoma
A critique of Self Help Africa’s “Women’s Economic Empowerment Through Entrepreneurship
in the Cashew Value Chain” program in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Self Help Africa is an international charitable organization that implements programs in
nine countries across Sub-Saharan Africa, with a focus on the use of small-scale agriculture in
order to aid families to become more economically independent. The program in question is
aimed at improving the economic capacity of women in West Africa through cashew production.
This goal manifests in the form of practical and theoretical training, the creation of business
plans, and the development of complementary enterprises, such as byproducts processing and
beekeeping. The critique of this organization is that it fails to take into account certain political,
social, and economic factors which greatly influence the profitability of the program. Political
instability and pest infestation have been shown to have a negative impact on profitability. The
social and economic inequalities present in Sub-Saharan Africa result in women earning less
money than their male counterparts for the same work. These inequalities are relevant because
Self Help Africa focuses on aiding women, which helps to reduce the inequalities present but
also represents a barrier to the economic success which can be experienced by the participants of
the program. The recent COVID-19 pandemic has also posed new barriers to economic success,
and has resulted in drastically reduced profits. These many factors influence the success of the
program and help to demonstrate some of the downfalls of this program. In order for this
program to have long-lasting success, it must take these factors into account when structuring
and implementing this program.
Self Help Africa (SHA) currently has programs in Kenya, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Burkina Faso, Uganda, Malawi, Zambia, and Togo . SHA specializes in family farm businesses and small-scale agriculture . The goal of this organization is to lessen and, to hopefully, end poverty and hunger in Sub-Saharan Africa – with specific attention towards rural areas . They attempt to achieve this goal through work with national and local partners and having local staff to aid in program implementation .
Self Help Africa has a variety of programs – all of which are aimed at creating a living situation that is more cooperative and economically sustainable . One of these programs is “Women’s Economic Empowerment Through Entrepreneurship in the Cashew Value Chain” which takes place in West Africa, or more specifically, in Burkina Faso . This program is targeted at providing training for women in the cashew value chain on business development, management, investment, funding, and entrepreneurship . This program also intends to create additional profit-producing opportunities, including market gardening and beekeeping .
Background: Using Agriculture to Combat Poverty
Poverty, malnutrition, and social inequality are the three prominent issues facing Sub-Saharan Africa. The top five countries with the highest rates of inequality are all present in sub-Saharan Africa . This subset of Africa is also home to over four-hundred million people who survive on less than $1.25 per day . The malnutrition which results from poverty and the lack of access to nutritional foods is commonplace throughout this area . This condition of malnutrition has many repercussions on health and economic standing – with children and women experiencing the strongest and most adverse impacts .
Agricultural production has been found to be highly effective in combating poverty in sub-Saharan Africa. More than 65 percent of Africans work within the agricultural sector, which makes agriculture the largest employment sector in Africa .The next two largest employment sectors are retail/wholesale trade and manufacturing, respectively . Agricultural production and retail/wholesale trade are often interconnected, especially in small-scale operations, due to the fact that once the agricultural product is produced it then needs to be sold in order to obtain a profit. Self Help Africa attempts to reduce poverty through an agricultural perspective due to the large proportion of workers present in the agricultural sector. SHA found that, in comparison to other methods, a focus on agriculture was eleven times more successful in lessening poverty .
Along with attempting to lessen poverty, an agricultural approach to charity helps to encourage social equality between men and women. Women represent more than 50 percent of the farmers in sub-Saharan Africa and are responsible for the majority of food grown on small-scale farms in Africa . Despite this, women receive only a fragment of the assistance that is available to men . This results in a woman’s farm being up to 40 percent less productive than a man’s ; . SHA’s focus upon women in a multitude of their programs helps to encourage greater social equality in sub-Saharan Africa.
Cashew Production in Sub-Saharan Africa
Cashew nuts are seen as “one of the most valuable processed nuts” in the global markets . This valuable nut must go through a transformative process of roasting, shelling, drying, and peeling in order to be considered able for consumption . The process of transforming the cashew nut often occurs in a secondary country – as is the case in Burkina Faso . This results in the great majority – approximately 90 percent – of cashews being processed internationally and domestic consumption being dependent upon this outside agent in order to obtain the processed version of this commodity . The cashew tree also produces a cashew apple which can be consumed and is seen as a valued commodity- though not as highly valued as the cashew nut .
West Africa produces approximately 50 percent of the world’s cashew nuts ; . This highly valued commodity ranks second in valuation as an export crop . This crop is also an alternative to more traditional crops when faced with climate change. Cashew trees can survive for an extended period of time in a period of drought and heat . These trees have also been used to combat desertification and erosion in the past . This provides more economic and agricultural security for those who are dependent upon this value chain as a source of income . Burkina Faso is the fourth largest cashew producer in Africa and produces approximately 100,000 tonnes per year as of 2020 . This amount of production has increased from approximately 85,000 tonnes in 2017  and 30,000 tonnes in 2013 . This suggests that since the beginning of the “Women’s Economic Empowerment Through Entrepreneurship in the Cashew Value Chain” development program in 2012, production in general has increased . The presence of SHA can not be seen as a causation for the increase in production as an overall increase in cashew production has been seen throughout many African countries .
Gender inequality is present within the majority of agricultural work including the cashew production sector. Women are often burdened with lesser pay, longer hours, and lower level jobs than their male counterparts . While this is more noticeable in countries with larger rates of cashew nut processing, these inequalities are still present and are relevant to how women are viewed within the realm of cashew production in Burkina Faso . These inequalities follow the idea that women are “secondary earners” and therefore, they are more willing to accept being treated as an inferior . This belief in male as the primary earner, with a woman’s income being secondary, perpetuates the societal oppression of women and the continued barriers towards equality produce negative consequences – including the persistence of poverty among women and children.
The “Women’s Economic Empowerment Through Entrepreneurship in the Cashew Value Chain” project in Burkina Faso organized women into five cooperatives ; . The cooperative included women who did and did not own a cashew orchard . The women who did not own an orchard of their own often worked with their husbands . SHA used practical and theoretical training on a variety of topics – including cooperative management, business plan development, entrepreneurship, funding, and investing – in order to combat poverty, hunger, and social inequality . The targeting of women to be the principal participants in this program helps to combat previously held social ideals and help to further the normalization of gender equality within the workforce.
Self Help Africa uses a multitude of techniques in order to achieve the goal of teaching the participants of the program to be self-reliant. A prominent element of SHA aid is teaching basic elements of personal finance – including microfinance ; . Along with teaching the principles of personal and microfinance, SHA also offers micro-loans so that individual families can use the money to improve their farms, businesses, and etc . When referring directly to the production of cashew trees, SHA helped to improve the knowledge of the women who participated in the program by teaching them about grafting techniques and drip irrigation . Both of these agricultural procedures help to propagate and sustain the cashew tree . SHA would also provide these women with tree seedlings which resulted in more successful tree growth over time .
The “Women’s Economic Empowerment Through Entrepreneurship in the Cashew Value Chain” program was funded by the Austrian Development Agency and was implemented through the National Union of Cashew Nut Producers (UNPA) . The UNPA, which possesses a specific sector dedicated to cashew production in Burkina Faso, began in 2013 and is one of three organizations which form the Interprofessional Cashew Nut Committee of Burkina (CIAB), which was created in 2015 . The CIAB helps to allow a more unified method of communication in the cashew sector in Burkina Faso. On January 27, 2021, the CIAB discussed their outrage for the way in which the restrictions are placed upon the funds of the organization- particularly, the fact that these funds are then to be classified as public funds . This holds significant meaning due to the fact that instead of using the money collected to further the organizational goals or aid individual cashew orchards, the CIAB was stripped of their autonomy over the money. This could have subsequent repercussions, such as not being able to continue participation as the implementing partner in the SHA “Women’s Economic Empowerment Through Entrepreneurship in the Cashew Value Chain” program.
The economics behind the cashew value chain can give a better understanding of the impact which SHA has on cashew production in Burkina Faso. Certain factors, such as kinship ties and geography, have been shown to be influential in the sustainability and profitability of a cashew orchard ; . Kinship ties have been found to be extremely relevant in the dispersal of information throughout the market and is therefore, extremely helpful when attempting to sell a commodity . The influence of geography on cost makes up one portion of the transaction cost of trading cashews . Transaction costs are costs related to the transfer, selling, and the administrative side of business – including research and negotiation costs . Although costs of production, or simply the direct costs necessary to produce an item, outweigh transaction costs on average, transaction costs are still perceived as a major constraint placed upon producers . Geography, in particular the distance between where the cashew nuts are held and the market in which they are sold, has been shown a positive correlation with transaction costs . This means that the greater the distance between where the cashews are stored and the place that they are sold, the greater the amount of transaction costs that will be present. This presents a particular problem, especially for individuals which occupy a rather remote piece of land. Education and gender were also found to be significant transaction costs. Education, in particular literacy vs illiteracy, was found to be related to transaction costs in which illiteracy was strongly connected to higher transaction costs due to the fact that buyers will sometimes lie to the producer in order to get a lower price . Women also faced higher transaction costs in comparison to men, along with more barriers to get to the market due to a lower social status .
While Self Help Africa does attempt to educate on finances and create a system which helps to lessen poverty, it does not take into account these many economic factors which will greatly influence the profitability of the program once SHA is no longer the director. While they do provide financial training, a large part of it is theoretical. The focus on women, although it helps to promote gender equality, does pose economic ramifications. Women have been shown to earn less and be charged more money in relation to their position in the workforce ; . Therefore, women will profit less from their role in the agricultural industry when compared to their male counterparts.
Obstacles to Consider
As of 2020, Burkina Faso, Nigeria, Senegal, and Togo were predicted to experience a reduction in cashew production by the year 2025 . This decline in production is predicted to be caused by a “reduction in the land under cashew cultivation, an increase in pest and disease infestations, coupled with a decline in genetic improvement and poor extension services” . The reduction in cashew production in Burkina Faso and Togo was primarily attributed to a lack of knowledge and improper extension services . This lack of knowledge resulted in inefficient cashew production and a lack of preparation for disease and pest infestations . A more integrative program from SHA which includes training in how to recognize and treat a pest and/or disease infestation would help to remedy this problem before cashew production is sacrificed.
The political stability of the country and/or area can significantly influence the ability to establish a productive and efficient agricultural program. This can be evidenced by viewing the state of Burkina Faso in 2019 in which political insecurity caused people to abandon their homes and caused government staff to desert their jobs . This led to 838,548 being displaced due to “combination of extremist attacks and intercommunity violence” as of 2020 . The effects of this political instability on agriculture included a 3 percent decrease in food production from 2018 to 2019 . While the 2019 food production was still higher than the 5 year average, it does demonstrate the fact that political stability does impact other areas of the economy, including the agricultural industry . SHA has had to adapt to this new environment which is politically unstable . These adaptations include a provision for portable solar powered water pumps, the training of volunteers in the delivery of poultry vaccinations, and relocation of staff .
The recent COVID-19 pandemic has impacted West Africa in many ways – including having a negative influence on the agricultural value chain . In an effort to mediate the diffusion of COVID-19, West Africa has imposed movement and social distancing restrictions . These restrictions include “suspended international flights, closed borders, imposed curfews, locked down localities, limited internal movement and closed schools, markets and nonessential businesses” . The closure of “schools, markets and nonessential businesses” is incredibly important from an economical standpoint due to the fact that approximately 80 percent of the jobs present in this economy are informal, which predominantly require in-person interactions . Informal workers are dependent upon these jobs as a source of income and without access to this form of work, the already present poverty can be perpetuated past what is considered “normal.”
The closure of markets prevented the ability to sell the complete stock of any commodity, including cashew nuts, during this time. Burkina Faso also imposed high levels of closures, including the closure of 100 percent of their markets within their capital of Ouagadougou . The closure of markets due COVID-19 resulted in increased food prices – making it even more difficult to sustain oneself . When this is coupled with the inability to sell the commodity which money and time has been expensed into, then it becomes a struggle just to prevent bankruptcy .
The closure of “schools, markets and nonessential businesses” also holds ramifications for women and children within society . Women, along with young girls, face the difficulties of performing the household duties which they have been deemed responsible for, such as cleaning, cooking, and fetching water . The movement restrictions imposed by the government have made these tasks more difficult to complete . There is also the problem of being exposed to an increased risk of domestic violence due to isolation and proximity to partners . The closure of schools have also led to women having to take on larger childcare responsibilities, which prevents them from continuing employment even if they were able to do so . These financial pressures placed upon the family by COVID-19 are also expected to cause an increase in child labor – which has been shown to increase when schools close and when agricultural profits decrease .
In response to the new arena of financial hardships presented within the COVID-19 pandemic, many financial institutions chose to significantly reduce the amount of money which it lends to cashew producers in West Africa . Burkina Faso put forth a solidarity fund which was intended for “informal traders of fruits and vegetables, as well as the acquisition of agricultural output and animal fodder to support pastoralists” . This fund however does not target cashew production and therefore, leaves the individuals within the cashew sector to face the financial hardships without government assistance. The closures related to COVID also came at a time in which cashew producers would often be selling their crop – this led to drastic price drops due to the fact that producers felt the need to find a buyer .
While the official influence of COVID-19 on the SHA “Women’s Economic Empowerment Through Entrepreneurship in the Cashew Value Chain” program, it can be expected that profitability decreased and food insecurity increased. This pattern has been seen throughout West Africa and many other countries during the COVID-19 pandemic. The disturbance within the agricultural value chains has also caused “increased inequality and major financial vulnerability in the future” . SHA’s initiative to aid women and their families by helping them to produce a source of income through agriculture definitely allowed for these families’ lives to be more stable during such a turbulent time – which is ongoing. This would definitely be an example of how financial training, whether practical or theoretical, is going to be useful because income is much more than prior to COVID.
All in all, Self Help Africa is an organization which attempts to aid different communities within Africa through the use of agricultural and financial programs. The “Women’s Economic Empowerment Through Entrepreneurship in the Cashew Value Chain” program implements cashew production as a way to empower women in a society in which they are viewed as inferior. This program, located in Burkina Faso, helps to fight inequality and challenge stereotypical gender roles that place women in low-skilled and low-paid jobs. Cashew production is also usually a relatively high return market, but is also considered as fairly high risk . Therefore, cashew can be seen as a crop which could make a significant impact in the financial standing of the producer. SHA also promotes other profitable activities, including market gardening and beekeeping .
Despite the positive aspects of this program, there are some economic and political aspects which suggest that SHA might not be implementing a program which is the most efficient and/or productive. This program lacks the proper supervision and education regarding how to sustain during times of economic or political instability. This can be seen throughout the impacts of COVID, the increase in violence in Burkina Faso, and the intricate economic features of the cashew value chain. The provision of financial education by SHA does help to provide a foundational knowledge in which a greater understanding and skill set can be based upon. Overall, Self Help Africa does create a positive impact through the “Women’s Economic Empowerment Through Entrepreneurship in the Cashew Value Chain” program but it is not perfect and change that is aimed at adaptation to current-day circumstances would allow this program to create a more significant and lasting impact.
This post may have been edited by admin for clarity and length.
“About Us.” Self Help Africa. 2021, https://selfhelpafrica.org/us/about-us/.
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Kolliesuah, N.P., et al. “Trend Analysis of Production, Consumption and Export of Cashew Crop in West Africa.” African Crop Science Journal, vol. 28, 2020, pp. 187-202. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/344454491_Trend_Analysis_of_Production_ Consumption_and_Export_of_Cashew_Crop_in_West_Africa.
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“West Africa Cashew Project (Pro-Cashew).” CNFA. 2021, https://www.cnfa.org/program/ west-africa-cashew-project-pro-cashew/.
 Self Help Africa. “2019 Annual Report.” Self Help Africa. https://selfhelpafrica.org/ie/ wp-content/uploads/sites/4/2020/09/Annual-Report-2019-SHA-web-5.pdf.
 “About Us.” Self Help Africa. 2021, https://selfhelpafrica.org/us/about-us/.
 “How We Work.” Self Help Africa. 2021, https://selfhelpafrica.org/us/how-we-work/.
 Self Help Africa. “Improving the Lives of Women Cashew Farmers in Burkina Faso.” Self Help Africa. 11 Mar. 2020, https://selfhelpafrica.org/ie/improving-the-lives-of-women-cashew -producers-in-burkina-faso/.
 “Cashew in Burkina Faso – A Young Sector in Search of a Governance Model.” SNRD Africa. 2019, https://www.snrd-africa.net/cashew-in-burkina-faso-a-young-sector-in-search -of-a-governance-model/.
 Bisson, Loïc, and Thea Hambleton. “COVID-19 Impact on West African Value Chains.” Clingendael Institute, 2020, www.jstor.org/stable/resrep25675. Accessed 18 Apr. 2021.
 Kanji, Nazneen. “Corporate Responsibility and Women’s Employment: The Case of Cashew Nuts.” Gender and Development, vol. 12, no. 2, 2004, pp. 82–87. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/4030618. Accessed 18 Apr. 2021.
 Audouin, Sarah, and Laurent Gazull. “Spatial Dynamics of an Innovation System in Southern Burkina Faso. The Adoption and Diffusion of Cashew-Nut Production.” L’Espace Géographique (English Edition), vol. 43, no. 1, 2014, pp. 34–48. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/26213701. Accessed 18 Apr. 2021.
 Kolliesuah, N.P., et al. “Trend Analysis of Production, Consumption and Export of Cashew Crop in West Africa.” African Crop Science Journal, vol. 28, 2020, pp. 187-202. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/344454491_Trend_Analysis_of_Production_ Consumption_and_Export_of_Cashew_Crop_in_West_Africa.
 “West Africa Cashew Project (Pro-Cashew).” CNFA. 2021, https://www.cnfa.org/program/west-africa-cashew-project-pro-cashew/.
 Self Help Africa. “West Africa 2020-21.” Self Help Africa. https://selfhelpafrica.org/us/wp-content/uploads/sites/5/2021/01/CP_WA_2020-web.pdf.
 “Burkina cashew sector: Actors are indignant against a state structure.” L’Express du Faso. 2021, https://www.lexpressdufaso-bf.com/filiere-anacarde-du-burkina-des acteurs-sindignent-contre-une-structure-de-letat/.
 Degla, Pamphile K. “Transaction Costs in the Trading System of Cashew Nuts in the North of Benin: A Field Study.” The American Journal of Economics and Sociology, vol. 71, no. 2, 2012, pp. 277–297. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable /23245224. Accessed 18 Apr. 2021.
 Gonzalez, Violeta. “How West Africa’s cashew companies have weathered the COVID-19 crisis.” Development matters. 4 Mar. 2021, https://oecd-development-matters.org/ 2021/03/04/how-west-africas-cashew-companies-have-weathered-the-covid-19- crisis/.