Shifting the balance of power

Ndella Badiane works in the community garden set up by the village association in Ouniock, Casamance. Credit: Traidcraft Exchange/Kate Dixon

Ndella Badiane works in the community garden set up by the village association in Ouniock, Casamance. Credit: Traidcraft Exchange/Kate Dixon

Poverty at its root is a question of power – more specifically, of powerlessness. Drawing on his recent trip to Senegal, George Williams considers whether improving the overall efficiency of value chains and developing new markets for producers can lead not only to increases in income, but also to shifts in the balance of power.

It is well-known that having more money can, in itself, be an important route to increased power. Among other things, money can help give people access to information, expand life choices, enable people to plan beyond the day-to-day, develop capacity to invest for the future, and allow people to build social safety nets such as savings and assets that can be sold during times of crisis. But in what ways do value chain and market development initiatives challenge long-standing, structural imbalances of power? This is a question I often find myself asking and one which I’ve talked about before in a previous blog.

In September, I visited our ‘Juicing Justice for Farmers’ project in Senegal. As part of the project, we’re working with producers in the southern Casamance region of the country who harvest fruits and other non-timber forest products from the wild forests. When we first started working with these producers, they explained to us that they were beholden to the terms set by local, informal traders known as ‘Bana-Banas’, who came to their villages to source product. The producers knew that the Bana-Banas’ prices were far lower than what they could get if they took the produce to market themselves – but due to their limited means of transport, the highly perishable nature of their goods and their desperate need for cash, they had little choice but to accept the terms offered.

Two-and-a-half years later, discussions with producers suggest that for some at least, this situation is changing. It’s not a picture-postcard of transformative change, but there are positive examples that can be built on and disseminated to others in the second half of the project. There’s no getting away from the fact that rural infrastructure in this post-conflict setting remains a major challenge, and that producers currently lack access to financial services that would enable them to invest in transportation, although we aim to begin addressing that soon. What is apparent, though, is that the institution-building methodology used by Traidcraft Exchange and its partners is enabling producers to build up their collective voice and influence – a case of ‘power with’, as per the seminal typology developed by Rowlands.

Producers have organised into ‘GIEs’ – Groupements d'intérêt économique in French, which translates as ‘Economic Interest Groups.’ These groups provide producers with a collective identity that helps them to access government services and support. Just as importantly, though, the formation of GIEs also facilitates a process of collective working. One GIE we spoke with up near the Gambian border explained how earlier this year they had coordinated with other GIEs in the area and called a large meeting across six villages, to which all villagers, including the village chiefs, were invited. At the meeting they discussed the challenges they face when selling their produce, including low prices, and together they agreed to set minimum prices for two of their key ‘crops’: baobab and néré.

Following the meeting, the GIEs continued to work hard to ensure that their non-member neighbours understood the agreement and that they would also adhere to it. To date, the agreement has held. Villagers in the area have stuck to these minimum prices when the Bana-Banas have come to source produce, and as a result they are earning more money. To do this, the GIE members explained to us, it was critical to have the buy-in and support of village chiefs.

It was pleasantly surprising to hear how effectively the GIE members reported it had worked, though they went on to explain that there are, of course, always some villagers who undercut the agreed prices. They were adamant, though, that these constitute a small minority: examples given were of young people who want money quickly to go to a “club”, and women who might need specific ingredients for cooking at the last minute.

Not only, then, have the GIEs been successful in establishing a minimum pricing scheme in their area that provides some price stability and ensures they earn more than they used to, but they have also been largely successful in ensuring that the vast majority of villagers (both GIE members and non-members) adhere to the agreement. In short, everyone in the locality selling these products benefits, and the terms of trade have shifted slightly to the producers’ favour.

As we continued our research in Casamance we heard similar examples from other GIEs, with two common themes emerging from our discussions. Firstly, that it was essential to engage the local village chiefs, as having their support makes it much likelier that such agreements will be adhered to. Secondly, that these processes are much easier to implement when trading dry food crops with longer ‘shelf-lives’ than with highly-perishable soft fruits. Neither of these themes are surprising, but it was encouraging to hear that the GIEs who had started with the dry products had found that collective working was feasible and felt confident that they could now try something similar with perishables.

Returning to my initial question, what was exciting for me about these discussions was that they provide some evidence that value chain and market development initiatives such as the one we’re implementing in Senegal can, at the same time as improving incomes for poor producers, begin to address some of the more structural power imbalances in supply chains that keep many of the world’s small producers poor. In a recent external evaluation of another Traidcraft Exchange project the authors referred to our work as using “a holistic approach combining the market development approach and asset-based community development approach.” This captures it quite neatly for me: Traidcraft Exchange seeks to use ‘market development’ to enable small producers to take advantage of commercial opportunities and to increase efficiencies and profitability across value chains, but at the same time we use ‘community development’ to ensure that small producers have the collective voice and influence to affect the terms on which they trade. Working in this way enables producers to capture more of the added value released through improved efficiency and profitability.

The combination of these two ways of working is critical to our ambition to ‘transform trade’, as evidenced by some of the GIEs we’re working with in Senegal.  Whilst in the grand scheme of things it may not seem like much, a small shift in the balance of power for the producers of Senegal’s Casamance seems to me to be a significant and highly encouraging step.

George Williams is Traidcraft Exchange’s Impact and Learning Manager.

Nancy Demuth