Palm, Pizza, & Progress

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Because the computer network at CRAN’s new office was still out of commission, it seemed that I would have a lot of free time on my hands last week. However, the fine folks at ProWorld decided to get me involved in a new project. Usually, ProWorld places students with partner organizations and acts as the mediator between them. The staff recently decided that they wanted to host an internal project with a local village that participants could work on. I was to be the guinea pig.

After receiving permission from CRAN to take most of the week off, project coordinator Isaac and I headed about an hour away from Cape Coast to a remote village near Kakum National Park. The village looks like a cliché still from a film. Clay huts with thatched roofs stand surrounding by children playing with sticks. Women in traditional dresses stand over fires stirring kettles of mysterious liquids. There’s no electricity. The only glimpses of the modern world appeared through a spattering of cell phones and a visit by a petrol truck.

Most of villagers work as farmers growing cocoa, cassava, and palm. Palm was the reason for our visit. While there several products that can be derived from palm trees, palm oil is often the lucrative. We had come to interview farmers about their use of palm oil processing equipment. The villagers pay a man to use his machines to process palm crops. However, the man doesn’t maintain the machines and inconsistently provides petrol to run them.  We were looking into the feasibility of helping the village take out a group loan to purchase their own machines. The community would then share the burden of repaying the loan as well as maintaining the machines. Ideally, this would be long-term way to increase the whole village’s profits.

Palm

Palm

Our visit to the village on Wednesday was brief. We interviewed three people and introduced ourselves to the village’s chief. I’m not sure what I was expecting a chief to look like, with the tiny man in polka-dotted pants was not it. Isaac told me to follow his lead as we bowed and talked to a spokesperson rather than directly at the chief. The chief gave us his blessing and promised to support us with our mission as best as he could.

After leaving the village, Isaac asked me if I was interested in bees. I told him that I am afraid of bees, as I am highly allergic them. He laughed and delightedly told me that he could take me to the International Stingless Bee Centre where I could frolic with bees for the first time. I was a little hesitant. What if a stinging bee got mixed in? However, I figured that might as well embrace every new experience and asked him to take me.

The centre consisted of a flower garden and a couple of shanties supporting wooden boxes. A tour guide took me around to the different shanties and explained that each shanty held a different species of bees. The bees looked smaller than your typical honeybee. One variety even looked to be the size of an ant! The bees surrounded me and bounced off my face and neck. I had to resist swatting them away. The main event came when the guide opened up a large hive and invited me to put my hand in. I gingerly placed my hand in the box and listened to the comforting hums of the hive. There was a slight breeze from the beating of their tiny wings and felt a few crawl up my hand. It was a neat experience and I’m glad I went through with it.

Other than providing tours, the centre focuses on a few other activities. First, it specializes in research and training. Some of the research includes pollination services, hive development, and colony management. The centre also trains community members in bee cultivation so that they can support their own hives. The centre also develops medicinal hive products. I picked some honey at the office, which can either be used topically or ingested. I’m planning on bringing it home for my mom since she loves honey.

Feeling the stingless bees! It tickled.

Feeling the stingless bees! It tickled.

After the bee centre, Isaac and I returned home for a biweekly Fante lesson. Afterwards. Our coordinator Sarah took us to Sizzler one of the few pizza places in Ghana. We got four pizzas: margarita, chicken, veggie, and Hawaiian. By U.S. standards the pizza was pretty bad. However in Ghana, it was the tastiest thing I’d eaten in a long time. I binged on about seven pieces, which my intestines would regret the next morning.

On Thursday it was back to the village. I met Isaac there and we spent almost the entire day talking to community members. After realizing how limited my knowledge of palm was, a group of farmers gave me a tour of their palm farm and explained the entire process from the seed to the store. Palm takes about three years to grow before the fruit is ready to be harvested. After reaching maturation, the tree will produce fruit for about twenty years before it dies. The trees produce fruit all year long, but the largest crop is harvested March through June. Once the fruit is harvested, it sits in a barrel for about a week in order to make it easier to separate the seed. The seeds are extracted by hand before the pulp is roasted and left to sit for another week. Next, the palm is milled and then heated to melt the oil. The milled product is pressed to isolate the oil and voila, the oil is ready to sell.

Palm is a very efficient crop and the villagers make sure to use every part. The leaves are used to make brooms, the branches for baskets, and even the materials left from processing the oil are used as firewood. The kernels of the fruit are roasted and processed into palm kernel oil, which can be used for commercial cook and is frequently used in soaps. The palm is also made into palm wine and a type of spirits that has hefty 40% alcohol content. Nothing goes to waste in palm farming, and unlike in Asia, Ghana has not experienced the negative ecological impact. I do worry about the future of the palm oil industry in Ghana as large investment funds are purchasing palm plantations, shutting out the local farmers.

Barrels of palm about to be processed into oil

Barrels of palm about to be processed into oil

After my tour, we spent the rest of the day interview farmers about their current profits, costs, risks, and expectations of the project. I complied the information that evening and sent it to Isaac. The next step is to research the cost of machine, maintenance, and petrol so that we can give CRAN a budget. I really enjoy working this project because I can see the tangible impact that I am making in the community. I’m also excited to work so hands on. I feel like I am learning a lot about sustainable development in a very active way. It is times like these that I feel very grateful for my time here in Ghana.

One of the palm oil process machines. The oil comes out of the spout in the front.

One of the palm oil process machines. The oil comes out of the spout in the front.

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