It all started in a cramped apartment belonging to one of a group of friends. The women had decided that it would make sense to put some of the spoiled fruit produced in the Pomeroon area of Guyana to good use. In doing so, they reasoned, they could avoid wastage and help create jobs for some of the many women in the area who had no source of income. That decision, taken back in 2001, led to the launch of the Pomeroon Women's Agro-Processors Association (PWAPA). Today, from humble beginnings, the rural enterprise has made a name for itself as a high-quality agri-food producer, generating revenues for its women members as well as demand for raw materials from local farmers.
"The purpose at the beginning was to provide women in the community with employment to improve their standard of living, to assist farmers in finding markets for their produce and to help women in developing their skills in value-added agriculture produce, business management and marketing through training," recalls Rosamund Benn, who is President of the association.
Today, PWAPA produces a variety of products, including green seasoning sauce, hot pepper sauce, brown seasoning sauce, green mango chutney and carambola cake mix. All the products sold by PWAPA benefit from the Pomeroon tradition for fruit production, favoured by its location on fertile land bathed by streams and rivers. The carambola cake mix, a rich blend of fruit used to make Christmas black cake – a local tradition – has largely replaced the more expensive imported fruit that was previously used by most people.
The most recent addition to the product list is virgin coconut oil, which was launched to counter falling prices for raw coconuts in an area renowned for its native coconut plantations. A strategic decision to target the niche but growing health and cosmetic market for virgin coconut oil enabled the women's group to add high value to raw coconuts, at the same time ensuring regular demand for local farmers. The production method, which involves drying the coconut flesh in a solar drying room and grating and squeezing it to extract oil, ensures the nutritional content is retained. The group is currently developing plans to produce plantain flour.
Small beginnings, big results
"The association has grown tremendously. The expansion has really surprised us, because when we started, we had only one product which was our main focus," said Benn. President of PWAPA for the past four years, Benn is one of 10 women involved in the association. She left school aged 13 because her mother, a single parent, could not afford to continue paying for her education. Married with five grown children, she lives on a farm on the left bank of the Pomeroon River and travels by boat to the market to sell her produce. All her children have gone on to pursue higher education, an achievement of which she is proud.
"The association has transformed my life from being a simple housewife and farmer to being a businesswoman and an ambassador for the association, travelling and meeting women in different associations and in different countries, sharing experiences and also gaining some too," said the PWAPA President.
The association has long moved out of the small apartment where it was started to a refurbished building in the small town of Charity, on land previously occupied by an old carambola mill. The new premises were provided with support from the Ministry of Agriculture. The Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA) has also offered technical support, with CTA and other sources helping with training and marketing. The PWAPA is a member of the Caribbean Network of Rural Women Producers (CANROP) network, along with 700 other women rural producers.
Developing the value chain
Production and marketing tasks are shared among the women, and at the end of each year association members receive dividends before the surplus is ploughed back into the operation. In order to have a reliable supply of seasonal products such as peppers and mangoes, the association has signed agreements with local farmers in the area. The women also have a greenhouse and have undergone training in processing techniques, packaging and labelling, to satisfy requirements for larger domestic markets as well as for export. They are also working to develop efficient distribution chains and to expand sales beyond current small retail outlets and supermarkets.
"We don't have an overseas market right now, though we have exported to Antigua," said Benn. "Our next goals as an association are to purchase a vehicle for distribution of goods locally, to expand our market and start exporting all of our products."
Always thinking ahead, the association is also keen to increase its membership, and is seeking to attract at least 10 other younger women – a figure that would help it double its current size. Most of all, Benn would like the association to serve as an example to other women of what can be achieved with limited capital resources, but strong determination and hard work.
"I will continue working with the group to achieve its goals and encourage women across Guyana to elevate themselves," she said. "I believe the secret to our success is determination through dedication."
Rosamund Benn discussing the production and trade of Coconut Oil in Guyana at the Brussels Development Briefing held in September 2015, in Brussels, Belgium.
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