Mobility in the Fields

October 18, 2011 by Evan Welsh

Today is a day that I’ve been anticipating for weeks; ever since I found out I was going to host a group of international reporters in Ghana. My thoughts have ranged from excitement to anxiety to trepidation and back around again. As I get ready to join, host and escort nine international journalists through Ghana, a country that I’ve never been to and until recently would have had trouble finding on a map, my adrenaline-laden emotions have switched to pure excitement. It’s funny how the mind works.

I’ve already formed certain expectations, some of which I’m sure will be met and others exceeded. I’m looking forward to finding out how and in what ways. An SAP colleague who is joining the trip and is already onsite wrote me  in an email yesterday, “I am so excited. Today we went live with our mobile application in the field. It was an amazing feeling to experience this high-tech project in this super rural place where I was standing with a donkey cart.”

Technology that changes lives

That’s what I’m expecting: to see how SAP is empowering Ghanaian farmers, primarily women, with mobile technology delivered in the cloud, to provide a (more) secure income. As we travel to Tamale in Northern Ghana we’ll see how SAP is collaborating with PlaNet Finance, an international microfinance organization, to create opportunities for women who are operating at the base of the pyramid, to become successful entrepreneurs.

We will then visit Wenchi, in Western Ghana, to see how SAP and the African Cashew initiative (ACi) are supporting small-scale farmers with innovative technology that benefits participants along the entire agricultural value chain. The farmers are using SAP smart phone apps to get access to farmer information, cashew buying, and loading and market information. The software allows traceability in the supply chain between farmers, manufacturing companies and wholesale trade.

Farmers use mobile technology to record and track their products. (Foto: SAP AG)

Farmers use mobile technology to record and track their products. (Foto: Evan Welsh)

On the road to Janga Town

After a long day of project briefings in the capital city, Accra, we rose before 4 a.m. on Wednesday to catch the 6 a.m. flight to Tamale, supposedly the more reliable of the few daily flights upcountry. As we were about to board we were instructed to take a seat in the waiting area. The speedometer was broken. It would only take 10 to 15 minutes to repair. An hour and half later we were on our way.

The road from Tamale to Janga Town in Northern Ghana was also not without its obstacles and challenges. We traveled in a 16-seat bus on a sometimes paved and sometimes not-so-paved road. Along the way we encountered several check points, where angry looking men with machine guns curiously peered through the windows at our white faces – a rare sight in this very rural region. Our driver explained that the road is the main thoroughfare leading to Burkina Faso, and that smuggling and robbery were not uncommon. I wasn’t sure whether to be comforted or assured.

Meeting the chief

At long last we reached our destination of Janga Town, a village of roughly 3,000 people, consisting of mud and straw huts, hundreds of goats and chickens, more children than adults, a mosque, a huge cell phone tower and a shea nut collection warehouse. Our visit was anticipated, and as our bus stopped along a bumpy dirt road near a cluster of huts, we were greeted with smiling faces. Within minutes there were 50 children surrounding us. Immediately transformed to tourists, we started taking photos. The kids’ joy in seeing their images on the screens of our digital cameras was indescribable.

As is custom, before we could wander through the village, talk to the women shea nut farmers and witness SAP technology in action (the barcode scanning of the 85-kilo shea nut sacks and the reason for our visit), we needed to pay a visit to the village chief. After much discussion in the local language of whether we could take photos or not, we were told we could, but the chief wanted a can of Coke, short of that he would accept monetary donations.

As per custom, the journalists visited the chief and gave him a can of coke for a photo. (Photo: SAP AG)

A customary visit with the chief involved a can of coke in exchange for his photo. (Photo: Evan Welsh)

Evan Welsh traveled throughout Ghana to report on SAP's projects there. (Foto: SAP AG)

Evan Welsh traveled throughout Ghana to report on SAP's projects there. (Photo: SAP AG)

Real change for rural farmers

Next we met with about 40 women shea nut collectors, who explained through a translator how SAP and the microfinance organization, PlaNet Finance, have made a positive difference in their lives. They have been outfitted with protective clothing to wear in the field and have been trained in business skills and quality shea nut collection. We have helped them form collectives so that they can sell their nuts in bulk. There are now six collectives, which are really only clusters of huts, in Janga Town and many more throughout the region.

The most promising change for their future economic sustainability is their use of mobile technology. As soon as their nuts are collected in the 85-kilo sacks, which the men balance on their heads, the sacks are scanned with a smart phone, the collection is recorded, and the women are paid for their efforts. The technology not only provides an important record of the transaction, but it also allows buyers to trace the nuts back to the source. Finally, SAP and PlaNet have secured bulk buyers, who can now expect a reliable and quality product, for which they are willing to pay. A recent case study by Stanford University titled, “The Shea Value Chain Reinforcement Initiative, by SAP, PlaNet Finance, Grameen Ghana and Maata-N-Tudu,” found that the women’s income through their shea nut activities has increased between 59 percent and 82 percent.

A farmer in Ghana transports . (Photo: SAP AG)

A farmer in Ghana transports a sack of shea nuts weighing 85 kilograms. (Photo: Evan Welsh)

Women working with the harvested shea nuts. (Photo: SAP AG)

Women working with the harvested shea nuts. (Photo: Evan Welsh)

From Gumu to your grocery store

After seeing the process of collecting nuts in Janga Town, our last stop brought us to the Gumu Shea Processing Plant in Tamale to see how shea nuts are processed into butter, a key ingredient in many cosmetic products and a critical step in global shea nut supply chain. I doubt, however, that many people take much time to contemplate where the butter originates or think about the fact that it comes from the toil of rural women farmers in the outskirts of Tamale.

As our bus pulled into the dirt lot, we skeptically looked around for the plant, not immediately realizing that we were looking at it. It looked more like a farm with a few concrete buildings, no visible machinery, mud and straw huts, women sewing clothing, and children and animals milling about. Our allotted one and a half hours seemed grossly generous.

We soon realized that the term “plant” in Gumu Shea Processing Plan is used rather loosely, since the extent of the equipment consists of one hand-turned roaster (valued at less than $100) and one nut dryer (valued at approximately $50). The nut dryer is really a large pot that a woman turns by hand for an hour, set over burning straw, which a man intermittently rekindles. A rather unfair distribution of labor, I think.

Once the butter leaves Gumu Shea, it is trucked to Tema port near Accra and shipped abroad to companies, including the Body Shop, which buys the butter directly from Gumu Shea. With the use of SAP mobile technology, the butter can now be traced back to its original source, ensuring high quality, fair trade and transparency throughout the supply chain. As one of the reporters on the tour remarked, “You can really see how SAP is helping and benefitting the farmers and communities by tracking and tracing orders and deliveries from sellers to buyers. Those not using technology are at a serious disadvantage.”

The shea nuts are eventually processed into shea butter and then shipped globally. (Photo: SAP AG)

The nuts are processed into shea butter which is shipped globally. (Photo: Evan Welsh)

Evan Welsh, SAP Global Media Relations Lead (Photo: SAP AG)

Evan Welsh, SAP Global Media Relations Lead for Sustainability & CSR (Photo: SAP AG)

Setting the record straight on SAP

At times portrayed as a big, expensive, complicated software company, SAP is being successfully implemented in some of the most remote villages by simple Ghanaian farmers. I think we can put the myth that SAP is only for large enterprises to rest. As one of the head woman organizers told our group through a translator, “Thank you for bringing smart phones to us. You have fixed many of our problems. Records don’t get lost anymore. The phones provide important information on our business. Accountability is much easier. After the season we have records on all of the farmers, and this helps to know who is picking how much. And it helps us prepare for the next season.”

In a span of less than 24 hours, our traveling band experienced critical elements of the shea supply chain: from the picking, packaging and tracking of shea nuts enabled through SAP mobile technology in Janga Town, to the processing of the nuts into butter at Gumu Shea. The lotions, creams and soaps that we use to keep our skin feeling soft and moist are made possible by the work of rural farmers, and their lives are improving thanks to successful SAP implementations.

The lessons learned from these projects will help SAP roll out similar solutions for other fast growing industries in developing and emerging markets around the world. As SAP pursues its goal of one billion users by 2015, these innovative projects will play an increasingly important role.

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