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Field Focus: Improving Maternal Health in Sierra Leone, One Mango at a Time

By Jennifer Wilmore
May 2013

“Imagine living in dire poverty while the means to provide for your family rot in your backyard,” says Steven Grudda, the manager of a mango cooperative project in Sierra Leone. “Wouldn’t you want the opportunity to make use of the resources going to waste?”

This reasoning was the impetus for World Hope International to create the Outgrowers’ Project that Grudda currently heads up. In January 2011, the faith-based development organization created the project, which developed cooperatives of mango farmers in two rural districts of Sierra Leone. The cooperatives would gather the fruit from these areas and deliver it to a juice company that had just set up operations near the capital city of Freetown.

Now, after only two years of operation, the Outgrowers’ Project works with over 160 cooperatives—representing 2,300 smallholder farmers in 120 villages.

Of that total, 80 percent are women, according to Musa Tholley, the Outgrowers’ Project Coordinator.  He says a full 60 percent of all of the participants are either pregnant or mothers with small children.

In a country with the third highest maternal mortality rate in the world—890 deaths per 100,000 live births—the project represents a unique opportunity for women in rural areas to actively provide for their own health needs and to support the needs of their families.

“Young mothers told us in 2011 that when they sold their mangos, it was the first time they had ever earned cash,” says Grudda. The income earned through the project enabled them to buy medicine and food for themselves and their children, “which you can't pay for with rice, chickens or other non-monetary means,” he adds.

Mango trees grow in large numbers all across the tropical landscape of Sierra Leone. The fruit is so prevalent that local markets alone cannot absorb the supply—meaning much of the produce ends up going unsold in local markets or rotting on the ground.

Then in 2011, World Hope International established a remarkable, light industry special economic zone called First Step, and its first tenant to move in was a juice company by the name of Africa Felix Juice.

Grudda was part of an investigative team from Houghton College that did the initial research for the project. They saw an opportunity to match the large, existing mango supply that often went to waste with the new juice company, which would provide a guaranteed market for the villagers. It would also transform the produce into a noteworthy value-added export for the country.

Grudda then went to work with his team, organizing village mango cooperatives to collect the mangos. They focused on the Bombali and Tonkolili districts in the northern part of the country and organized a network of trucks to transport the produce from the villages to the juice factory.

Whereas a mango tree harvest would only fetch about $15 in local markets, Africa Felix agreed to pay farmers $250 to $300 for each tree harvest.

At the end of its first mango season, the village cooperatives had sold about 230 metric tons of mangos to Africa Felix Juice through the Outgrowers’ Project.

After that first season, Grudda returned to the villages to meet with farmers and discuss their experiences with the project and its impact on mothers, in particular. He heard accounts of women in one of the project’s most remote communities using some of their income to pay for malaria treatment while they were pregnant.

“Wet season starts at the end of mango season, and is the most common time of the year for people to contract malaria,” Grudda says. “Many mothers will try to wait out the sickness or use traditional medication because they don't have enough money to pay for proper treatment,” he adds, which often results in needless deaths.

But with the proceeds of their mango sales, the young women in this village were able to buy treatment as soon as they contracted malaria, preventing sickness early on and complications to their pregnancies.

Overall, the Outgrowers’ Project has funneled $55,000 back into local villages. Beyond buying medicines, participants in the project are putting this money into additional agriculture efforts, animal husbandry, savings, education, and clean water in their community.

 A single mother from the village of Rosint, for instance, used the proceeds from her sale of mangos to buy four young female goats. Goat meat is a good source of nutrition and a valuable commodity in rural Sierra Leone. The goats she bought will mate with male goats in town and start a small herd, helping the mother care for her needs and those of her children for years to come.

Other women are investing their proceed money into small restaurants or buying seeds to plant new crops. Peanuts, for example, provide a valuable source of protein in women’s diets, but many farmers cannot afford the seeds. By participating in the project, women have been able to buy these start-up seeds to plant fields of peanuts, rice, and cassava.

“I think it’s better if the women invest the money into farms or small businesses,” Grudda says. “It will provide a source of revenue for the future, which will help sustain their livelihoods.” The investment could also ensure that women have disposable income in the event of an unexpected medical crisis, he adds.

Even though the Outgrowers’ Project is still in its infancy, it is quickly picking up momentum. In 2012, sales of mangoes increased by about 350 percent over the previous year. Africa Felix now has orders for its mango juice concentrate from 10 different countries, and it has sold to some of the world’s top consumer markets, including Germany and England.

The project has also begun expanding to include pineapple cultivation. They have planted an initial group of five block farms, all five acres each, near the First Step site.

Pineapples do not grow nearly as abundantly in Sierra Leone as mangos do. This scarcity coupled with the existence of a willing buyer makes the expansion into pineapple promising. “Africa Felix Juice will buy every pineapple it can get its hands on,” says Grudda.

With the expansion of the Outgrowers’ Project, World Hope approached the Foods Resource Bank (FRB) for initial funding of the pineapple component.  The FRB, a funding agent that focuses on programs that develop smallholder agriculture in the many of the poorest, most remote regions of the world, is funding about half of the project’s budget.

One group already set to benefit from the expansion into pineapple is a local network of women that supports mothers who are HIV-positive. World Hope provided them with pineapple suckers and training in how to cultivate the plant. Once the women sell the fruit to Africa Felix, they will use the proceeds to help the mothers access antiretroviral (ARV) drugs.

The empowerment of groups like this network of women is precisely the type of outcome World Hope hopes to see from this project and from the First Step special economic zone. It’s also strict criterion for companies interested in locating to the zone.

"There has to be a commitment to not only the financial bottom line," Richard Schroeder, First Step's CEO, told CNN in June 2011. "We're looking for tenants that also are passionate and care about their impact in terms of social impact and environmental impact."

Grudda reiterates this fact, indicating that he hopes some of the future tenants of First Step will be agribusiness companies. “We are prioritizing attracting agro-processing companies to the zone, which will benefit smallholder farming families and women in a similar fashion that this relationship with Africa Felix Juice has,” he says.

Both of the companies they are currently in negotiations with, he adds, are owned by women.

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