Women Empowering Women

Baobab change maker uplifts women through caring and conservation
Photos: @Baobab Foundation

Sarah Venter is a powerful entrepreneur who is extending the benefits of the sustainable baobab trade to hundreds of women in the Vhembe district of South Africa’s Limpopo province.

Her company EcoProducts was started in 2006 to uplift women in local communities. It produces powder and oil from wild-harvested Baobab fruit and the GIZ ABioSA project is helping to expand its reach into international markets.

Photos: @Baobab Foundation

Baobab has long been used for food, fibre and medicine in Africa, and the global trade has in the past 20 years become an important employment and income source for many rural families.

As EcoProducts powder exports expanded, a lot of baobab seed was going to waste, putting pressure on the local purchase price of the fruit. By developing a range of baobab oils for the consumer market, Venter is balancing the volume of oil sales with that of powder.

‘The more we sell, the more women we can involve in the business, and the more we benefit rural communities,’ she says.

Photo: @Baobab Foundation

As many as 500 women are involved in seasonal harvesting of baobab, and Venter employs another forty women in her processing factory. Each harvester earns up to Rand 5,000 during the season, with the money all circulating in the rural economy.

“Extreme poverty is disproportionately concentrated in rural areas, and the rural poor in sub-Saharan Africa are more likely to rely on agriculture, so EcoProducts’ empowerment of women is having a direct impact on a critical challenge,’ said ABioSA senior technical advisor Adrie El Mohamadi.

Venter grew up in the area and speaks fluent Tshivenda. She is committed to social upliftment and community development aligned with environmental awareness and biodiversity protection. Her Baobab Foundation ensures that the benefits of the baobab industry are shared with the women who harvest and care for the trees.

While baobab fruit collection is sustainable, and doesn’t impact the health of the tree, the long-term survival of baobab populations is being threatened by environmental degradation.

Caring for ourselves, others and our environment is urgently needed in our world right now. Caring needs to become naturally embedded in our culture.

Sarah Venter, EcoProducts

Venter is working with ‘baobab guardians’ to protect the iconic species and enhance the opportunities it provides. Women who collect baobab fruit are being trained in baobab ecology and conservation. They are taught to germinate and plant baobab seedlings in their home gardens and then protect them from livestock.

Photo: @Baobab Foundation

Once big enough to survive, the trees are planted out in homesteads selected by the guardians, with the location of each tree recorded on GPS for monitoring. The guardians look after the tree until they reach three metres; and their condition, height and diameter are recorded annually under Venter’s guidance.

The guardians are empowered by being in an ecological caring system that is bigger than the individual. ‘They know the trees they nurture will not produce fruit in their lifetime, so they are doing something beyond their own direct needs, and that is itself empowering,’ Venter explains.

Each woman gets a certificate for each tree, a source of pride and dignity for people who often only have a primary school education. As well as training and mentoring by baobab ecologists and Tshivenda-speaking forestry and nursery experts, the guardians receive progress payments, a valuable supplement to income earned from the annual harvest.

‘I’ve called it Creating a Culture of Caring because I believe caring for ourselves, others and our environment is so urgently needed in our world,’ Venter says. ‘Caring needs to become something we do continuously so that to care becomes naturally embedded in our culture.’

The Baobab Foundation also supplies under-resourced preschools with educational toys, equipment and infrastructure, and provides training in early childhood development training. This helps to provide a safe and nurturing environment for the young children of the harvesters and other rural women, who have a full day of tasks such as growing crops, trading in small goods, wild-harvesting foods and collecting firewood and water.

Many pre-schools start with a woman in a village caring for children in her home, and the foundation helps them register and get financial and other support from South Africa’s Department of Social Development.

‘We help women to grow from running an informal creche at home to being able to run a business, Venter says. ‘That empowers the whole community.’

More than 100 women are involved in the baobab guardians and preschool projects.

EcoProducts’ customers and business partners are invited to become part of the culture of caring, and to make direct contributions to the care for baobabs and the lives of the women and children who live around them.

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