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Boosting the cocoa value chain, women turn cocoa husk into soap for export

Government envisions processing 50 per cent of cocoa beans produced locally as it does everything to achieve a production target of one million tonnes of cocoa set for the 2018/2019 crop season.

Domestic processing of cocoa hit 300,000 tonnes in the 2017/2018 cocoa season, representing a 19 per cent jump from the 252,000 tonnes processed the previous season.

The significant rise in domestic processing, according to the Ghana Cocoa Board (COCOBOD), was mainly due to the support it gave to some of the processing companies to revamp their operations – grind more beans.

The increase brings to 34 per cent, the total volume of annual cocoa output averaging 900,000 tonnes that is processed locally into various cocoa products.

I have always wondered if the sweet water drained during fermentation and shells of the bean after roasting, cracking, and winnowing could not be put into industrial use.

Discovery of ‘Black Gold’

Fortunately, the shell of cocoa beans, which used to be discarded as waste product, has now become “black gold”. It is a major livelihood for hundreds of women at Appiakrom in the Assin South District of the Central Region, who have been processing the shells into potash.

Madam Comfort Mensah, a 57-year-old mother of eight, has through innovation changed the status quo – established a factory that turns the cocoa shell (husk) into liquid or semi-liquid soaps for both the local and international markets, using the potash.

A visit by the Ghana News Agency (GNA) to her factory, sited at the predominantly cocoa growing community, revealed a booming industry.

Scores of women were seen carting quantities of cocoa husk into open fire with billows of thick smoke blanketing the area. Trucks and vans also kept coming in carrying fresh loads of cocoa husks to be dried.

The cocoa husk is similar to the outer shell of a water melon but harder. The shell covers cocoa seeds.

Potash preparation

Explaining the preparation stages, Madam Mensah said the husks or shells are first dried under direct sun for days or at least for a week, after which they are burnt into ashes (potash).

This ash is highly caustic and is used in both, soap making, feeding poultry and for other agricultural uses.

POTASH is organic, making African black soap more organic when compared to other soaps made with caustic soda.

Other agricultural waste materials from which, potash can be obtained, are palm fruit peduncle, plantain peels, banana leaves, maize cob, wood, and sugar beet waste.

Potash can also be made from bamboo, cola nuts, shea-nut kernel, camwood and several other woods that have saponins.

“If your mixture is very thick you may need to press it into molds. A glass cake pan that has been greased will work fine. (I don’t recommend trying fancy molds for this because it may stick and become a mess to remove.) Once your soap is in the mold, cover it with wax paper and let it sit for a day or so.

“When the soap is semi-hard, cut it into bars and leave it for some hours. This soap should cure fairly fast since it’s partially cooked.”

The soap comes in many forms – powder, gel, semi-solid and bar forms in beige, caramel, dark brown, pitch black or a tan colour.

It gets its colouring from the potash used, the oils, the cauldron and the cooking process. They are often dried spread out on a mat for weeks in the sun. The harsh Ghanaian sun lightens the colour of the soap and it can even turn white when dry and goes brown when it comes into contact with water.

Madam Mensah inherited the soap making technology from her grandmother who plied the vocation for over two decades. After her grandmother’s death, she sustained the business and has created employment for more than 150 enterprising women. Each of them earns between GH¢300 and GH¢800 cedis per month.

The traditional recipe of African black soap, according to her, is a closely guarded secret that is only known to the families that prepare it. Although the recipes may differ from one community to another, they have some common ingredients.

Her vision

Madam Mensah aims to establish a leading state of-the-art manufacturing plant capable of processing tons of cocoa husks from West Africa, to significantly reduce the dependency – importation on foreign made body wash.

She is eager to assist more local women with training and support mechanisms to produce different soaps for treating skin diseases and has founded an association called “Women in Cocoa Shell Processing (WICOSP)”. The goal is to empower rural women economically through skills training to bring real change to them.

That, she believes is the way forward to make them self-reliant and to adequately fend for themselves and their families.

The Association has been helping to protect the rights of the women, their interest, participation in governance and the decision-making processes.

Madam Mensah pointed out that: “When a woman is empowered, she becomes independent and some social problems like teenage pregnancy will not exist anymore, because, she would not sacrifice her career for pregnancy at a young age.

“So, I think, economically-empowered women are what the country needs urgently.”

Job creation

Through her innovation, about 150 women between the ages of 18 to 55 years have been trained. Most of them are teenage mothers, school drop outs, single mothers, orphans and males, interested in learning the trade.

Members of the Association routinely receive training from organizations like the Rural Enterprise Program, Business Advisory Centre (BAC), the National Board for Small Scale Industries (NBSSI) and non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

Madam Mensah says reducing poverty among rural women requires a mix of pro-poor policies and strategies, targeting the informal sector and vulnerable groups such as the youth and women.

It is on the basis of this that they have been teaching women to create their own business plans, helping them to understand how to raise capital and connecting them with other successful business owners.

Benefits

The soap, produced from the cocoa husk has been found to reduce skin inflammation and irritations such as acne, moisturizes both dry and normal skin, and clears blemishes, spots and other skin diseases such as eczema and psoriasis. It has antibacterial and anti-fungal properties.

It is found to be soft on the skin of both sensitive and normal skin, effective lathering volume ranging from 200-300 ml, total fatty matter from 84-87 percent and an average pH value of 10, an indication of the absence of free caustic alkali.

The natural ingredients used make the soap non-toxic to the environment because they are biodegradable, making the disposal of unwanted soap easy.

Mulching of farms

A tour to some farms showed that the husks are also used for mulching. They are either grinded or broken down into pieces commonly called “Organic cocoa mulch” (OCOM).

A research report by the Cocoa Research Institute (CRI) indicates that the husk contains nitrogen, phosphate and potash.

It has a pH of 5.8 with beneficial nutrients to the soil. Using cocoa hulls in the garden is an excellent way to increase soil vitality and is an attractive top cover for both flower beds and vegetable patches.

Marketing

Demand for products containing natural and renewable sourced ingredients is growing very fast across the world and it is expected to boost industry. It has a huge market locally and in the United States and Japan, where it is used for mulching on farms.

The global market for soaps is dominated by a small number of multinational companies with strong brand identity and enormous advertising budgets.

Madam Mensah hopes to take advantage of the free export market Ghana enjoys with both America and Europe while making preparation to also take advantage of the upcoming Africa Single Market under the Continental Free Trade Zone.

Testimonies from trainees

Millicent Addo, a 23-year-old graduate of the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST), a beneficiary, said people see her as a failure in life. They preferred her taking a job in a reputable organization other than venturing into entrepreneurship.

Her family did not like the idea that she wanted to set up her own business which they felt was not any good idea, considering she was a graduate and could get a job with some company and be paid well.

The promising entrepreneur observed that, the major challenge that always faced new trainees was how to get start-up capital.

She therefore appealed to the District Assemblies to use part of the Common Fund to provide start-up tools for especially rural women who have been trained in various vocational skills.

For Madam Mensah, she did not have it easy initially with her family – they opposed the idea and that is why she is now seeking to help change the mindset of Ghanaians, especially, the youth to see job creation as the best alternative to job seeking.

“After university education one has high expectations of gaining employment in established organizations. But I worked to make a difference for people to understand that creating employment for yourself and others by being innovative was the best.”

By Isaac Arkoh

Source: GNA

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