As litres of clean palm oil come off the boiling drum, allowed to cool and then sealed up in 25-litre jerry cans, the immediate crude past is hard to imagine.
That past was women threading out oil, barefoot, in palm nuts-filled Eku (pit). But for the members of Agbeloba Multipurpose Women Farmers Cooperative, it was a reality they lived. 10 women smallholder palm oil producers came together in 2017 to form the cooperative.
By 2018 they had pulled resources together, bought a N2.5 million oil-processing machinery and, now 15 member-strong, the women left Eku behind. They haven't finished paying for the machine. But the days of risky, unhygienic and less-productive palm oil making were over.
Every week, 15 women meet at Oyere, Ife North Local Government Area, Osun State. One key aspect of the meeting is the financial contribution from each member. "It can be as little as N500 or as high as N2,000," Mrs Janet Olaleye said. She is the President of the cooperative.
Another form of contribution is material -- oil. Olaleye said: "If you produce four 25-litre jerry cans of oil, you pay with one. If they are six, you pay with two. We then convert it to money and every penny, including the cash contributions, is taken to the bank, no matter how small. At the end of the year, we pay back something for the machinery and share the profit among members according to each person's contribution."
Furthermore, when each smallholder farmer wants to buy a farm implement, she is empowered and then all 15 women head to the market. She buys the tool(s) and they all follow her home. It's a double-edged manoeuvre: to ensure her money and the cooperative's contribution are judiciously spent and, most profound, a show of support and display of the level of bonding among the women.
However, the transition to machine-enabled palm oil production, which removed them from the "$15.6 billion financing gap [that] exists for African women in agricultural value chains" (AfDB, 2019), did not happen overnight.