Living in or visiting Ivory Coast, one may put Assinie, Bassam, San Pedro and even Grand Bereby on one’s list of cities to see. But the tiny settlement of Dimbokro, somewhere between the country’s largest city, Abidjan and the country’s capital city, Yamoussoukro, can easily go unnoticed.
After spending over two years in this country, having lived in both Abidjan and San Pedro, I decided it was high time I saw a little more of the place than the neighbouring tourist-centric beach destinations. So it happened on a recent long weekend that another couple and we decided to embark on a road trip to visit the pottery village of Bouake and the Basilica of Yamoussoukro.
Since the drive to Bouake, where we were to stay the first night, would take a couple of hours and since each family had a toddler, we decided to break the journey for lunch at Dimbokro. We happened to have friends living there and we thought it an ideal opportunity to visit the Olam cashew factory we had heard much about.
It was on a damp August Saturday morning that we left Abidjan in a convoy of two vehicles. After about thirty minutes, once my baby had his bottle of milk and dozed off in his car seat, I leaned back to enjoy the view flitting past us. The lush greenery of the country never ceases to amaze me. It is especially spectacular when one sees it from above, while arriving in an aircraft. But it is a lot more real when one drives through the countryside. Plantation after plantation passes you by, occasionally interspersed by small villages. My husband pointed out palm, teak, rubber, cocoa and cashew plantations, among many others, spreading out endlessly as far as the eyes could see.
Having lived upcountry, I know that good roads are a luxury when travelling in Ivory Coast. So I could appreciate the fact that we were especially lucky to be driving on the country’s best road, an autoroute between Abidjan and Yamoussoukro. It was after we left the expressway to drive the last hour towards Dimbokro that the poor roads began. But I had seen far worse and was not quick to complain.
We arrived in Dimbokro shortly before noon and were welcomed by our friends at their residence. The kids were only too happy to be able to run about again and went wild in the beautiful garden surrounding the house. Simranjeet, who is the Olam manager for the cashew factories in Dimbokro, and Naina, his wife, were excellent hosts. After some mouth-watering dhoklas and brownies, Simranjeet escorted us to the factories he oversees.
While it is interesting enough to see a factory in action, Olam’s cashew setup in Dimbokro is particularly famous because over 80% of its employees are women. In a town as tiny as Dimbokro, 500 women with well-paying stable jobs means there is a clear impact being seen in the quality of people’s lives. While it is debatable, it may be generally agreed that if incoming money is in the hands of women, it is more likely to be used for the benefit of children and family than if it is left to the men alone. In fact, Simranjeet told us that at that very moment, a representative from the World Bank was conducting a study in Dimbokro to understand how Olam’s hiring policy was impacting social and economic life in the city.
We entered the first compound and followed the journey of a raw cashew nut from start to finish. In large blackened shells, raw, unprocessed cashews are nearly unrecognizable. These are first sorted as per size and then heated with steam in large cookers to loosen the hard shells. Since this step requires lifting of heavy loads, this part of the factory has male employees.
We then entered another building equipped with a large number of shelling machines, which is where the heated cashews arrive after a day of cooling. These imported machines are equipped to break open the already-loosened shell of the cashew with minimum damage to the kernel. Cashews emerging from these machines go on to women for manual verification and checks so that the kernels that are not successfully shelled can be sent right back into the machines.
Not many years ago, Simranjeet told us, the entire process from end-to-end was done manually. Since the work required hours of patient-sitting and dexterity of hands, the initial employees, mostly male, balked at it. The women, on the other hand, proved to be very efficient. They liked sitting in large groups with other women, using their hands and manual cutters to extract the kernels and to earn a regular, decent wage. As a result, over time, more and more women came to be employed. While the town profited, the company grew.
We then went on to another establishment a kilometre away. Here, the cashews that graduate from the previous factory arrive in buckets. These are then heated for about 12 hours at low temperatures and passed through another set of machines to remove the husk on the kernels. Not every peel comes off in this step and the cashews need to undergo manual intervention. So, at this stage, the cashews pass once again into the hands of a new group of women.
To watch these women in action, we entered a building where row upon row of the factory’s female employees sat on worktables. Dressed in bright yellow aprons, these women worked cheerfully with amazing dexterity upon the cashews placed in front of them. They all wore head covers to protect the food product, and also gloves to protect their hands. The black liquid between the shell and kernel, Simranjeet explained, was caustic and was, in fact, used to prepare products like tattoo inks.
Posing with one of the ladies, I requested my husband to click a photo. This was followed by a breakout of giggles among the workers. Smiling, Simranjeet told us that the particular lady I had posed with would be the target of relentless teasing for the next week or so, until another visitor came along. If I had harboured any impression of morose women working in dark, gloomy settings, it was pleasantly borne away.
Following the de-husked cashews to the next step in their processing expedition, we watched them enter a new series of machines that are capable of sorting them on the basis of colour, size and wholeness of kernels. Yet again, the shortfall in the machinery’s final output is corrected by women, who ensure that any mistake by the machines is put right before the final step of fumigation and packaging.
It is fascinating to note that despite having machinery; at every step, the factory needs women to get a better, more accurate and perfect end-product. If you consider that Ivory Coast is today the largest exporter of cashew nuts globally, and that Olam is one of the largest players in the country’s cashew trade, these women are playing a considerable role in bringing some of the world’s best cashew to your table.
Olam’s employment practice in Dimbokro is not just remarkable for its gender-split. They also hire people with disabilities and have in fact, constructed a special bathroom for such workers. Not only has the infrastructure been modified for their ease, so have their work timings. They are allowed to come in an hour later and leave an hour earlier than the other workers.
We learnt further about how Olam was not just helping these women earn, but also save. They run calculations with the women to understand what part of their salary is actually needed to run their households; the remainder of their earning is put aside in savings funds so that they can be drawn upon in times of genuine need. In an upcountry location, where banks are not to be heard of or seen, this intervention goes a long way in helping the society grow and develop.
Another initiative the company is taking is to pay a local school to conduct evening classes to educate the women. Furthermore, the local English Club is invited to teach these francophone ladies English. Another wonderful enterprise by the company was a special day held earlier this year, when the employees’ children were called to the factory for a visit so that they could see and appreciate what their mothers were doing.
Even before we left the factory premises, I knew that I wanted to write about these women and about how a single company was changing the face of a community and many lives. Thirty minutes later, as we sat tucking into a delicious meal cooked by Naina, someone in the group proposed that we forget Bouake and just stay on in Dimbokro for the night. I was quick to agree because by that time, I was rather enchanted by this little-known town hidden from the eyes of the world that was achieving so much all by itself. Surrounded by low-lying hills, clouded in mist on that wet, rainy day, Dimbokro had won my heart.
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Piyushi Dhir is the author of 'In Search of Love', 'I'm Yours, The Next Time', 'Silent Promises' and 'Enmeshed Evermore'. She is a contributor in 'Nineteen Tales of COVID-19', a collection of short stories. A voracious reader, a keen traveler, a businesswoman and a mom, Piyushi currently resides in Canada. A nomad at heart, she loves to discover new places and capture the hues of life with her pen.