Thursday, December 13, 2012

Cashew Factory

When we got back from Gabu we met with Richard and Matt at Francesca’s house.  Richard and Matt are a story in-and-of themselves, but to be brief, Richard is a chemist who has his own chemical testing lab. Armindo, my step-dad’s best friend who is also from Bissau but lives in California, has been working for Richard for 20+ years. Last year Richard went with both Armindo and my family to visit Bissau for 3 weeks. Richard was really moved by his experience and saw there is dire need for access to clean drinking water. He came back for a week to start a water filtration project using clay pot filters.
 Francesca, who is Armindo’s cousin, lives in Bissau and is very interested in Richards water project. I’m not exactly sure what her role in government is, but over her career she has moved from one upper level government position to another. Her Ex-husband was the Ambassador for Guinea-Bissau in countries like Cuba and Portugal. Anyways,  she wanted a chance to chat with Richard before he returned to the states, so she invited everyone over for lunch.
Opened and roasted cashew shells with cashew
Her home is very nice and we had some amazing food.  My step-dad acted as a translator for Richard and Francesca. In the conversation we found out Francesca has a cashew processing company. While my step dad didn’t mention that we are here to try to sell the cashews on his property, some how, someway he got her interested in having him help her turn her business around. You can tell her wealth from the fact that she doesn’t even know how much money she brings in annual with her company! But it isn’t doing as well as it could and given that Bissau is covered in cashew trees, her business has lots of potential
Two days later we arrived at Francesca’s factory.
Cashew nut machine
            I’ve always been interested in understanding where we get our food from, and today really emphasized the importance of that understanding . The factory was small, an old house completely cleared out.  There were men outside working the cashew nut machines, other men working construction, and women inside cleaning up the nuts.  It was loud because the generator was running, but there were no lights. The inside was dark and smokey from the fire used to roast the Cashews. There was a cook outside making lunch (fun fact: most jobs provide lunch and transportation in addition to what they pay their workers).
Before I get into any more detail, there are a couple things you have to understand about cashews. First thing is that they also come in a shell. Not like a peanut shell where you can crack it with your hands, but like a walnut shell where you need some tool to help you open it. But before you can even crack it, the shell has to be hardened. To do this the shell is usually roasted. Presto, you’ve got your harden shell and now all you need to do is crack it to get the cashew nut right? Unfortunately it’s not that simple. The oil from the cashew shell is actually toxic to humans. And since by hand (with a tool or machine) is the only way to de-shell the  nuts, the most common solution to the problem has been to provide the workers with oil for their hands to prevent direct contact to the nuts. Even with the oil, most workers (who work directly with the shells) hands looked like they had been bleached at the fingers. Despite its toxicity, cashew nut oil is very valuable and is the best known natural wood preservative. Potential market? I think so.
Women sorting and touching up the cashews
Once you have removed the nut from the shell, the nut must be roasted again to cook the nut. Then there is a flaky layer that pops up that must be peeled off before you get to the nut. To clean it up you must finesse your way to the nut with a knife and also remove any burn marks. The last step is to sort out any nuts that are not “commercial”, meaning they are deformed, blemished, or not the right size in relation to cashews you find in the stores. 
The process is exhausting and not at all what I had imagined. It got me thinking. If this is the process for a cashew, something I eat pretty regularly with raisins or in trail-mix, then literally every nut (or even other food products) has a multi-step factory process similar (or not) to this. Then scale that to how many cities, states, and countries are involved in food processing and have food processing factories. That's alot! The US has unions that fight for workers rights. But when you see that the nut or product is imported from another country, you can never be sure what the factory atmosphere is in terms of cleanliness, worker rights, or the source of the product. Unions don't exist here.
The final stage of screening and processing the cashews.
            Back to the factory, My step-dad went around talking to all the workers  to get a sense of how they like their job and what they would want to see improved. Since I couldn’t participate due to the language barrier, I walked around with the logistics coordinator. He showed me around the place and explained the process to me in Portuguese.  By then end we reconvened with Francesca and my step-dad gave her some feed back. He is very weary of the workers because he thinks they are just doing the minimum they need to do. He has repeatedly told me Guineans don’t like to work, they just want to get paid. At this factory they get paid by the day, not the hour. He suspect’s people are showing up when they please and getting paid for a full day of work. We are getting up early tomorrow to see what time people show up.

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