A top-level producers’ union (KANBAOCU) and its fast-growing Jwa Ngwaane Community Cooperative Credit Union

For Ghana’s KANBAOCU, complexity is everyday reality. It aggregates baobab (powder, oil, fibre and husks) and shea (nuts and butter) from ten cooperatives. These represent 12,376 women and 485 men in local enterprise groups, who can also buy shares in the cooperatives. KANBAOCU cooperatives cover three provinces and operate under the varying social and ethnic norms, rules and regulations of the Kassena, Nankana and Frafra tribes.

Article, 31 May 2024
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Two men and two women stand outsite the credit union building.

The Jwa Ngwaane credit union offers financial services and wider communal activities (Photo: Clifford Amoah Adagenera)

KANBAOCU (the Kassena-Nankana Baobab Cooperative Union) markets its baobab and shea products through an NGO partner (the Organization for Indigenous Initiatives and Sustainability, ORGIIS Ghana), commercial partners (including national enterprises Ghana Nuts, Olam Oils and Nuts, and Bosbel Vegetable Oil Mills), and international partners (Savannah Fruits Company for shea and Aduna UK Ltd for baobab). KANBAOCU also has sidelines in honey, beeswax and sesame. 

Consensus decisions deliver social environmental and economic benefits

Local enterprise groups are represented by their zonal cooperatives, which are aggregated into KANBAOCU. At all levels, decision making is by consensus or occasionally by democratic vote. Social trust is built through clear shareholder and membership rules, alongside meeting days, communal labour days, marketing days and solidarity visits to sick or bereaved members. KANBAOCU’s board has 15 women members who chair the zonal cooperatives.

KANBAOCU is unusual in sourcing non-timber forest products (NTFPs) from semi-natural stands of trees, rather than primarily from on-farm crops. 

In the ethnic groups KANBAOCU works with, harvesting baobab and shea NTFPs is generally women’s work. This traditional model delivers environmental benefits through the careful and respectful workings of local enterprise groups operating under the traditional authorities of chiefs and leaders who control land access and harvesting rights.

And because KANBAOCU has worked to offer good sales outlets for enterprise groups and increase its share of the supply chain, it is now a powerful advocacy force for sustaining and restoring natural resources. Meanwhile, ORGIIS secures project funds for forest restoration and sustainable land use.

Mobilising cooperation and distributing benefits

KANBAOCU’s complex model distributes economic benefits via several mechanisms: guaranteed markets at fair prices for products (for example through ORGISS), availability of soft loans from Village Savings and Loan Associations (VSLAs) or KANBAOCU’s larger credit union, and shareholder dividends from cooperative profits.

Each savings and loan association is collectively owned and offers loans to local people. Association funds are sometimes used to purchase additional raw materials (baobab pods and shea nuts) which the members process, adding value before selling on.

KANBAOCU’s membership contributions include a one-time registration fee, monthly dues and weekly contributions into VSLAs. KANBAOCU’s long-term relationships, and the trust these have built, have mobilised many VSLAs to join its Jwa Ngwaane Community Cooperative Credit Union, established in 2020.

Funding ‘business unusual’ with an expanding credit union

Trust and cohesion have helped VSLAs join the larger credit union. KANBAOCU and ORGIIS Ghana, organisations that had worked closely together for over ten years, helped members analyse VSLA share-outs. This showed the potential for better returns from a combined fund, which could offer larger loans, accept bigger savings deposits and offer more conventional financial services.

Initially, KANBAOCU mobilised 96 VSLAs to come up with the capital for Jwa Ngwaane. By 2023, the credit union included 198 VSLAs representing 6,105 members (88% of which were women) and holding deposited savings of US$23,000. No individual can hold shares exceeding 20% of the union.

A committee of 14 members, a manager and three field officers manage the credit union. However, a general assembly of members is the highest decision-making body, and is used as a democratic and learning space to discuss the credit union’s performance and future plans. An education committee works to educate KANBAOCU members about the benefits of belonging to the credit union, encouraging new memberships.

Holistic and trust-based help

The Jwa Ngwaane credit union offers savings accounts, fixed deposits and tailor-made low-interest loans for investment in shea, baobab, moringa and general agricultural commodity farming and value chains. Loans can also be for family healthcare or emergencies.

Agribusiness support is offered through agricultural inputs, mechanised irrigation and enterprise development (such as business support and financial literacy training). This helps members to experiment with different crops and improves their chances of establishing successful businesses.

A loans committee decides on all loan requests and can approve them within one week of application. The process is very trust-based. If the local VSLA endorses the applicant, that is sufficient proof of creditworthiness and the loan will usually be granted.

This simplified process has improved women’s access to credit, since commercial banks often require borrowers to formally own collateral such as land or housing. The loans also empower women within their households, increasing their decision-making because of their financial contributions. The credit union has ensured women are in its own leadership (eight of the management committee members are women).

The Jwa Ngwaane credit union is also involved with wider communal activities and offers direct support, in partnership with KANBAOCU, to help resolve land-related conflicts, manage labour arrangements, market products, establish community activities, and improve nutrition and gender equality.

Managing risks and providing training

KANBAOCU is affiliated to national producer, exporter and marketing networks, and their collective action has led to national floor pricing mechanisms for shea, and shea sustainability initiatives that reduce risk (for example from fires and charcoal production) and increase product quality.

Other risks to this production system include inadequate rights and poor entrepreneurial recognition for women, poor access to finance, and the dispersed and non-standardised nature of production and processing. KANBAOCU addresses these via a deep commitment to the power of collective action, which led to the establishment of the Jwa Ngwaane credit union, improving access to finance, and through strong alliances with political and traditional leaders.

KANBAOCU works with ORGIIS to build women’s entrepreneurial training courses. These help women do other processing work for baobab, honey, moringa, sesame, shea, subsistence crops and livestock in non-harvest seasons. 

Further reading

Advancing for women’s entrepreneurship in Ghana: the Kassena Nankana Baobab Cooperative Union (KANBAOCU), E Sulemana, J Awaregya: p69-89 in Women’s empowerment through collective action: how forest and farm producer organisations can make a difference, Anna Bolin (ed)(2020), research report

Mobilising internal finance within a forest and farm producer organisation: a case study of the Jwa Ngwaane Community Cooperative Credit Union, Clifford Amoah Adagenera, Elvis Kuudaar (2023), project report


Head and shoulders photo of Isabela Núñez del Prado Nieto.

Isabela Núñez del Prado Nieto ([email protected]) is a researcher (forest finance) with IIED’s Natural Resources research group