Olive Morgan-Gordon finds opportunity in cassava

Monday, September 17, 2018

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IN the rolling hills of Wallen, St Catherine, lie extensive acres of farmland yielding a bounty of produce. Here, farming is mostly pursued by men; however, 57-year-old Olive Morgan-Gordon is among the few women challenging the norm, in the field labouring from dusk till dawn.

Gordon's roots in farming took shape in Mango Grove, St Catherine, where, at 17-years old, she became pregnant and dropped out of school. With family land lying idle, she decided to turn it into an income earner by planting tomatoes, gungo peas and corn. As her crops flourished, so did her love for the land.

“I realised that life comes from the land and I discovered that I could use my hands to put food on the table. Every time I reaped the crops I felt proud because I could provide food for my family,” said Gordon.

After moving to Wallen she soon began planting a variety of crops, but it is cassava that has been her mainstay. While cultivating the crop is easy, there was also a downside.

“Finding a ready market for cassava was difficult so sometimes I would sell and other times I wouldn't because nobody was buying. I had to start planting cash crops like coconut, apples and sweet pepper and I even started raising chickens to help make ends meet,” Gordon commented.

“I just knew that things would be better once I found a stable market for the cassava I was growing.”

A window of opportunity finally opened for Gordon when Red Stripe began operating its Project Grow programme in Wallen. The brewing company's local raw material sourcing initiative uses cassava to replace imported high maltose corn syrup in its brewed products. The venture also recruits young people in the Learning for Life programme to provide training and employment on Red Stripe farms. Gordon's daughter, Kaysia Gordon, is a graduate of the Learning for Life programme and works on the company's Wallen farm.

So when the company announced the launch of the outgrower programme that sought to contract independent farmers to provide cassava, Kaysia saw an opportunity for her mother.

“I knew this was exactly what my mom wanted because it would provide a stable market so she would not always have to depend on her cash crops to supplement her monthly earnings,” she said.

Gordon now has two acres of land in cassava. Her day starts at 7:00 am where she weeds the field, fertilises the crop and ensures it is free from pests. She expects to benefit from her second harvest in November where it will take her one day to reap the crop before Red Stripe collects it from her farm and transports it to the factory.

“Through Project Grow, we are able to create viable marketing structures to provide secure outlets for farmers. We know that when women like Olive Morgan-Gordon are empowered through opportunities like Project Grow, we also open up the possibilities for families and communities,” noted Red Stripe's Head of Corporate Affairs Dianne Ashton-Smith.

With nearly 50 per cent of rural households being headed by women, Gordon encourages women to pursue agriculture.

“Women can definitely get involved in farming as long as they have a love for the land. I feel important and respected as a female farmer. This job has pushed me to work just as hard or even harder than the men sometimes because you don't expect a woman to be in the field. Whenever people pass my farm they shout, 'Big up the lady farmer!' and that makes me feel great.”

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