Thérèse Orou Ali has always «dreamt of becoming a successful woman». Her dream came true when she decided to venture herself into the cashew apple industry and eventually discovered Sweet Benin, the first African brand for the promotion of cashew apple juice and its by-products.
Thérèse lives in the outskirts of Djougou, a small town 450km north of Cotonou. Her small cashew apple processing factory is next to her house. Every Saturday morning, she goes to town to teach high school students nutrition and technological transformation. She loves teaching and passing her knowledge onto the young ones. Once she is back home, Thérèse has to breastfeed her 11-month-old daughter, check all the cashew apple juice orders with her commercial agent and give interviews to journalists.
Thérèse’s father was a very busy farmer, so she spent her childhood with a host family from whom she learnt all about food processing and agricultural products. After school and during breaks, she would walk around the city, and go from door to door to sell those products. It was at a very early age that Thérèse started to acquire hands-on experience in the transformation and distribution of agri-food products. Thérèse’s path to success did not come without difficulties; being a mother, a teacher, and an entrepreneur is rewarding yet very challenging. She remembers the years when she had to work as a gardener for the Djougou Council to support herself and not having to ask a man for help. She always tells her students, particularly girls, about the difficulties and challenges she faced along the way, to inspire them and make them stronger. Thérèse is well-known outside Benin and is a reference for women and young entrepreneurs across Africa. In 2015, she was nominated Francophone Africa’s best entrepreneur.
Watch below the video about Thérèse
"Cashew apples are good money and allow me and my family to live well"
Over 500 women were trained by Thérèse on cashew apple collecting techniques, and more than a 1000 were hired to work in her apple processing business. In 2017, she discovered the label Sweet Benin, launched by the international NGO TechnoServe and funded by the U.S government. Through this powerful initiative, Thérèse was able to hire five permanent employees, and produce and sell over 55,000 bottles in 2018.
Thérèse was the protagonist of the National Cashew Marketing Campaign’s launch in Djougou, where she showcased and promoted all her cashew apple products, triggering the interest of two Ministers who later decided to visit her factory. Thérèse believes that cashew apples are not only a great source of revenues but also a means to women empowerment, especially in Benin’s most rural areas. Women working in cashews can make a living with it and also build confidence and expertise that they can apply to other jobs in the future. Thérèse wishes to develop her network of women employees further and expand her production unit. For 2019, she is foreseeing to produce over a 100,000 cashew apple juice bottles.
"Being an entrepreneur is definitely not more important than being a mother"
Thérèse believes that women empowerment does not and should not preclude women from being wives and mothers. A financially independent woman can actually support her husband in meeting the needs of the family: "I fully commit to my responsibility as a wife and a mother," says Therese.
Polygamy is a wide spread practice in rural areas of Benin and financially independent women who are left by their husbands can better support their children. Thérèse is convinced that the cashew apple industry can help many other women like her to become independent. Only 10% of the 800,000 tons of cashew apples produced in Benin every year is processed. The industry’s potential is huge and is yet to be exploited. What it needs now is many more women like Thérèse to take advantage of it.