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Rural Express:Ulster Spring promotes social empowerment through yam products

Published:Saturday | November 29, 2014 | 12:00 AM
Members of the Ulster Spring Women's Group.-Contributed photos
Elizabeth Chambers, president of the Ulster Spring Women's Group, shows off a part of her farm, which she dedicates to yam farming.

When Usain Bolt stunned the world in 2008 with his athletic prowess on the track, the attention of the world was drawn to what is claimed to be the main ingredient behind his success ... yam.

Bolt, who was born and bred in the yam parish of Trelawny, is said to have alluded to his yam-based diet from his early-childhood days into adulthood. This, many say, helped to contribute to his speed. And while the world became intrigued by the yam in all its variations, the women of the Ulster Spring in Trelawny welcomed the attention to what they see as the powerhouse for mental and physical health.

Comprising 15 members, the Ulster Spring Women's Group, which has been in existence since 1997, has focused its efforts on utilising yam to make delicacies in an attempt to boost employment opportunities, particularly for women, in the under-resourced rural community of Ulster Spring.

"The [group] started over a decade ago to train women in home economics and to support the 'Eat What You Grow' initiative by the Government. And, with Trelawny being known as the yam parish, it was only fitting that we used what we are known for, and so we decided to use yam to create a range of by-products," said Elizabeth Chambers, president of the Ulster Spring Women's Group.

With the membership including women between the ages of 25 and 70 years, Chambers said that senior members find it prudent to impart training to younger women in order to keep the vision of the group alive, as well as to allow them to become empowered through employment.

"We have a number of young unemployed women as a part of the group who are trained by the senior members like me. We teach them how to make different types of yam products, as well as packaging and presentation."

Twenty-five-year-old Stephanie Johnson-Palmer has acknowledged that being a part of the women's group has been a fulfilling journey. She noted that the group has received positive recognition because of its products, which also uplifts the profile of the community.

"Before joining, I had no idea that yam could be used to do so many things. I only knew about boiled yam. I was fascinated with food before, and now I am able to be creative in the kitchen when I'm making these yam treats. When we introduce people to the products, they automatically learn about the Ulster Spring Community," said Johnson-Palmer.

lift community image

Married with two children, Johnson-Palmer says that being a part of the group has also boosted her drive to earn her own income. She continued, "I want to earn my own money. I have a supportive husband, but I also want to be able to contribute to help the family and to afford certain things on my own."

"This group has a lot of potential, and I would like to see us strive together and be known as the yam community with excellent products. This will certainly lift the image of the community and the pride of residents. And, having a market for our products will benefit many of us as members who are currently unemployed."

The Ulster Spring Women's Group sought the assistance of the JNBS Foundation through the Social Enterprise Boost Initiative (SEBI) to formalise and scale-up their operation.

SEBI is implemented by the JNBS Foundation in collaboration with the United States Agency for International Development. The programme is helping selected socially driven organisations to transition to sustainable social enterprises.

The group, through the SEBI programme, is now being taught how to propel their ideas on to a much larger scale. Starting out as an idea to assist with the social problems in the community, the SEBI platform will enable the women to bring their products to the mainstream market. "Since we have started the SEBI programme, we are where we never thought possible. We have received training in things like business planning and implementation, which have helped us to organise ourselves and promote our products. I am now approaching people to tell them about the company, and this is something I would not have done before, so I can say my participation in SEBI has built my confidence," said Chambers.

She also highlighted the major steps the group has taken to ensure quality and consistency in all its products.

"The support from the Scientific Research Council has helped us greatly because they have taught us how to have standard recipes and measurements in order to ensure consistency in taste and quality. And this is very important as we look to grow our business".

At present, the Ulster Spring Women's Group fulfils individual orders received via phone or through referrals from the Rural Agricultural Development Authority (RADA). RADA has been supporting the group for several years.