Tuesday, November 10, 2009

"To let oneself be carried on passively is unthinkable."

All across Africa, in small and remote villages, women are banding together. They are banding together as emotional support systems but also as entrepreneurs. A lot of these women are unmarried (their husbands died (usually of AIDS) or abandoned them; or, they were never married). If they are married, they are emerging as the sole breadwinners for their families. Not only caring for their immediate family but usually several other extended family members. When they are sole breadwinners, they tend to suffer less from physical abuse from their husbands or others. As barbaric as it sounds, it is still seemingly culturally acceptable for men to physically, emotionally or sexually abuse women.

How it works: basically, the women pool their money together to start small businesses. They serve as their own bank – lending money to individual members when in need and charging a modest interest which all goes back into the collective fund. They elect a chairwoman, a secretary, and a treasurer. They are completely organized. What is truly amazing is that these women were never formally educated and have never left their villages. They don’t have any “real world” business experience and yet are totally impressive in their savvy and intuitive business acumen and approach.

As the book “Half the Sky” concludes:

Microfinance has done more to bolster the status of women, and to protect them from abuse, than any laws could accomplish. Capitalism, it turns out, can achieve what charity and good intentions sometimes cannot.

I was fortunate to meet with two of these groups and provide them with much needed help on the spot.

“Rabbit Ladies”

The first group was in the remote village of Thare in Kenya. It’s a group of 50 women called “The Christian Women’s Love Group”.

Their leader is Alice Wanjiru. We met at her house with four of the other members. Alice was completely impressive. She spoke English (which is highly unusual in these remote villages.) One of her sons was at university and the other in secondary school. Her husband died and she has been living on her own without means to survive. There aren’t life insurance policies or saving accounts to fall back on.

She decided that she needed to be proactive - that life was happening and she needed to figure out a solution for survival. She started this collective with a business plan to breed rabbits to sell. They started with 3 rabbits and now have 70. When they have 300 they can bring them to market and start selling.

This “Rabbit Lady” program, which they came up with, is really impressive. The start-up costs are modest and, unlike cows, the reproduction rate for rabbits is quite high. And, at market rabbits yield a fairly good profit margin.

When she was showing me the cages, I noticed that they were in rough shape and almost at capacity. I asked Alice about storage for the additional rabbits they were planning on. She said she was worried because the rabbits were reproducing very quickly and they needed a new and bigger cage for growth and for security. A new cage would cost $150 and they didn’t yet have the funds.

I offered to use some of the money we raised to buy them the cage. She was overwhelmed with gratitude. It would have taken this collective of women at least a year to save up $150 for the new cage. And, in that time, they may have lost some of the rabbits due to overcrowding in the cramped cages.

I think about one trip to Whole Foods or Target on any given day in Los Angeles where I can easily spend $150. It was so gratifying to be able to use some of the funds we raised to literally impact an ENTIRE VILLAGE by this one simple gesture. It was so easy and yet so important to the sustainability of this community of women.

“Kagenyo Women Group”

The second group of women I met with was in a remote village in Ngungugu. 18 of the 25 members attended our meeting.

While these women were as impressively organized as Alice’s group, with a management team in place etc, they had not yet started a business. They had a lot of good ideas and plans but they were saving what little money they had per month and it was not enough yet to get started with any one of these plans.

We had a lengthy meeting (in Swahili – thank goodness for Patrick’s translation!) about their struggles.

Patrick and I conspired on a solution. While Patrick is a successful businessman in Nairobi, he was raised in this remote village. His family still owns land in the village and on his plot of land he has an abandoned chicken coop. Patrick donated the chicken coop to these women and through the money raised we were able to donate money to buy about 20 chickens to get them started. Again, it was so gratifying to be able to be so actionable with our donations.

I am convinced that on-the-ground and immediate results are what is desperately needed in these villages. This is not “hand-out” charity. Interestingly, the visit to the “Rabbit Ladies” was completely last minute. We were on our way to our school project and decided to make a quick detour to check-in. I am so glad we did as the visit was truly life-changing (for all of us.)

Clearly, these women are not passive. They are doing their part to organize and form groups to come up with solutions and business plans. In both instances, we provided them the, by our standards, modest resources to get started. But now they have the ability to be self-sufficient, grow and, most importantly, to have hope.

(Thank you Virginia Woolf for providing the opening inspirational quote for all of these entries so far except one.)

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