There still is good news to be found in the world. Sierra Leone has had more than its share of bad news and hardship. But it’s where I’m finding things to brighten my outlook now, thanks to our Bumpeh Chiefdom partner, the Center for Community Empowerment & Transformation (CCET-SL).
Twenty “market women” come together each Sunday at the CCET-SL building after the big weekly Saturday market to discuss what they bought and sold that week. But these small traders aren’t gossiping. They’re getting help to grow their small businesses. And every week they deposit part of their earnings they can save in an iron lock box the group manages.
The group buzzes with talk on the week’s prices for palm oil, dried fish, peanuts and other things they buy and sell – and what they expect prices to be in the coming weeks.
Growing and Saving
The women are part of CCET-SL’s new Women’s Small Grant & Savings Program funded by Sherbro Foundation. Each participant received a small grant of one million leones. They now have enough money to buy new goods to sell in their small trading business. They earn more to better feed their families. And importantly, they save each week.
The women are hardly millionaires. One million leones is today worth only about one hundred US dollars. But these are women who never before held that much cash in their hands at one time.
The group serves as a peer network where they exchange what they know about trading and offer each other current advice. Such as: recently harvested peanuts will be worth far more two or three months from now when the harvest glut is down.
The experienced women advise, hold the peanuts and your bigger future profit will likely more than make up for slow weeks now. Things like peanuts and locally produced palm oil, the mainstay cooking oil, are commodities to be held as a reserve and sold when prices rise.
Targeting women with the least
These women are part of the program because they’re among the poorest women in the community. Most market women, below, have so little to sell, their weekly income is a pittance. It’s barely enough with which to eat and purchase another small lot of goods for the next week’s market. Or they sell things from small family farms and gardens or from trading with other villagers. Most can only bring what they can carry on their heads walking.
There’s little cash flow among these women, and no capital to invest in a small business that could reliably return more income. They just scrape by week to week.
The women needed a boost to get ahead. A small grant. One with no ties attached.
Women’s Small Grant & Savings Program
The program was conceived in January because of another dilemma CCET-SL faced. The twenty women in the new grant program were hired last year as part-time workers in CCET-SL’s Swamp Vegetable Growing project, below. They transplanted pepper and okra seedlings into raised beds, weeded and watered, and later harvested the vegetables. They continued to work their own small gardens and trade in the market. The women were excited to have their first wage-paying jobs, even if part-time and seasonal.
But the vegetable project doubled in size since last year, and was planting 12,000 pepper plants this year. With seven acres of peppers to now water, it became clear having women hand-water would never work. The area was too big, and carrying water buckets all day too heavy for the women. A way of watering with pressurized hoses was identified that needed to be handed over to men.
Paramount Chief Caulker was adamant the women would not be fired. He considers one of CCET-SL’s agriculture projects’ successes to be job creation for the neediest chiefdom people.
CCET-SL Managing Director Rosaline Kaimbay offered another solution. Let the women focus instead on growing their small trading businesses with small grants. I was with them in January, and we worked out the terms of the program that Sherbro Foundation immediately funded. They began in February. At the meeting below, CCET-SL accountant Sulaiman Timbo records everyone’s savings deposits as the group is illiterate.
Each participant starts with a small grant. This is not the usual microfinance program giving loans with high interest and short payback schedules. These women are the lowest tier of a desperately poor rural economy, and too poor to pay back a loan within months. Or if they tried, they’d use up the little income they produce. They’d never be able to put more money into their business and get ahead.
Under the Small Grant and Savings Program, women should be able to increase the size of their trading business with their small grant and the resulting income they earn. And with required savings, they’ll have another windfall at the end of the year.
To participate, women are expected to save some of their earnings every week that will be distributed back to them after 12 months.
The iron lock box, left, is made for small savings clubs. Built with three locks, it can’t be opened unless three people come with keys for the three locks. This encourages group self-management, as well as security for the savings.
Group savings clubs are popular for the poor because it’s an easy way to protect their savings. If left at home, it would invariably go to another immediate need or family demand. Banks are a one- to two-hour drive away, and their fees too high for the tiny amounts the women save.
Yeama’s business portfolio
Yeama was one of the hard-working women from last year’s Swamp Vegetable Growing group. She’s about 40 and a single parent with two children. Her husband left her for another woman, and kicked her and the children out of their house. She returned to Rotifunk, and had to start doing any available work to feed her family, which for women usually means farming.
In the new program, Yeama was advised to use her Le 1,000,000 grant to buy a diversified “portfolio” of things to trade. With half the money, she chose to buy various women’s toiletries and personal items in Freetown to set up a table in the market. It’s like the women’s aisles in Target or Walmart with skin creams, hair balm, toothpaste, soaps, nail polish, combs, etc. Below, a typical market table of women’s products.
She also bought a large bale of peanuts for Le300,000 that’s already gone up to Le350,000. She’s holding this as her fall-back reserve. It could rise to Le500,000 or even Le550,000.
With her remaining Le200,000 from the grant, Yeama bought cassava, a starchy tuber, and made foo foo, left, traditionally eaten on Saturday with a meat soup.
She “added value” to the cassava by pounding it and turning it into balls of foo foo. She sold them in Freetown at a higher price and made even more profit.
Yeama is already making money to put back into her trading business, or to buy another seasonal crop to sell.
Like most of the women, Yeama can only save Le10,000 to Le20,000 a week now, or $1 to $2. But if they do this each week, by the year-end, it will be like receiving another grant of Le500,000 to Le1,000,000, or more as they’re able to save more. The support – and competition – of the peer group encourages more savings.
Only several weeks old, the Women’s Grant and Savings Program is already very popular. Women not in the initial grant group come to sit in on the weekly Sunday meetings to observe and learn from the group. CCET-SL Director Rosaline Kaimbay, above, hands raised, facilitates the weekly meetings.
Paramount Chief Caulker has had a parade of women from the group coming to thank him for starting the program. Others come pleading to also join.
For Sherbro Foundation donors, our total investment to start the program was $2050. That feels like an incredible bargain to help 20 women get more economic security in their lives and contribute to their building their local economy.
Chief Caulker says he believes this program will continue to be a real winner. I agree. Time will tell just how big of a winner it turns out to be – but the women themselves are now the drivers.