Still Good News in the World

Still Good News in the World

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

IMG-20200209-WA0003 (2)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.

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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.

Sierra Leone, West Africa foodsWith 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.

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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.

 

 

 

Who Said This Isn’t Women’s Work

Who Said This Isn’t Women’s Work

Zainab is now a Bumpeh Chiefdom truck driver. You won’t see another woman driving a truck in the chiefdom, and I doubt anywhere in Moyamba district or most of Sierra Leone’s rural districts.

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It’s a mini truck, but a vital part of our partner CCET-SL’s Orchards for Education project, carrying loads and workers from project fields to town in Rotifunk. Importantly, it’s a full time wage-paying job – another rarity in the chiefdom for man or woman.

Orchards for Education will create income for chiefdom children’s education. Another objective is to create local employment, with women hired wherever possible. When a truck driver was needed, the project’s response was, who said this isn’t women’s work?

IMG-20191025-WA0025 (2) The mini-truck, locally called a keke, is an easy and economical way to carry small loads the short distance from the project fields back into town. Here it’s being loaded with newly harvested rice sheaves.

Zainab was one of the first woman seasonal workers hired at the new vegetable growing swamp project, or IVS. Vegetables or rice are being grown year-round for income to operate the orchards before fruit trees mature and bear fruit

While at the IVS, Zainab did well, taking responsibility and showing initiative. She was the women workers leader, responsible for sharing work assignments with the other women. She was good at monitoring them to ensure that work was done effectively and efficiently. And, she voluntarily sold the IVS produce at the weekly market.

Paramount Chief Caulker is a strong women’s advocate. When the project bought the mini-truck, locally called a keke, he said hire a woman driver. Zainab was the clear choice for the vehicle, a motorcycle pulling a small flat-bed.

IMG-20191025-WA0024 (2)Loaded with rice and workers, Zainab carries all back from the fields to town.

Zainab had never driven any vehicle, motorcycle or otherwise. She started her training on a regular motorcycle a week before the keke’s arrival. She quickly moved on to the keke. Last week the keys were handed over to her and she is now the project’s first full-time female worker.

Who said women can’t drive a truck? Zainab showed they can. After the rice harvest, she’ll be carrying a water tank on the keke around the orchard keeping young fruit tree seedlings watered throughout the coming dry season.

 

Concept to Harvest in 5 Months –  the Women’s Vegetable Growing Project

Concept to Harvest in 5 Months – the Women’s Vegetable Growing Project

Just shy of five months from our first March phone call on the Bumpeh Chiefdom Women’s Vegetable Growing Project, women are harvesting their first crops.

I got the pictures of the peanut harvest Sunday.  It’s a good crop, Mrs. Kaimbay told me. She leads our partner organization, the Center for Community Empowerment & Transformation (CCET), who organized and started this first time project.

She and local teachers Mr. Sonnah and Mr. Phoday got the vegetable project started in April – at the same time they were restarting school that had been closed for nine months because of Ebola.

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Now in late July, these women in the project’s first group of farmers were harvesting their groundnuts. The corn in the background will be ready soon, together with okra and cucumbers.

It was only in early March that I first asked, what can Sherbro Foundation do to help people whose incomes were slashed during the Ebola crisis.  Help women farmers start fast growing cash crops was the answer. Peanuts and vegetables.

Veg - grountnut harvesting 2What we call peanuts are groundnuts in Africa. That’s because they grow in the ground. They’re actually legumes, not nuts. They’re an important source of protein in the African diet, commonly ground into a paste for soups and stews.
Or eaten straight up, after roasting in a pan. Groundnuts are also enjoyed boiled in the shell.

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Here’s what groundnuts look like when they’re harvested.  They grow as nodules among the roots of the plant. You dig them up like harvesting potatoes. Then spread them out in the sun to dry.


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The Women’s Vegetable Growing project will continue to expand and add new groups of farmers. The thirty five women in this first group will donate seed back to the project for the next group of farmers – a bag of groundnuts and a cup of seed from each of their three vegetable crops.

The women will still net at least three to four times our initial investment of $75 in each farmer. They’ll be ready to start their second crops in September themselves, followed by a third crop in their first year.

In the meantime, new groups of women farmers will be given their start.  In the project’s first twelve months, we should be able to have groups of 30+ farmers producing crops six times.

Workshop on erosion control.

Workshop on erosion control.

The women selected for the project are single heads of large households. They get the use of community land set aside in the chiefdom for special projects. They get training on topics like planting and erosion control, and ongoing support.

Importantly, they now know what empowerment feels like. They’re farming themselves and becoming self sufficient.

Sherbro Foundation and our partner CCET take on practical projects that are simple to implement and which quickly benefit the poorest people in the chiefdom.

We don’t wait years to see lives improved while bureaucracy and overhead are created. We do it within months.