A common perception of Western societies is that life for women in the developing world is one of deprivation and desperation. But those who travel discover that significant innovation and idealism thrives in rural villages around the world. We have much to learn from and admire about village women! While extreme need certainly plays a pivotal role in initiating entrepreneurship in small communities, a closer look reveals a thread of optimism and pure grit sewn through every story. Often, all that’s needed is a little catalytic help to transform an entire community’s “can-do” spirit. One such example is Upendo, a fledgling women’s co-operative venture in Ipalamwa, Tanzania.
Traditionally, community co-operative organizations have been formative places for women to contribute to rural development. Yet, the group’s composition and origination are socially sensitive definers that can predict it’s ultimate success or failure. Co-ops created or managed “from above,” without the genuine participation of local members, frequently fail. Why? Because members, who have a stake in the outcome of the project, can become alienated from what should have been their own organizations. With little or no influence on issues of direct concern to them – such as marketing and pricing their products – members can lose interest shortly after the organization starts.
In Tanzania, a co-operative (kikundi) is defined by how it obtains its revenues. Most are associated with the introduction of cash crops such as coffee, cotton and tobacco. Women constitute 51% of Tanzania’s population (2012) and, in rural areas, are the primary labor source for small-scale agriculture. However, discriminatory legislation, biased co-op rules and prejudice often are to blame severely under-representing women in agricultural co-ops. The same appears to hold true for financial, “worker” (production), marketing, and other types of co-ops.
Translating Desire into Practical Strategies
A successful worker co-op model is Upendo, established in the villages of Ipalamwa and Lulindi, Tanzania with mothers participating in Global Volunteers’ Reaching Children’s Potential (RCP) program. These mothers initiated an income-generating co-operative organization in October, 2018 to support their families, and asked volunteers for help with planning, training and marketing. After 37 local women described their needs and vision for self-employment in the village, nine mothers advanced to become members of the co-op. The enterprise began slowly, with the sale of baskets, totes and traditional clothing items to the visiting short-term volunteers. The early results were promising! Next, they determined what products would respond to local needs and create demand. Cathie Madden, a retired business executive and Global Volunteer who interviewed the village women on their co-op goals, was impressed with the women’s innate knowledge and determination to build a sustainable model. By mid-2019, additional areas for growth were identified, and the co-op purchased two pigs and a sewing machine with the money raised from their sales. The members also expressed interest in purchasing a small plot of land to grow beans to sell to local residents.
Preparing Women to Empower Rural Villages
Local women serve as custodians of traditional knowledge, which is key for the total community’s livelihood, resilience and culture. Further, because they’re integral in the rural economy as farmers, wage earners and entrepreneurs, they serve as change agents for attitudes and capacities in economic, environmental and social development. Enabling rural women to become economically self-sufficient leaders propels community vitality by promoting inclusive and economic growth, and stabilizing family units. There are, however, many challenges that continue to undermine women’s role and status in the community. And, because of that, women may need more time and training to build their capacity to contribute to their community’s formal development process.
Engaging Short-Term Volunteers in Training
“For any training to be effective, it should be based on what the co-operative members need to know, rather than attempting to pass on everything there is to know about a particular subject,” Madden counsels. The women are unlikely to have the time or interest to listen to information they feel is irrelevant to them, or participate in training unless they can see immediate use for what they have learned.
Small-business and co-op workshops are modeled after Global Volunteers’ established line-up of health, nutrition and child development workshops co-led by local RCP staff and volunteers. Given that the co-op members may not know what training is critical, a range of workshops and exercises are offered and revised as co-op members begin to understand the scope of their need. Short-term volunteers with expertise in requested areas are recruited where possible. Depth of knowledge, however, is deemed secondary to empathy and genuine respect for the co-op members.
Investing in Responsible Expansion Strategies
After a full year of gradual success, the Upendo model is positioned to help expand the RCP co-operatives to three other villages in the Ukwega Ward of the Irigna District. Volunteers with small business experience are sought to help launch new co-ops in a variety of ways, from helping draft incorporation documents to teaching bookkeeping and production. “Mountain Movers,” a professional association in Iringa lending support to people needing assistance with their professional aspirations (such as starting a co-op) have likewise been engaged by the mothers. Meanwhile, a full-time Co-operative Coordinator employed by Global Volunteers will help mothers start up additional co-ops; conduct market research; and manage Global Volunteers’ annual government-required audit of the initiative. Prospective new co-op members cite new product areas, including the manufacture of school uniforms and menstrual kits, as well as raising livestock.
Modeling Success in Gender Equality
Women’s co-ops which start out to advance women’s self-sufficiency ultimately result in greater capacity-building for the entire community. Caring for their children and contributing to the well-being of their extended families are often steps toward assuming broader roles in village and district leadership, and helping to achieve women’s equality in the family and society. Evidence shows that this spurs productivity gains, enhanced growth and improved development prospects for current and future generations.
To learn more about how women’s co-operatives support communities worldwide, read Cooperatives and the Sustainable Development Goals.
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