Providing the women at Indego Africa's partner cooperatives with international market information and product feedback is a critical piece to their success as independent businesswomen. With this in mind, we have developed a brief ten question survey about Indego Africa's product line and shopping experience. This survey will also help Indego Africa focus on areas for improvement and development.
Please take two minutes to share with us and the women your valuable feedback. Thank you!
I've just found AfriGadget, whose by-line is "Solving everyday problems with African ingenuity."
The latest entry (at least when I'm writing this) discusses a product designed to deal with a common African problem: blackouts. The solution, from street vendors in Nairobi, is to take a used tin can, cut a couple of holes in it, attach batteries, wires, and a light bulb, add a metal handle so you can move the thing, et voila! Light.
Of course it would be great if Kenyans had regular and affordable electricity but, given that they don't, they can at least be thankful for local entrepreneurs coming to the rescue. In fact, this example strikes me as quintessential entrepreneurial behavior: alertness to an opportunity, ingenuity put to work to meet a need, some risk taking, followed by a voluntary exchange.
The juakali lamps are selling for approx. $2.50 -- no doubt less for locals.
This past Nov. 10, Matt and I had the pleasure of guest lecturing at "Rwanda: Past & Present," a class at Boston University's School of International Relations. The professor, Stephen Kinzer, is an award-winning foreign correspondent who has covered more than 50 countries on five continents. Kinzer's most recent book, A Thousand Hills: Rwanda's Rebirth and the Man Who Dreamed It,is, as Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa called it, "a fascinating account of a near-miracle unfolding before our very eyes." On a personal note, I read A Thousand Hills right before I traveled to Rwanda for the first time. It was such an important component of my experience that, upon returning, I wrote Kinzer an email thanking him for his work, and we've been friends ever since.
The class - a mix of about 30 upper level university students and grad students - was truly impressive. They had been studying Rwanda all semester, so we quickly got down to business and covered a wide range of complex topics, including social enterprise business models, fair trade production and fulfillment logistics, Rwanda's efforts to encourage reconciliation, and so much more. The highlight was at the end of the evening when Prof. Kinzer helped the class prepare for their live telephonic conference with Rwanda's President, Paul Kagame, the following Monday. And apparently it went great! Check out the article and video: Rwanda's President Teleconferences with BU Seminar.
Thanks again to Prof. Kinzer and the class for such an enjoyable evening.
Are there generally applicable lessons about what works in terms of development assistance? Perhaps we're closing in on a few, as this article from The New York Times suggests.
Although different situations will likely call for different responses, there do seem to be some common features of successful development projects (ok, so "successful" is extremely difficult to define in this context--does it just mean no harm done? does it mean clearly identifiable and positive outcomes? does it mean increased respect for the donor nation? I recognize this and will now sidestep that issue):
local participation and buy-in means you can tap into and use local knowledge and you likely get a greater sense of ownership over outcomes;
direct payments avoid problems associated with working through a centralized ministry or the national treasury (there may be other problems, such as further empowering local elites, but the problem of "where did those millions go?" will be reduced)
Maybe the bulk of projects should be smaller-scale with local oversight and direction
Working on a 2 or 3 year development project time-frame is often misguided. Most projects take much longer to come to some kind of fruition.
The article talks about small-scale transfers of development assistance directly to rural communities in Afghanistan. Individuals, working through village councils, decide what they most need and are then directly involved in project management -- building schools or water purification systems or roads. Because locals are in charge of the money, they figure out how best to use the resources (they find ways to use resources efficiently because they directly benefit from any savings). So far, results are reported to be good.
This tracks my own research experiences in Africa. The development projects and programs that I see that do good on the ground tend to be small-scale, involve strong and meaningful local participation, and have a longer time horizon. Both commonsensical and deeply radical, this approach recognizes that empowering local people (poor and typically less educated) often works better than top-down planning by elites.
Meet Honoline (pink) and Jenny (yellow), two of Indego Africa’s resident fashionists. Honoline and Jenny love their stylish sunglasses almost as much as helping out at their mom’s tailoring cooperative, Cocoki. They are excellent teaching assistants—they enjoy drawing on the chalkboard during trainings and practicing their English skills. They also provide necessary feedback on product design and tailoring—the last dress their moms’ made for me to wear to Indego Africa’s Dec. 2 Ibirori celebration in NYC was definitely "nibyiza" (pretty) in their opinion. Working with women’s cooperatives means we naturally work with their children as well, and that can be one of the best parts of the job.
At Indego Africa we spend a lot of time focusing on the serious aspects of business and development in Rwanda. One thing we don’t talk about much is the deep personal connection we have with our partners. And that connection forms the heart of our programming. Our partners feel comfortable sharing their needs and questions with us because we take the time to listen and engage with them at every level. Both Jadot (my Rwandan colleague) and I can get our cooperative’s laughing—whether by clowning around with their kids or by doing light-hearted impressions of the ever intimidating ‘international clietele’ they are trying to imagine. So when its time to take on more serious topics, like unit pricing and cooperative management, we get the pleasure of no-holds barred participation from every woman—and her kids.
I love critters. So, this article in Smithsonian Magazine caught my eye. It's about an interesting conservation success story: the peralta giraffe, one of several subspecies, lives in the Sahel and in particular, in Niger. The peralta was on the verge of extinction as recently as 1996 when approximately 50 remained. (I love the author's choice of the word "galumph" to describe how giraffes move.)
In the past local people were in competition with the giraffes. People and animals were using the same resources. Both used trees--humans for heating and cooking and giraffes for food. Villagers planted beans to eat and giraffes like these also. So, for villagers giraffes were a nuisance -- an edible nuisance at that. Why should poor villagers leave trees for giraffes or otherwise make an effort to save them?
One answer might be this: the government of Niger outlawed tree cutting in the area where the giraffes live. People might leave trees alone because they'd face a legal penalty if they did so. But, as the story makes clear, villagers routinely ignored the law. Making a living was more important, and cutting wood to sell in cities was one way to earn some income.
Another answer might be that the government also prohibited hunting or poaching giraffes and imposed large fines for doing so. Unfortunately, this simply made giraffes even more of a pest than ever. As a Washington Post article on the same story points out, this made the giraffes "useless:" they compete with humans but humans were no longer able to hunt them for meat or sell their skins.
Some people might have been deterred by the larger fines associated with hunting giraffe, but I think the more likely explanation for the recovery is this: an NGO called, in English, Safeguard the Giraffes of Niger (ASGN in French), began a program that hopes to shift villagers' perceptions of giraffes from foe to friend. How? ASGN provides microloans to villagers who engage in giraffe-friendly behavior. It also encourages tourism related to giraffe viewing. The result is that villagers now appreciate the animals because the animals have brought development to them.
While this approach is not unique, it remains an important lesson for conservation efforts: people are much more likely to protect those things in which they have a direct interest.
Rwanda is saturated with microfinance institutions, yet, from the perspective of the women at our partner cooperatives, information is hard to come by. As a result, and in line with Indego Africa's commitment to enabling our partners to make confident, independent, and informed business decisions, we recently conducted a survey of seven microfinance programs and shared our findings with the women. The women then invited the three in which they were most interested to come to the cooperatives and present their programs.
Crammed five deep, the majority with only a banana leaf mat as protection from the cement floor, the women listened respectfully to each presentation. However, when the first representative concluded, Therese Mutekereze, cooperative president, leaned forward and peered at the young man over the top of her spectacles (pictured right). He may not have realized he was about to get an earful, but the rest of us did! Therese led the charge each time, but several other members jumped right in with their own questions—ranging from inquiries about interest rates and hidden costs to those focused on lending requirements for individuals and cooperatives.
When the day’s presentations concluded the women entered a lively discussion among themselves about the relative merits of the various programs and their problems with microfinance in general. The women expressed concern that certain institutions lent only to those who were friends of the loan officers, while others repayment periods were too short and interest rates too high. They also wondered whether their cooperative was ready to take out such a loan when they lacked an idea of how they would use the money and access to market information that would give them an idea of possible future profit. They came to the decision that microfinance is not for them at the moment, but that they would reconsider when they had better developed business ideas. We affirmed our commitment to assisting them to access better market information to help them understand their business and how to make it grow.
Increasing access to information, whether about local financial resources or their own cooperative sales, is a major part of Indego’s mission to achieve sustainable business development. It’s not our mission to make decisions for our cooperatives, but to give them access to the knowledge they need to make decisions for themselves.
In NYC and want to learn more about Indego Africa and microfinance? Two great events next week:
MICROFINANCE & THE LAW: EMPOWERING WOMEN THROUGH INNOVATION, NYU Law, Monday, Nov. 16th, 6:00-7:30 (including speaker Ben Stone, Senior VP & GC).
MICROFINANCE: SOCIAL ENTERPRISE & THE LAW, Columbia Law School, Tuesday, Nov. 17th, 5:30-9:00 (including speaker Matt Mitro, Founder & President).
Economists typically look to Gross Domestic Product, GDP, as a measure of how well or poorly a country is doing. But GDP measures the total value of goods and services produced in a country. Tallying the value of the stuff and the services the people within a country produce in a given year gives us some sense of what life is like in that place, but GDP is criticized as failing to capture important variables or values that enhance our lives. It is sometimes difficult for GDP to adequately account for changes in product quality or the value of certain unpriced amenities. For example, it doesn't really capture the sense of delight we have from being able to listen to hundreds of radio stations on-line or the value we attach to having a pristine wilderness area.
Part of the problem here is, of course, the subjective nature of the valuation of these kinds of things. I might really love the wilderness area; you might not care about that much at all, but love the idea of being able to listen to reggae whenever/wherever. The benefit of GDP is that it measures values that are captured in a reasonably objective form, i.e. market prices. The limitation is that it measures things in their money prices. If something doesn't have a money price it's tough to capture.
"One of the most interesting, if unsurprising, findings of the Prosperity Index is that higher-income countries have diminishing returns to life satisfaction. . .this means that if you live in one of the poorest nations on earth, an increase in income is vitally important to improved prosperity, so driving growth is a critical ambition for those living in such regions. . .If the laws and norms of a country do not support entrepreneurial activity, growth will not occur."
Photo is of Ane Muandahiro, 50, a master weaver at Covanya.
Thacienne: My name is Mukamuligo Thacienne. I’m 52 years old. I have three children. I am a widow. I live in Nyagihunika in sector of Rusenyi and the district of Nyamata. I am part of Covanya cooperative.
Jadot (Indego Africa's Rwanda Program Coordinator): Can you share with us something about your life or anything you want?
T: My story is so long. Jadot, the way you see me as calm and quiet but I have a very long story. I have never seen in my life my mother. I have never known her. When you told us that your mother passed away I said probably you have had a chance to see her and know her but me I have never had such a chance. And when I got married then my husband went mad but I endured that. I didn’t want to leave him alone and people were like “That woman is like an animal. How can she stay with a crazy person?” But this was not the only problem. I had also another problem because every time I gave birth, my children died when they were very young. I had twelve children but now I have only three. And when genocide began, I told you my husband was crazy and even he didn’t want to flee so he was killed. Then I became a widow. I tell you that there is a time I felt my life was stopped because of his death. Though he was sick but I could still see him. I also lost children in genocide. I felt like I was dead inside but I was still living. I felt like I didn’t want to see other people. I felt like I wanted to be in a closed place where I couldn’t see other people. But because I had gone to school it helped me a bit. Though I was like mad but I had that knowledge I got from school so the RPF gave me a position in the local government. I worked at the lowest level up to the sector level and that’s where I got a chance to learn how to weave. You see, coming from Nyagihunika, it was a chance that I would not have had if I had not worked in the administration because they had chosen two people per sector (to be trained in weaving). So those who were trained were encouraged to form the weaving cooperatives so I decided I’ll never leave the cooperative. I had seen other women with whom we share a lot in our life so I felt very happy to be with other women. Caritas (the old president) used to tell us to go back to our villages but I said I will never leave this place. This is the town, this is where things are and where I became civilized and was able to make money. I used to keep my money in a hole in my house and the mice ate my money so because of being with others I was able to open a bank account and save my money at the bank. From the money we earn in the cooperative and the other money I make I save that money at my bank account so now I’m grateful to God and I thank God.
J: Can you tell me if there is something that you have benefited from the partnership between Indego and the cooperative on a personal level?
T: Oh, I’m very excited about the partnership. Haven’t I just told you because of working with Indego, I would have given up? I was here for a whole year without selling anything and I had kids to take care of at home. Though there are only three even those three they need to eat and have clothes. I had one I was paying for their school fees but when Indego came I was able to sell my products and save and I can tell you that I have been able to pay for the school fees and my child was able to go to secondary school. So I’m very happy and secure because of the partnership. My only wish is that we may have more orders so as we be able to get enough income.
J: Is there anything else you would like to share with us that you didn’t talk about?
T: The one wish I have in my life is to never see genocide in my life again because it affected me so much. Because as I told you, I had four siblings and they all died, even my dad, so I was left alone. I had no one in my life. I always considered my elder brother as my father but when he died I felt bad and I felt everything was over. So when I’m at the cooperative I just feel better. I didn’t tell you that I have three grandchildren whom I live with. Even when those children cry I just tell my daughters to comfort them because I don’t like to hear children crying. I have a wound inside me so when I hear them crying, it hurts me. So I just like to be calm and to be in a peaceful place. Even here, when there are some disputes I don’t feel good. I just like it when we are all laughing and all having fun. So that’s my life. Thank you very much.
The Indego Africa team is not one to miss a sales opportunity. Last week we participated as a vendor at the Hearts and Hands Market in Houston, probably the largest holiday market in the area. This was our second time attending and this time we put together an even more impressive display, including photo and video presentations of the women.
Our new sports bags and yoga bags were a particularly big hit but, as is often the case during the holiday season, customers bought nearly all the red Basket Ornaments that we had in stock. They're the perfect adornment to a Christmas tree and make great little gift boxes. I mentioned to every buyer that they're miniaturized versions of the larger Agaseke Basket, which is traditionally made by women and given to couples at their wedding.
The Market ended on a special note. One woman who bought an Agaseke Basket last year asked: “Do you take customer testimonials?” She then told us that she'd given the basket to her daughter, with no particular intentions and only the knowledge that Rwandan women give them for weddings. Within one year of the gift, her daughter met and married her husband.
The story is both familiar and deeply sad: millions of people once again face the possibility of starvation. Why? A part of the answer is that rains have been very bad for several years. Farmers throughout sub-Saharan Africa rely on rains to grow their crops; few have irrigation systems so no rain means real hardship.
But we know that farmers in other parts of the world routinely face prolonged droughts yet they avoid famine and mass starvation (Australia comes to mind). In addition to the vagaries of weather, Ethiopian farmers also confront difficult man-made problems: debilitating policies implemented by their government. (For the sake of brevity I do not here address the real problems created by food aid programs -- see this Oxfam report for more on that.)
For example, the BBC story points out that the government owns the land in Ethiopia (people have use rights, not ownership rights) so individual families cannot sell their property and move to cities. Indeed, the government acts purposefully to limit migration to cities. Why? Having lots of folks in Addis Ababa might make it more difficult for the government to squelch protest and retain political power. The government may say it's concerned about "chaotic" urban growth, but when rural residents are prohibited from moving to urban centers they are also prohibited from seeking economic opportunities and making use of their entrepreneurial talents -- the very thing people should be free to do when they are no longer able to support themselves and their families by farming.
And when the government forbids the sale of land other ill consequences follow. First, families cannot reap the benefit of one of the major assets they hold (they are thus forced to sell other property-- livestock, etc. to get at least some cash to support themselves). Second, families have to continually subdivide a family plot into smaller and smaller pieces so that adult children can take care of themselves somehow -- this directly leads to environmental degradation and reduced crop yields which, of course, intensifies the problems of hunger. And finally, if sales are forbidden efficient farmers are not allowed to buy property and build larger and perhaps more productive farms that might produce more and feed more.
Forcing people to remain smallholder farmers, denying them the possibility of economic advancement and entrepreneurial opportunities in cities and pushing them, out of necessity, to ruin the land through subdivision is the result of government policies; it is not the result of weather. What the Ethiopians desperately need, in addition to food in the short term, is policy reform for the long-term.