Part 2 – Economically empowering women: How Challenging is it to Operate a Sustainable Women’s Enterprise Group?
Field blog written by our international intern, Alexandra Wall
LEARNING FROM OTHER WOMEN’S GROUPS IN THE AREA
The focus of my summer internship has been developing the groundwork for establishing a Women’s Enterprise Center in Mwakoma. Rather than start from ground zero and reinvent the wheel, we instead visited several women’s groups in the area to learn from their experiences. How and why did these groups start? What income generating activities do they conduct? How is the group structured and managed? What type of financial and non-financial support have they received from other organizations? What challenges have they faced in operating a women’s group? These were a few of the key questions we sought to understand in order to inform the design and operations of Mwakoma’s future Women’s Enterprise Center.
Our team (STE community livelihoods program staff, the chairlady and secretary of Mlambeni women’s group, and myself) visited two women’s groups in the area:
Tumaini Women’s Community Support Center in Maungu
Current membership: 28 women
We spent the afternoon sitting with the women to learn about their experiences and advice for establishing a center in Mwakoma. After we wrapped up our meeting, the Tumaini women demonstrated a traditional song and dance. This is one of the tourist activities conducted when visitors arrive at Camp Tsavo (where the women’s center is located).
Neema Women’s Group in Marungu
Current membership: 15 women
Our visit to the Neema women’s group served two purposes: to learn about the operations of the group and how to make elephant dung paper. Elephant dung paper is one of three products Neema women’s group produces and sells. The Mlambeni basket weavers are interested in potentially pursuing elephant dung paper as a bio-enterprise activity so it was all hands on deck to learn the details of the process from start to finish!
TAKEAWAYS & NEXT STEPS
Despite several observable differences between Tumaini and Neema women’s groups, there were a number of notable characteristics and lessons shared by both groups:
- The power of an individual leader – A resolute, respected, creative, and well-networked woman spearheaded the establishment of each women’s group. It is this founding member who not only manages the group and market connections but also advises which activities to pursue. While having a strong leader is critical in empowering and encouraging a group of rural women to learn new skills and earn an income independent of their husbands, relying heavily on one individual member to carry the success of a group has its risks.
Takeaway: The Women’s Enterprise Center (WEC) will have a board comprised of several elected leaders who will drive the establishment of the Center and carry it forward.
- Opportunistic vs. craft-based activities – The leadership style and resource constraints of each group determine the activities pursued. For example, Tumaini women’s group makes beaded jewelry and weaves sisal baskets. The founder of Tumaini also encourages women in the group to engage in self-promotion and individual entrepreneurial activities such as offering cell phone charging services at their home and selling eggs and greens from their kitchen gardens. She also initiated group opportunistic activities such as catering services and operating a gift shop. Tumaini women’s group also received a loan from Zawadisha to attain solar lamps, rainwater tanks, and clean cookstoves.
In contrast, Neema’s women’s group produces three crafts: magazine bead jewelry, sisal baskets, and elephant dung paper. Aside from the sisal baskets, which require the purchase of raw materials from Hadithi, magazine beaded jewelry and elephant dung paper can, for the most part, be made from recycled and/or free materials. This is key considering Neema women’s group is very capital constrained. To our knowledge, there is no active encouragement or instruction by the leader to engage in opportunistic and/or individual entrepreneurial activities.
Takeaway: The WEC will focus primarily on bio-enterprise activities including basket weaving, soap making, grain grinding, and selling produce from an on-site garden. However, non-agriculture opportunistic activities will also be considered to generate additional side income.
- Group lending is a core function and service – Interestingly, one of the primary functions of both women’s groups is to serve as a group lending and savings scheme. Table banking was one of the first three activities carried out by Tumaini women’s group. The group has received one grant – from Uwezo Fund – which was invested back into the table banking group to provide additional loans for women. Similarly, Neema’s women’s group began as a merry-go-round. They have received one loan – from Kenya Women Enterprise Fund – which was partially invested back into the merry go round and also used to purchase materials for the three craft activities.
Takeaway: Mlambeni women’s group is seeking to establish its own table banking group. Although several table banking groups already exist in the community, the Mlambeni board members recognize that having an in-house table banking group increases their ability to receive financial support from outside organizations.
- Adhere to strict rules and regulations – Strict rules around membership and attendance are crucial to maintaining active membership and group order. Both groups have constitutions which outline membership obligations and impose a fee for late attendance or missing meetings. These fees can range anywhere from 10KSh – 150KSh for Neema (depending on the meeting type) and 20-50KSh for Tumaini (in which the money accrued from fines is invested back into table banking).
Takeaway: The anticipated construction of the WEC will undoubtedly generate interest from potential members in the community. Already at 38 women, the Mlambeni group is fairly large and the board members are faced with the challenge of declining requests from potential members. Prior to the establishment of the WEC, the board will revise the group constitution to revisit membership criteria and considerations for accepting new members.
- The main challenges include lack of water and capital – Increasingly common droughts in the area have led to a scarcity of water. Tumaini women’s group once operated a greenhouse to sell produce within the community, but the greenhouse is no longer in operation due to a shortage of water. For Neema women’s group, water has also been a challenge for making elephant dung paper which requires one wheelbarrow full of water per batch of paper. Currently, Neema must purchase water from the nearest town. Additionally, both groups mentioned lack of access to capital as a key constraint to expanding activities.
Takeaway: As Elephants and Bees and the Mlambeni women’s group select the initial activities to be carried out at the WEC, it will be important to keep in mind the constraints of access to water and capital (and electricity!). Already, plans to construct roof rainwater catchment systems and receive donated solar panels will aim to address some of these constraints.
- Women gain increased respect in the household – And what about the impact of belonging to a women’s enterprise group? Women from both Tumaini and Neema shared that they feel empowered because they can now financially contribute to their family. Whether it’s through paying school fees or purchasing sugar for the household, women expressed how they’ve been able to gain respect from their husbands and provide for their families.
Takeaway: Providing a means to financially empower women can lead to an improvement in intra-household dynamics and sense of self-agency. Several members of the Mlambeni women’s groups have expressed similar positive effects from participation in basket weaving.
Creating a sustainable and profitable Women’s Enterprise Center in a rural community is no easy task. But by learning from existing women’s enterprise groups and involving Mwakoma leadership and Mlambeni basket weavers in the decision-making process from the start, we’re one step closer to creating a community-driven solution to economically empower women and mitigate the negative effects of human-elephant conflict.
Donations for the construction of the Women’s Enterprise Center can be made through www.elephantsandbees.com or contact Dr. Lucy King, head of STE’s Human-Elephant Co-Existence Program, at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.