By Christine S. Fowles
Managing Director of Programs, U.S. African Development Foundation
I’ve seen firsthand that African women are the pillars of their communities and powerful agents of change. When we invest in women, we are investing in entire communities, empowering mothers to send their children to school, girls to access health services, and women to become active participants in their country’s development. Now, more than ever, women entrepreneurs can lead the way out of poverty for themselves, their children and their communities.
And in many of these places in which my organization, the U.S. African Development Foundation (USADF) works, women are rising to the top as leaders to affect change.
Take Annie Kruah, a leader in her community in the village of Karnplay in Nimba county, Liberia. Annie is a visionary with perseverance and grit, and is helping to spur economic growth in her community through the Gbehlay-geh Cooperative Society. Through Annie’s leadership, Gbehlay-geh Society grew from a small rice cooperative to an organization that has rice, palm oil, and cassava products, beekeeping, and livestock. When her community lacked access to any financial services or banking institutions, Annie successfully lobbied for the establishment of the Gbehlay-geh Financial Institute backed by Afriland Bank. She encouraged her fellow members in civic engagement and to participate in Liberia’s development. Now, 95% of Gbehlay-geh’s women members are registered to vote, and almost all voted in the last presidential election. When the Ebola crisis hit Liberia in 2014, Gbehlay-geh Cooperative became a stable force for the community, and continued to offer financial services and grow food during the health crisis.
I’m happy to be working with organizations like Hope Development Initiative (HDI) in northern Uganda, which is empowering women one acre at a time. With a grant from USADF, Founder Agnes Atim Apea organized rice farmers in Amolatar district to grow and collectively sell rice. She had a vision to empower women by using agribusiness to unlock their sense of leadership, citizenship, and entrepreneurial spirit. Through their strength in numbers, the women of HDI cooperative were able to grow their organization, and invite other women from neighboring districts to join too. Now the cooperative is over 8,000 members strong and is entirely women. Among other things, farmers receive training on how to increase their yields, receive tutorials for how to open a bank account and save money, and are able to send their children to school.
Now, more than ever, it’s important to invest in change-makers like Annie and Agnes, each in their own ways breaking down legal, social and economic barriers to help women prosper and help their communities thrive. These leaders are central to the development and stability of a village.
One of the most inspiring women’s groups I’ve worked with is in Rwanda. A decade ago, two women who were suffering from HIV/AIDS decided to act and self-organize. Fifteen women joined the initiative, and formed Dufashabacu, which means “helping our people” in their local language, and is now more than 85 members strong. The women started in a non-traditional and labor-intensive business: brick-making. With a grant from USADF, Dufashabacu began its operations in making cement brick blocks, mainly used for local construction, and opened a savings and credit fund for its members to start other businesses. The grant also provided for critical training in areas such as leadership, business skills, gender-based violence, and public speaking. With their incomes from the brick-making, Dufashabacu members are able to feed their families, build permanent houses and access electricity and clean water. Most of the women now have individual bank accounts and participate in making decisions on how household incomes are used.
In addition, several are serving as representatives on the village and sub-district level. These women who were once shunned in the community for their HIV positive statuses are now community leaders and model citizens.
Last year, I met with one of the members of Dufashabacu. Rebecca had participated in USADF-funded workshops such as leadership, entrepreneurship and money management training. When I asked her about the result from her training, if she saw a difference in her own personal life, she replied, “Before I joined this group and earned an income to support my family, my husband used to not respect me, he would call me ‘Hey you’. And now, he calls me Madam.”
Stories like Rebecca’s remind me of the importance of helping women gain access to resources, and the power to control those resources. USADF invests not only in local enterprise development, but also in local lives. Our grants increase women’s choices and transform their power relationships, enabling women to change their lives in ways that benefit them and their communities.
Today on International Women’s Day, the U.S. African Development Foundation (USADF) is proud to announce the launching of a policy that recognizes the need to empower women to participate in the development of their countries, named the Willie Grace Campbell (WGC) Initiative. The late Willie Grace Campbell is the former Vice Chair of the USADF Board of Directors, and was a tireless advocate for women’s rights at home and abroad. The WGC Initiative to will continue to invest in the lives of women throughout the continent and continue Ms. Campbell’s enduring legacy of fostering women’s leadership as an empowerment strategy, especially at the community level.