“It moved me a lot to see how this programme is really part of community life in the villages that we work in.” Solange Hai is the Programme Officer for the Women in Enterprise Programme, supported by H&M Foundation. She recently visited the programme in Ivory Coast to get a better understanding of what is happening on the ground.
Solange in Ivory Coast
What was your first impression of Ivory Coast?
As soon as I arrived, the warmth in the air warmed my heart. On my first day I travelled from the buzzing city of Abidjan to a completely different landscape in the north, the town of Korhogo, with red dirt roads and mango trees. It was like being taken to a totally different place.
Everything was done in ‘African time’, which meant after food and after talking. In Ivory Coast things just happen in their own time. I was constantly made to feel welcome.
Tell us about the people you met.
The women participating in the programme are very strong. They are all looking for something more from themselves and trying to figure out their own potential.
The role models who support these women were role models for me as well. They were these powerhouses of energy who started from humble beginnings, but have been able to build up their businesses. What I think is so beautiful is how seriously they take the role. It’s not just a title for them. They are working with women and trying to motivate and mentor them to also overcome the same difficulties that they encountered.
I really enjoyed meeting my CARE colleagues too, they are a small team but everyone is so motivated and hardworking. They connected so well with everyone, whether it was the women in the villages or local authorities. They are smart, quick and I am confident that they will achieve amazing results.
What moment stuck in your mind?
There were two main highlights for me. In Korhogo we visited two villages. As we stepped out of the car there was a gathering of around 100 women and they all started singing a welcome song. It moved me to see how this programme is really a part of community life in the villages that CARE works in.
I also observed an incredible conversation between the women and the Chief of the village. They were talking about the obstacles they face and the women told the Chief that they needed more land if they were to be able to really develop their agricultural enterprises. They put the Chief on the spot to decide. To me that shows great strength. There was a lot of back and forth - it was very ceremonial in the way it happened, and full of energy. Each side had their say until they came to a resolution, where the Chief agreed he could give them five extra hectares of land.
Who inspired you the most?
Madame Sekongo, one of the role models. She is this powerful woman – what she says gets done. She runs a large farmer’s cooperative but still finds time to act as a role model to other women, helping them to develop their own enterprises.
Even though we didn’t speak each other’s language, somehow we were able to communicate. She just saw so clearly what needed to be done. She didn’t ever hesitate in saying what she thought, whether it was with the women, the local authority or with the micro finance institution.
She gave me two traditional cloths, she said you can’t come here and leave empty handed and dressed me in the traditional clothing. It was a very special moment for me. I didn’t consider myself an important actor - more an observer - so I felt like she saw me too.
What impact do you think the project is having in Ivory Coast?
CARE is working very closely with the Ministry of Women, Protection of Children and Solidarity and I think it’s very unique that a country has a Ministry devoted to women and to their advancement, training and development.
I think the project is helping to elevate the importance of working with women and improving the lives of women in Ivory Coast. I think there’s a nice synergy between CARE and this Ministry, the goals of the two are aligned and I think there are complementary skills and abilities to be able to carry out the work of empowering women and making that more visible to the general public.
Through training these women, CARE is helping to unleash a potential that already exists. Sometimes what is missing for these women is knowing the steps to get something done, such as how to help them form a business idea or how to better market their products. CARE gives them the tools to succeed.
What amazed you about the women?
I am amazed because I know that these women already carry a lot of weight on their shoulders. They take care of and raise their children, they prepare the food for their families, do all of the housework and yet on top of that they are motivated to create sustainable businesses, either individually or as a group. That for me is something special. But we need to make sure that what is happening comes from the women themselves. If we are imposing it then we aren’t changing anything.
What have you personally learnt from the visit?
I am reminded about how important it is to meet people face to face, whether it’s colleagues in the same organisation or the women we work with. They aren’t numbers in a report or just faces in a photo, but real people touched by this programme. I also learnt from Madame Sekongo to always speak up!
What is the knock-on effect of helping just one woman?
There are two implications to helping one woman. One is that women, especially those from marginalized and low income communities, don’t have access to all basic human rights and I think that working with women in the way that we do responds to that current problem in society. Secondly, I think that when women grow they invest in their families and communities and I think that has a transformative effect on their wider communities.
What do you love about your job?
I love that I contribute to these projects in seven countries through this larger global programme and that in this phase we can actually measure more systematically the impact that this has on women, both intended impact and unintended.
Being in Ivory Coast I was able to observe the training with the team who would be conducting the baseline survey of the programme. These surveys, and other data collected, are what I will be using back in the Netherlands to measure the true impact on women worldwide.
If you could change one thing for these women what would it be?
There are just so many obstacles they are facing, it’s hard to pick one and yet they are overcoming them. I think a lot needs to change.
In Ivory Coast I would like the women to have access to better information. One of the big issues that I saw they were facing in agricultural production is that they don’t know what price they can sell for and where additional markets are where they can sell their products. Having access to real-time trusted information would help them to better understand their market.
What’s next for the women in Ivory Coast?
The Ministry will be adopting CARE’s training materials into their own activities, which I think shows the huge value we are adding in the country. We will also be doing a full analysis of what is being produced and where and which products are most profitable, which will help the women as they develop and grow their enterprises.
Finally, CARE will be developing a network of women entrepreneurs across the country so that all these inspirational women can stay connected and continue to learn from and encourage one another.