Her house is buzzing with activity in preparation for the filming we will be doing the next day, as well as a meeting with the leaders of her farming union “UCOVISA: Grande Productrice de Mais”, roughly translated as ‘great female producers of corn’. Immediately I see her why this woman has become the President of a farming union with 18,000 members – she leads with authority and precision and has a very clear idea on exactly what is required. As we sit down to talk she instantly starts explaining the extent of the cooperative: “We do business across West and Central Africa from Ghana to Cameroon and we hope to expand further.”
Jeanne Sekongo’s success is all the more poignant when she explains that she came from a very poor family and was the last child. She describes herself as a clever girl at school but was only able to attend whenever her family could afford it. She explains: “It was very difficult to have a good life when I was young.”
Jeanne completed her primary education aged 15, when she went straight to work in the sugar plantations. By the age of 18 she was the head of a team at the plantations, her leadership skills already beginning to shine through.
She went on to start her first enterprise when she was 24 years old. She based the idea on her own experiences with access to education. She wanted all young girls to have access to school so set up a woman’s association for agricultural activities. She started out with seven members. This was to become UCOVISA with its 18,000 member, 90% of whom are women. She explains:
“If you don’t go to school at the high level you need to try harder and think about what you can do. You need to be strong. You mustn’t be afraid. You need to push ahead, even when you encounter problems. I work with women who didn’t go to school, I tell women that my education was limited too. If you didn’t go to school you mustn’t feel small, you can still have success. I took risks, I dared, and this is what drove me to who I am today. I am now a role model in my region. I tell women – if you want it, you can have it.”
Members of UCOVISA: Grande Productrice de Mais
Jeanne was selected by CARE to take on the position of role model for women participating in the Women in Enterprise programme, supported by H&M Foundation. She travels throughout the northern region of Ivory Coast sharing her story and inspiring and supporting other aspiring women entrepreneurs. Women such as Yeo Nakoni, a cabbage farmer who lives only a few kilometres from Jeanne.
She adds: “I am proud of Madame Yeo – because of her business, she can now feed her children and send them to school. I enjoy being a role model because I can share my success with other women and support them. I am happy because now all the women I meet want to be like me!”
Jeanne continues to explain that, as a woman, you face more challenges: “You need to try harder when you are a woman. Previously in our culture, women were not supposed to speak out. But today women speak out, we speak out. Another tradition in our culture is that it is not the women who own the land, it is the men. And it is very difficult for a woman to get a loan in Ivory Coast.”
Accessing finance is a topic that Jeanne feels very passionately about and she discusses it at length. She continues: “Women can save money, we don't have problems with that. But when we need help, when we need a credit, we have a thousand problems. Our major challenge is that the banks ask us for guarantees which we don’t have. If banks would not focus on collateral or guarantees, and take a chance on women, we would emerge.”
She adds: “The banks need to be more flexible with how we repay our loans. In agriculture the growing seasons affect when we can make an income. If the banks acknowledged that and allowed some flexibility on repayments, rather than expecting monthly repayments, this would make a huge difference.”
During our conversation Jeanne’s fourth son, Etienne, passes through. We are reminded that not only is this woman the leader of 18,000 women, she is also the mother of seven children. Etienne proudly adds: “I am very very very proud of my mother. She also makes many other women proud.”
Madame Sekongo with members of UCOVISA
The following day when we return to her house, we watch as she gives a motivational speech to the members of her farming union. Jeanne tells them to stay strong and continue to be fighters. As she does this, a woman with a sleeping toddler on her lap looks across and gives me a thumbs up, mouthing “courage”. It is clear that Jeanne’s belief in these women is giving them the strength to succeed.
So what is the secret to this incredible woman’s success? “You must have the courage to do what you love.”
You can watch the film featuring Jeanne Sekongo and Yeo Nakoni here.
Written by Emma Langbridge, CARE Netherlands