story by Puja Singh photographs by Geoff Oliver Bugbee for Heifer International
For centuries, women have been telling stories through art and music. In Bengal, these stories are told through Nakshi Kantha, a type of folk art where colorful patterns and designs are embroidered into a quilt with a running stitch called “kantha stitch”. Nakshi Kantha tells the story of life in rural Bangladesh. It tells the story of the joys, sorrows and the dreams of the future. Originally produced for the use of the family Nakshi Kantha has seen a revival and is now produced commercially.
Heifer’s projects in Bangladesh incorporate the making of these intricate quilts as an income generating activity. Project participants work on one or many of these quilts at a time. A medium sized quilt will take 2-3 months to complete and will sell for around 5000 takka. With growing demands in the national and international market, Nakshi Kantha is becoming a good source of income for many rural families.
The women of a Heifer group in the Johari village in Natore are gathered in the porch of a house to work on Naksha Katha. Each woman works on a portion of the quilt. A usual banter hangs in the air as the women share their secrets with each other. ‘We will work on this at least an hour a day,’ says Mousammad Sabina Begam. “It’s a good way to relax and catch up with the women.”
In Uganda, farmers participating in Heifer biogas and dairy cattle projects are going beyond selling surplus milk. One farmer in the Seeta-Misindye Heifer Project started his own drinkable yogurt business. It’s a tasty source of calcium for growing babies, like this sweet girl above.
Steve Denne, Heifer International Chief Operating Officer, and Pietro Turilli, Vice President of Central and Eastern European programs, are visiting Heifer projects in Georgia. This post chronicles one day of travels in Georgia’s Svaneti region.
by Medea Tsitskishvili, Heifer Georgia
Denne and Turilli with Ana Elizbarashvili’s family, Svaneti, Georgia
Steve and Pietro visited the town of Mestia, Svaneti region—the highest inhabited area in the Europe—which is surrounded by 9,000-15,000-foot peaks. This highland region is one of the most beautiful in Georgia, but it is poor, remote and economic opportunities are limited. Heifer Georgia has recently started implementation of an ecotourism project there.
The project provides horses and trainings for small-scale farmers to provide trekking services to local and international tourists. This is an important means for alternative income generation, as most families in Svaneti do not have regular salaries or dependable income. This creates a particular problem for families who traditionally depend on agriculture, as there are long periods in the year when they have no income. Relying on the land for income is further complicated by the fact that, until recently, Mestia was regularly isolated from the rest of the country by winter snows.
In the course of their visit, Steve and Pietro met with Zaur Chartolani, the project holder, as well as a number of project participants, who expressed their gratitude for Heifer’s work. Project participants explained that they are now able to earn between $400-$1,200 per season. The tourist season starts in May and ends in October. For most participants, this is their only cash income for the entire year.
For example, Levan Argvliani, 25, lives with his mother, who is a village’s school teacher, and his two younger brothers. He explained that he was very satisfied with the horse provided by Heifer’s project and expected to earn about $400 this season from others renting his horse and also through his alpine guide services. He intends to use a portion of this money to learn English, thereby improving his ability to interact with foreign tourists.
Ana Elizbarashvili, a mother of four children, explained that she hoped to earn more than $600 for this entire season from rental of her horse. Some of this money will be used to refurbish several rooms in her home that she then hopes to rent out to tourists.
Steve and Pietro also met with George Tsavani in the village of Becho, who is also satisfied with the income from his Heifer provided horse, which he estimates at $400 for this season. Now he is able to save some money, which makes it possible for him to consider marriage as he has steady income.
At the end of this long and interesting day the local community hosted the Heifer team for a traditional Svanetian feast. Needless to say, the food, company and folk singing were fantastic. We were honored to have this opportunity to share meal with the wonderful people of Mestia.
Women from the microenterprise Nueva Luz y Vida prepare plantain chips in Berlin, Honduras.
After my experience on the Study Tour, I spent a few more days visiting projects in Honduras with Jose Alfredo Coto, the national project coordinator for Heifer Honduras. On my last day in the country, Jose Alfredo drove us up a dirt road that twisted up and around a mountain in the Department of Copan. After more than an hour of driving, we arrived in the community of Berlin, which rests on the top of the mountain.
The two of us joined six of the 12 women who make up the Nueva Luz y Vida (New Light and Life) microenterprise in a small building divided into two rooms. The group makes tajadas de platano, or plantain chips, and sells them in the communities on the mountainside as a part of the Heifer project “Strengthening Rural Microenterprises in Honduras.”
As soon as we sat down to have a conversation the women became animated, making it clear that the group is closely knit as the small room quickly filled with laughter.
“It’s better to work in a group,” said new member Maria Ester Robles with her daughter, Daniela, clinging to her side. “It’s more fun and worth (the effort).” The rest of the Nueva Luz members agreed that working as a group not only made sense economically but was personally rewarding as well.
Nueva Luz y Vida formed about five years ago to find a way to supplement their families’ incomes and improve their livelihoods. The group originally though about focusing their microenterprise on pastries and bread, they quickly realized that those kinds of businesses are expensive to begin.
The members eventually decided to make plantain chips because the start-up costs are cheaper and nine of the members had plantain trees. Zoila Alvarado, now the group’s president, taught the rest of the group members how to make the chips. Years later, they have perfected and streamlined the process.
“We try to figure out everyone’s skills (and use them),” said Zoila. “Who is good at cooking? Who is good at business?”
The cooking takes place in the back room of the small building where we sat down to chat. With each member (wo)manning her own station, the plantains are sliced and cooked in oil, then seasonings (chile limon or BBQ) and salt are added before the chips are placed in a plastic bag. (Note: They are delicious.)
As you can see in the video, space quickly becomes an issue when the women are cooking. To remedy that, a new, more spacious home for the small business has been newly constructed using Heifer funds, and the group will be moving in soon.
Heifer Honduras is also providing technical support to the microenterprise. Even though some of the women have plantain trees, the group sometimes goes through as many as 100 plantains a day, so finding enough raw material for the chips can be difficult. This is the first challenge Nueva Luz and Heifer Honduras are trying to meet, and the first step has been finding a small plot of land (one manzana, or about 1.7 acres) that the women share for growing plantains.
The second challenge is connecting to a larger market. Heifer Honduras and Nueva Luz are working together to assess the local market, and Nueva Luz members are receiving training on branding, barcodes, sanitation standards, legal registration, and organization and administration to prepare the group for reaching more communities. The microenterprise members are also hoping to eventually have access to a car or motorcycles so they will be able to market their product more efficiently.
Both challenges are significant, but so are the success and determination of the Nueva Luz members. You can help support Nueva Luz and other hard-working microenterprises in Honduras through the Honduras umbrella project match. Any gift you give will be doubled by an anonymous donor and will help thousands of families improve their nutrition and income!
Some of the members of Nueva Luz y Vida pose in their future kitchen for cooking plantain chips.
In 2010, Heifer Poland started a project designed to empower rural women. This project focuses on providing the women with training in the concepts and skills they need to start small businesses. Training topics for this project include:
Basic accounting, marketing, and computer skills
How to write a business plan
The legal aspects of running a business
How to market and sell regional products and handicrafts
Personal development and self-esteem
Along with the training, the fifty women participating in the project will go on educational field trips to see concrete examples of ways to earn additional income for their families. Project participants will also take part in two national exhibitions organized in large Polish cities to present, promote, and sell products.
Each of the 50 women participating in this comprehensive training program will pass on their knowledge through providing training to the members of the community where she lives. At the end of the project, a conference will be organized in southeastern Poland to share the best practices of the project.
Mahendra Lohani, vice president of Heifer’s Asia and South Pacific Programs, led a recent trip to Nepal and China to show new CEO Pierre Ferrari the successes and challenges of Heifer’s current projects.
In the above video, Lohani describes the Nepal leg of the trip, emphasizing a new focus on income and enterprise development by larger groups, or cooperatives, made up of women with years of experience and success in smaller self-help groups.
“It’s a beautiful balance of social mobilization, empowerment, and at the same time improvement of the income and nutrition of the families,” Lohani said. “We can see a lot of families have already come out of poverty” and are looking for the next step toward prosperity.
We all know for sure that Heifer’s model works. Millions and millions of farmers and families have increased their standard of living many times over. Seeing it firsthand is amazing; according to Sahr Libbee, VP of the Africa program, it’s addictive. I think I understand why, now.
For one thing, this landscape is amazing. It’s a paradise, and I could totally live here.
But, really, I think what it has to do with is seeing Heifer’s model working, yet also seeing how much more there is to do. Pierre, coming from a strong business background, has a talent for asking the right questions. He asks almost everyone we meet with, “What are the problems you continue to face?” “What would make this easier for you?” and “How can we expand upon what you’re doing to make it even more profitable and longer lasting?”
The answers he receives are incredibly interesting. They need better marketing skills. They need more trained service providers. More aluminum milk containers. Better roads so they can get the milk to the chilling plants faster. A strategy for maintaining steady prices for their milk, in the face of a dairy processing monopoly. Better access to clean water. More micro-finance opportunities.
Once you’re here, you can’t help but want to try to fix each of their problems right away. If I had the capacity to do so, I would personally fix these crazy roads (I know, I know, they’re way better than in Kenya and many other places, but they’re certainly the worst I’ve ever seen.)
It’s going to take even more that the great work that Heifer does to really move these people all the way out of poverty.
The good news? Each of these issues is resolvable. The better news? Heifer is learning that many of these issues are but growing pains associated with scaling up the Heifer model and looking at it as an investment model, instead of solely a community development one. Seeing the East Africa Dairy Development Project’s (EADD) successes and challenges, Heifer is now better positioned to help meet all of the needs listed above.
Yes, improving the nutriton and income of 13.6 million people is amazing. But we live in a different world from that of Heifer’s founder, Dan West. To truly end hunger and poverty, Heifer must look for opportunities to expand upon the model we all know and love; starting with helping farmers with entrepreneurial spirit enter the marketplace in a more substantial way.
What do you think? What are other ideas for ways Heifer can deepen its impact?
Everyone stays busy these days, and carving out a whole day or even a whole hour to volunteer can seem next to impossible sometimes. Lucky for you, Jacob Colker is on the case. Colker is one of six young people earning a spot in the 2010 Rolex Awards for Enterprise Young Laureates Programme. Watch him in action here:
Announcing their first ever Young Laureate winners, Rolex pointed to Colker’s forward thinking. “Tapping into the latest trends in information and telecommunications technology, Jacob Colker has combined volunteering, the internet and mobile phones to pioneer a new form of activism in which almost anyone with a smartphone can devote spare minutes – waiting for the bus or to see the doctor – to a useful charitable or scientific task. Nearly 30,000 volunteers have now signed up for “micro-volunteering,” carrying out a wide range of tasks, from helping Nasa identify galaxies by examining their shapes to translating the CVs of newly arrived immigrants who are looking for work.” You can learn more about Colker’s idea at www.beExtra.org.
This Colker fellow is in pretty amazing company. The other five Rolex Young Laureates include Nnaemeku Ikegwuonu, a Nigerian who wants to help millions of farmers in his home country exchange information via radio, and Reese Fernandez, a woman in the Philippines who’s helping families earn money by turning scrap materials into fashion accessories.
The six winners earned $50,000 each, which is hopefully enough to keep them on the path toward real innovation that could improve an untold number of lives. To read more and watch video interviews with all six winners, visit http://young.rolexawards.com/