The Genius of Our Group

By Surita Sandosham

June 8, 2023

Last Updated: June 13, 2023

Heifer CEO with participants of Heifer Nepal project.
Heifer CEO Surita Sandosham, second from right, and Heifer's senior director of programs for cooperative development in Asia, Neena Joshi, right, with participants of a Heifer Nepal project that aims to close the living income gap for 65,200 families.

In the last few months, I have visited several of our Heifer International country programs, getting to know our staff, partners, the experts who support our programs and the farmers we serve. It has been a time of learning, discovery, and an opportunity to deepen my understanding of the complex systemic challenges Heifer farmers worldwide face — from food insecurity to lack of access to inputs and markets or social inequality underpinned by cultural and gender biases.

It has also been an incredible moment to discover the meaningful difference our work has made in the harshest environments.

Our common mission of a world free of poverty and hunger while caring for the Earth aligns us with a deeper and more meaningful purpose. Heifer champions community mobilization as a powerful tool to build strength and encourage resilience. During my visits with farmers and producers over the last few months, I have seen the agency created by individuals coming together to share their stories and vulnerabilities and build strong social connections so they can take advantage of the genius of the group.

Secretary of Bajureli self-help group shows goats.
Bimala Bogati, left, secretary of the Bajureli self-help group, shows Surita Sandosham, center, and Neena Joshi, right, some of the goats she keeps.

Through the self-help groups and cooperatives we support, we are creating a space for women and other vulnerable groups to confide in each other, share their struggles and their dreams and come together to build a positive and bright future for themselves and their children.

Inspiration and creativity are not often associated with development interventions, but they are the engines that drive change in our world. Heifer’s methodologies support communities to negotiate their circumstances on their own terms and find opportunities that may not be apparent to outsiders or even experts.

I have been humbled by the ingenuity, bravery and genius I have seen firsthand from farmers and producers who have taken Heifer training and used the support offered to build success despite significant adversity.

For instance, in Nepal, I met Bimala Bogati, secretary of the Bajureli self-help group comprised of 25 women. She and her group participate in the Nepal Government Partnership for Economic Growth, a project that aims to support 65,200 families to close the living income gap.

"Inspiration and creativity are not often associated with development interventions, but they are the engines that drive change in our world." – President and CEO of Heifer International, Surita Sandosham

Joining a self-help group is the first step in a journey that gives farmers like Bimala access to the training, opportunity, inputs and support from their peers and community that are critical to their ability to take on the principles of accountability to themselves and their group — a cornerstone of our development model.

Heifer currently supports more than 250 cooperatives across 44 districts of Nepal, with more than 300,000 women actively engaged in our programming. These women have coalesced to form a national “apex” organization that connects members to markets and local leaders so their interests are represented in policy negotiations.

In Ecuador, our Future of Food project is changing the food system by supporting farmers — many of them women — to boost the production of nutritious, sustainably grown food; build their processing capability; and encourage market linkages that can support farmers, producers and processors to earn a sustainable living income.

It is our belief that there is a genius within all such groups that is more than capable of tackling even the most challenging problems. But it must be nurtured.

Heifer CEO with member of the Association of Agroecological Producers of Azuay.
Surita Sandosham with Marianita de Jesús Méndez, a member of the Association of Agroecological Producers of Azuay and an agroecological producer.

When I visited the district of Santa Elena, Ecuador, I hand-rolled traditional palo santo, or holy wood, incense alongside women farmers and participated in a ceremony of gratitude before we harvested vegetables that are a source of food and income for the cooperative members.

During this visit, I also met with producers and cooperatives who turn local ingredients into products that are well-received by local and international markets. From sausages to fruit juice, these groups are making the most of what is around them and creating change from the inside out.

We know it is not possible to achieve our goals without a primary focus on women and without a focus on food security and farming. It’ll take courage and commitment, but this hard work has already begun.