By Shauna Potocky
What if one of the best solutions to social and environmental change came in the form of empowerment? What if that empowerment was gifted to the most disenfranchised members of society? What if, in their empowerment, family units, communities and whole economies began to change? What if with that change, came the benefits of education, stable family economics, clean water, clean air, and entrepreneurial businesses operated from the heart while also based on sustainability? In such a paradigm, how might lives, economies, and ecosystems change?
The answers to such an empowerment paradigm are known and the non-profit organization, Zawadisha knows first-hand how profound the changes can be.
Zawadisha, (which meaning “to give a gift”), is focused on empowering women in Kenya with the means, training, mentorship and supportive structure needed to not just lift themselves up but to thrive as an emerging economic force in their home communities. Through an innovative and well informed micro-lending program, designed to set its members up for success, the program also requires the women it engages to create sustainable businesses. In doing so, it transforms women from not only being the backbone of their family structure but also empowering them with the tools needed to become an active part of the local economy. As women emerge into this new role, it shifts and shapes the economic and environmental stability of their community.
In particular, by employing a culturally relevant and safe micro-lending program, Zawadisha has honed in on a successful focus, one that Jennifer Gurecki, the Chief Innovation Officer describes as, “pro-poor, pro-women and pro-environment.”
Specifically, Zawadisha leverages several critical factors into its successful program model; the first is that it fully engages the participants it serves by completely integrating them into the management of the program. Participants are engaged as members and actively participate in the fiscal and business management of the micro-lending program. This active participation and engagement translates into a partnership that members feel passionate about, resulting in a high degree of personal investment in the program outcomes. This empowerment results in an impressive success rate in the repayment of loans while supporting the much needed disbursement of products and services into communities with significant need.
There are two other elements that make Zawadisha’s program outstanding. Once the loans are dispersed and the members are engaged by a peer chair-lady, who organizes monthly meetings, the members also benefit through access to both leadership and business training opportunities. These opportunities further advance the women’s potential for success, ensuring that beyond financial investment in their business, they also have the additional tools needed to be successful in their endeavor.
In addition, Zawadisha is taking a clear environmental approach to empowering its members. Current members are being “grandfathered” into a new vision, one that will offer training on sustainable business practices. The vision for future members, is that as requirement for obtaining a micro-loan, the women entrepreneurs must demonstrate that they are developing an environmentally sustainable business. It is clear that in communities where businesses are grown based on environmental degradation—future problems arise. Although there may be a short-term economic gain for the community—in the long-term, jeopardizing water, soil or air resources are not a good investment—for anyone. In recognition of this, Zawadisha will only invest in projects that build on sustainable practices or services—most of which are related to solar power lights, rain water catchment tanks and soon-to-be launched, eco-stoves for cooking, which will reduce dependence on coal.
How transformational can solar lighting, a rain water catchment tank or eco-stove be in a women’s life? Subsequently, what can the effects be on her community? Consider these remarkable examples that come directly from the women served in the environmentally impacted community of Maungu, located five hours south of Nairobi. Of note, Maungu is a community situated in a landscape that has suffered from desertification. The women of the community report that, “thirty years ago the area was covered in trees.” Today, the trees have been removed and the landscape suffers from a lack of water and is characterized by dry red dirt and low-lying shrubs. In such a scenario, here is how transformative an investment in what the women say they need, can be.
When a woman receives a loan for a solar light, she directly changes two key aspects within her home—she eliminates the greatest health risk to people within their living quarters related to the use of paraffin burning lamps, which is known for its toxicity. Paraffin is directly related to elevated respiratory issues and significantly impacts the young and the elderly. Beyond elimination of this health hazard, she increases the productivity hours within the home, allowing her to focus her efforts on beneficial aspects of household management and significantly shift household expenses. Paraffin is costly to the household and can be offset by the use of solar lighting. One solar light loan is equal to the cost of a one month supply of paraffin, thus, the solar light can pay for itself within one month of use.
In addition, an unexpected benefit of the new household investment has emerged. Women who have received the lamps have indicated that they have been treated with more respect and support from family members as a result of their contribution to the household.
For a woman who has received a rainwater catchment tank; her daily life is significantly changed—she no longer is required to spend six hours each day, walking to obtain water. This allows her to focus her daily efforts on activities that can continue to transform her living situation. In addition, with water catchment located at home, many women have started kitchen gardens that are able to supply food to the household and provide food for market, which translates directly into increased food security. These women have also indicated that they too have benefited by increased respect and support for their efforts in transforming and significantly contributing to their households.
New for 2015, Zawadisha is excited to begin providing loans for eco-stoves. These stoves will provide a positive alternative to high coal consuming stoves, which have significant impacts on people and the environment. One significant difference in the roll out of the stove program as compared to other microfinance institutions (MFI) is that Zawadisha spent a significant amount of time listening to the women of the community to find out what the women needed and what type of stove will truly work for them. This is critically important because it has been observed that some MFI’s have provided products to communities without investigating the needs of the people and the products to be provided, in order to assure a beneficial match to the end user. This has translated into products being delivered into communities that subsequently were not utilized, as it did not meet the need of the people they were meant to serve. Zawadisha has been very mindful of this and has diligently inquired into the true need of the people regarding cooking alternatives. As a result of the investment in knowing what the women will truly benefit from, the new stove loans will become available to Zawadisha members in 2015.
The coming year also offers another exciting development. Zawadisha will also assist the women of Maungu in establishing a native tree nursery. This nursery will supply seedling trees to the restoration market that is generated by local national parks and through the nongovernmental organization, Wildlife Works.
The women of Maungu represent many of the women of Africa, they are strong, family-minded, and community building. They are not defined by the demographic statistics reported to us and throughout the world. They are the smiling faces, the jovial laughs, the cultural shepherds and entrepreneurial spirit of their communities. They are also the game changers—when provided with the opportunity to empower themselves, without jeopardizing everything in unsafe loans; when they are given a truly supportive opportunity to change the economic expenses of their household, shift the environmental impacts of traditional supply chains, what emerges is a shift in health benefits, the obtainment of food security, and positive impacts on the environment and the local ecosystem.
The women of Maungu represent a deeper hope for all of us. They prove that impacted areas of Africa can be transformed and healed through the vision of its own women. They demonstrate for the world that many of the issues facing communities today can be addressed by engaging and empowering the members of society who may frequently be overlooked—a lesson we can all learn from.
Featured image: A solar lighting system and an opportunity for a brighter future. Photograph courtesy of Zawadisha.