According to U2’s lead vocalist, Bono, “Give a man a fish, he’ll eat for a day. Give a woman microcredit, and she, her husband, her children and her extended family will eat for a lifetime.” Ok, that’s a catchy plug in a FINCA (Foundation for International Community Assistance) brochure. But as a man who did a decent job supporting our family of three daughters, my feelings were a little hurt. Come to think of it, though, my wife Rose basically bought our house working outside the home for ten years after our children had left. Maybe Bono is onto something.
Entrepreneurial feminism – Nigerian-style
After a mid-January visit to the Progressive Women Multi-purpose Co-operative Society, Ltd. in Jos, Northern Plateau State, Nigeria, my hurt feelings proved scrawny evidence to counter Bono’s claim. One Harmattan-hazy afternoon, 11 members of that micro-loan and investment co-op gave several Beacon of Hope staffers and me an hour and a half of their time. In the sanctuary of the downtown Jos Universal Reformed Christian Church of Nigeria, they told the story of modest yet bold entrepreneurial efforts that sustain families while also contributing to wider community development and income generation.
This co-op was dreamed up only three years ago; it sunk its original roots as a support group for AIDS/HIV-positive women. Though effective for the women who dared attend, the group’s impact was limited; to admit suffering from AIDS or being HIV-positive carries a stigma. Recognizing this, staff from Beacon of Hope (a Nigerian NGO originally founded by World Renew) suggested founding a women’s co-operative for income generation.
No seed money, but seeds of hope
The women’s co-op was a great idea, but Beacon of Hope had no money to seed small businesses or establish rotating micro-loan projects. Instead it offered what it did have: training in business management – accounting, hiring, setting wages, cooperation among friends or colleagues for the benefit of the larger community, materials and dedicated staffers experienced in grassroots community development.
In July 2014, 30 women began attending evening classes in the church building. All were self-employed small business owners, buying fabric, vegetables and household goods as cheaply as they could from wholesalers and selling it for slightly more on the street or in market stalls. Though all the women had been working independently, none was able to purchase enough volume to sell at livable profit margins.
Into the business world of Jos
By late summer, after intensive training, the women were confident enough to move into the real world of cooperative business. As agreed in their charter, each woman was to contribute 250 Nigerian Nairas (Nra) weekly to establish a seed fund for low-interest micro-loans. By the end of 2014 the co-op treasury had gathered Nra 175,000. (The Naira fluctuates dramatically, currently about 150 to Cdn $1, though in January the rate was 260 to 1.) With that float, the women decided that loan applications could begin.
Applicants requested varying amounts. Loans were granted based on previous business experience, need and the viability of the business plan each woman presented. At first, almost all loans were designated to buy palm oil in bulk from southern Nigeria to be trucked north to Jos, a distance of 530 kilometres. With the fledgling cooperative serving as their own middle-woman, members were able to secure prices far lower than they could if purchasing the 25-litre jugs independently.
Before and since the co-op’s founding, times have often been hard. Remember, when times are good in Jos, things still look achingly precarious for soft Western weekend-missionaries like me. The women’s families would often pass many weeks with only one solid meal a day or less. Into such a situation had stepped promoters from Beacon of Hope with experience, patience and education.
Courage to stay
During their first year of operation, the 30 charter members had dwindled to 25. Five left, said Blessing, the group’s spokeswoman, “because they decided they didn’t want only to contribute without getting anything back for more than six months.” (I didn’t ask if those women were refunded their contributions.)
Those who stayed, though, managed not only to survive the first year and a half, but also to grow modestly and expand their businesses. In 2015 Jos’s “Progressive Women” had indeed gone multi-purpose as their full name hoped. In mid-March 2015 the co-op purchased “futures” in cash for 48 jugs of palm oil in 25-litre jugs. Through unexpected generosity, they enjoyed free transportation, thus cutting costs more than expected by the wholesale purchase. At the time of my visit, 36 jugs had arrived, 12 more were awaiting delivery. For 2016 the co-op hopes to order and receive 50 jugs; Blessing said that March and April are the best months to purchase the “futures,” because that is when the palm oil supply is greatest.
As income gradually consolidated and rose, several members were able to branch out into different business ventures. One member who wasn’t present at that day’s meeting had constructed a shed in her family’s small courtyard for up to one thousand broiler chicks. Though visionary, that woman was able to purchase only 50 chicken with a loan from the co-op. With income from her palm oil sales, she began paying off the loan in December. Hoping to finish paying by the end of February, she plans to buy more chicks soon if her pioneering attempt succeeds.
At the time of my visit the chicks were four weeks old, with a life expectancy of but four more weeks. At that time they would be ready for market. Yet this small farming business is not without its risks. While I was there four of the 50 chicks had died, cutting into hoped-for profit and putting an anxious look on the woman’s face.
Risks faced with the co-op’s trust
As with that woman’s experience, bright dreams often go hand in hand with dark shades of risky nightmares. Take Margaret, for instance. She carries a supply of chocolates, spices, fabric wraps, powdered milk and sundries on her back and heads to various markets in Jos. One sad day last November Margaret rode in a “ke-ke,” a three-wheeled covered taxi used throughout developing countries for affordable transportation. When she got to her stop, she paid her driver and then absent-mindedly walked away, leaving her livelihood, valued at Nra 60,000, in the ke-ke. No amount of searching could recover the goods.
Though devastated at the time, she was encouraged to join Progressive Women and has applied for a loan to start over. In 2015 the cooperative collected Nra 253,000. Margaret and her family were hoping she would soon qualify for a loan to get into the work of selling palm oil.
During our conversation I wondered aloud if palm oil could be used to light lamps still used whenever electricity goes out, which is a regularly irregular event. The women looked at me like the foolish visitor, as I often self-identified. But I was trying to make a biblical joke. To explain the joke (humiliating in any culture), I told them they should rename their co-op “The 30-plus Wise Bridesmaids,” in homage to Jesus’ parable in Matthew 25. Finally they laughed – whether at my foolishness or just to humour me, I don’t know.
But they did get the point. Blessing responded, “No, we don’t use palm oil for lamps, but we do sell it for frying food – plaintains, fish, chickens and chick peas that some of our members also sell. Meanwhile, we’re all still waiting for the Bridegroom for as long as he tarries.”
One thing for sure: the Bridegroom didn’t come before the Progressive Women’s Multi-purpose Co-operative became an officially registered association in Nigerian law. The women showed me the laminated document, dated December 15, 2015, certifying the co-op’s legal recognition. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Progressive Women show that document to the Bridegroom when he visits one of their meetings in the new heavens and new earth.
Progressive Women’s Multipurpose Cooperative Society Limited, Jos, Nigeria.
Co-op member in front of her broilers.
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