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 Succes stories

Compiled by Cheryl Conover, June 2003


“A Penny Saved”
There is an old Fon proverb that says, ‘’palm wine fills the bottle drop by drop”. Like most societies, the Fon people recognize the importance of saving for the future. To actually be able to save our money, however, is not a talent we all possess. Traditionally, the Fon, an ethnic group found in the southern part of Benin, have used a rotating savings system called a “tontine”. Group members contribute a specified amount on a regular basis and take turns collecting the pool. Often, interest rates are imposed in order to pay the group leader. These extra costs and the lack of freedom imposed by the set collection cycle has made many women search for alternative ways of saving. Elisabeth Codjia is one of these women. She grew up the eldest child in her family. Because she loves the brunt of the domestic responsibilities, she was never able to attend school. She followed the typical path for women with no education and began selling in the local market. But it was not an easy life. She owned a small stand where she resold cassava products. She lacked even a roof to protect her and her merchandises from the elements. She also lacked sufficient capital to by her merchandise in bulk and thereby resell for a higher profit. And with five children to support, Elisabeth needed all the profit possible. She knows she needed to be diligent in saving in order to increase her capital, but somehow the money just never seemed to accumulate. Then she heard about an NGO named SIN-DO that wanted to start a savings and credit program in her rural district of Sèhouè. They would allocate small loans to women for investment in their businesses. But what most interested Elisabeth was their savings program. Twenty percent of their loan reimbursements would be set aside as personal savings accessible upon full repayment of their loan. Furthermore, members of scheme could deposit and withdraw money from a personal savings account set up by SIN-DO at any time. Elisabeth began participating in the program and diligently put away a four coins weekly into her account. She felt more secure about her savings, as well, since they were held by SIN-DO instead of being kept in her home, where they were vulnerable to theft and the elements. As her savings increased, she began to invest in her business – her capital increased, enabling her to buy her merchandise in bulk ; she constructed a hangar to protect her and her market stand. When she became sick, she was able to pay for treatment with the money she had been putting aside. Today, she continues to save her money at SIN-DO. “it’s easier to let my money grow at SIN-DO”. Her children, who have seen what their mother had been able to accomplish, are secure in their futures, knowing that their mother will be able to provide for them. Elisabeth now has her eyes set on accumulating enough money to invest in land and to build a house for her retirement.

Child schooling
‘’A mother’s love’’
What would a mother not give for the well-being of her children ? Her sacrifice and dedication have been the themes of countless poems and songs. This is the story of what one woman was willing to do for her daughters. Her name is Gbetekly Virginie and she lives in the southern rural Beninese district of Sèhouè. Typically, it is the mothers of Sèhouè who are charged with the responsibility of caring for their children, often with little or no help from their husbands. This care ranges from moral up bringing to keeping them fed to paying for their education. Motherhood, for these women, is a constant source of joy and anxiety. Virginie is no different. ‘’I worry a lot about my children’s futures’’, she says. Her problems began when her husband died nine years ago, making her the sole financial provider for her family. She ran a profitable retail business, however, and was able to make ends meet. Disaster struck when over a year ago she sustained a head injury in a nearly fatal automobile accident. Her injuries were so serious that her family began making the funeral arrangements. Miraculously, she recovered, but the medical expenses lift a serious wake friends, family members and her business assets all contributed to paying for her treatment, but she was still required to go into substantial debt. She no longer had profits from her business with which to feed her children and was forced to rely on aid from her family members. Even her children tried to contribute by selling grocery buys in the market. At this point, most other parents would have taken their children out of school so they could find jobs to help ease the family’s financial troubles. But Virginie was determined to find a way to keep her children in school. She found her answer in the local NGO SIN-DO. They offered village women a micro-loan program specifically for paying for their children’s elementary education with a monthly interest rate of only one percent, Virginie was granted a loan for her two youngest girls, still in elementary school. In some ways, it’s hard to call Virginie’s story a success. She continues to face daunting financial difficulties. She is still trying to crawl out from daunting financial difficulties. She is still trying to crawl out from the debt her medical expenses created and hasn’t the capital available to rebuild her once prosperous business. “I’m ashamed of my debts”, she says, “but I have no choice right now”. “But in the midst of all the tragedy she’s faced, there are miracles to be seen : because of the loan from SIN-DO, her children are still in school, creating for themselves a brighter future with each day that they are in the classroom.

“When you can’t make it on your own’’
You need only be in the Beninese rural district of Sèhouè a few minutes to witness a common ritual : people helping one another lift heavy loads to carry on their heads. A local saying says that if your load is heavy, you can physically only lift it so high by yourself. In order to lift it all the way to your head, you need someone on the other side lifting with you. This is a story about one woman who learned how much her life could change by finding the right kind of lifting partner. Cecile Babagbeto ran a small business transforming and selling cassava, a major agricultural product of the region. Because of her lack of capital, she had to buy her primary materials in small quantities, for higher prices, and on credit, demanding high interest rates. With her meager profits, she supported seven children. Although still with her husband, he was unable to work, leaving her sole with the responsibility of providing financially. Not even able to meet daily financial needs, Cecile had little hope of being able to invest in her children’s futures. Her neighbors, seeing how much she worked to provide for her family, gave her moral support in her trouble, although unable to contribute much financially. Things began to change for Cecile when she joined a savings and credit program offered by the local NGO SIN-DO. She was granted a small loan that she would use in running her business. This little bit of capital allowed her to buy her primary materials in bulk and in cash. The cloud of debt hanging over her head began to thin. “Before, I only had debts’’, she says. Even those around her were amazed at her changes as she began to gain financial independence. “My neighbors asked, is this the same woman who was always in debt before, trying to provide for her family ?’’ She was able to generate enough revenue to begin investing in her children’s futures, as well, sending some to trade apprenticeship. Her domestic situation was also eased. Without the constant stress from financial worry, she and her husband were able to enjoy more peace in their home. “I’m still with my husband today because of the money SIN-DO lend me’’. But if these changes weren’t enough to convince her, her child’s nearly fatal illness was. Seeing the serious threat to her child, she rushed him to the hospital in a nearby village where she was told he needed medication immediately in order to survive. But the doctor would only administer it if Cecile could provide cash up front. Because of her recent progress towards financial independence, she was able to pay for the treatment and her child recovered. “SIN-DO saved the life of my child’’, she insists. Cecile continues to dream of providing more fully for her children’s futures and saving for her own retirement. She still has progress to make before attaining full financial independence. But her willingness to accept help in lifting her burdens has started her in the right direction.

Girls’ education
“Who gets to learn their ABC’s ?”
‘’Everyone has the right to education. Education should be free, at last in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education should be compulsory, technical and professional education should be...’’ United Nations Declaration of Human Rights

The first things I noticed about Yvette when I first met her over a year ago were her energy and a set of dimples to melt your heart. Her sixth grade teacher had introduced her to me as one of the brightest students in his class but with one of the dimmest futures. Yvette Yetonou grew up in a family typical for the village of Sèhouè in southern Benin. Her father had gone to school for a few years before trading in his books for farming tools. Her mother never had any formal education. Although the educational system waived tuition for girls at the elementary level, the daily expenses claimed by the schools, the costs of uniforms and school supplies are prohibitive for many families. Coupled with the general lack of understanding of the importance of girl’s education, many girls end up in the fields or selling in the market instead of attending school. The problem is all the more discouraging when you have a child like Yvette. Eager to learn, with dreams of a successful career, she understands that it’s important for a girl to get a good education. Even to sell in the market, she explains you need to be able to speak French or you’ll lose customers. She has managed to remain at the top of her class, regardless of the many household responsibilities she bears. As a girl, she is expected to take charge of most of the cooking and cleaning while her male classmates are free to spend more time in study and leisure. Things came to a head when Yvette failed to pass her high school entrance exam last year. Her father, feeling the burden of supporting her two brothers in their studies, decided that Yvette had enough school education and should now make herself useful by helping earn money for the family. Her mother agreed that Yvette should no longer receive money for the studies. As the doors of opportunity seemed to shut, she began to believe her dreams of career would never come true. There are many obstacles to education for girls in Benin today. Financial difficulties is the one most cited, but other obstacles include teen pregnancy, teacher strikes and discipline methods, and lack of parental support. It is the prevalence of the latter that has compelled the local NGO SIN-DO to begin a campaign aimed at making parents and children alike aware of the importance of educating girls. Monthly activity sessions are held with elementary school girls in Sèhouè where the girls can discuss their difficulties and receive moral support and encouragement. SIN-DO also began a small loan program specifically aimed at providing mothers with the money needed for their children’s education. Furthermore, NGO SIN-DO employees diligently discuss with local women the importance of girl’s education and provide forums for group discussions on the community level.

Fortunately for Yvette, her story did not end there. Her teachers and neighbors became her allies in trying to convince her parents to continue supporting her studies financially. They sought to show her parents the long term benefits of keeping Yvette in school for the whole family. It was finally her brother who was convinced to convince them to let Yvette continue her studies. She is now on her way to beginning her first year on high school and hopes to go as far on her studies as possible. “Parents should help their children go to school”, she counseled, “so that they can have a future ahead of them”.

‘’Walking (or Biking ? ) to Financial Independence’’
This is a story about how the impossible becomes possible with the help and encouragement of others. It’s about how the life of one woman in rural Benin was changed when she got a chance on a savings and credit program offered in her village. The village is in the district of Sèhouè, a small community located in a fertile valley in the southern part of the country. The local economy is heavily reliant on agriculture and the animated market. The woman of Sèhouè, devoted to their commerce, are to be found in their fields or behind their market stands at practically any time of the day. “But despite their devotion and efforts, poverty continues to be a major problem. Some of this is due to the lack of capital available to the women. They run their businesses on small pools of money and are often forced to buy their primary materials on credit. Interest rates on this types of credit are very high, forcing women to pay an extra 15% more than they would pay in cash. Brigitte Goukèlènon found herself in such a situation. In order to make her “lio”, a locally consumed corn-based staple, she had to buy her corn on credit and soon found herself trapped in debt. With supporting four children and putting the two oldest through school, she was not able to make ends met, even with the support of her husband. “I never had peace on my heart” ; she says, “because of a my debts.” Her situation was further disintegrated by her daily responsibilities. In order to work in her family fields, she was obliged to walk over an hour to and from the fields, time that not only sapped her energy, but took away time that she could have spent selling in the market or caring for her family. But things began to change when she heard about a local NGO called SIN-DO that had a savings and credit program for women. Brigitte learned that SIN-DO would give small loans to local women to help them in their businesses and help them put money aside in savings accounts. In fact, twenty percent of their loan reimbursements would be given back to each woman at the end of the loan period in the form of savings. Brigitte felt she had finally found a way to escape from her cycle of debt. She began taking small loans from SIN-DO to finance her “lio” business, and putting money aside in her savings account. She decided to not withdraw any of these savings until she was sure of the best way to put them to use. One day, Brigitte looked at hear savings balance and was shocked to see how much money had accumulated. She decided to invest her savings by buying a bicycle that she would take to and from her fields every day. Not only does it save her precious time and energy, but it serves as a tangible reminder of what she was able to accomplish through collaboration with SIN-DO. Her neighbors and family have also recognized her success and asked her how she did it. “I tell them to join SIN-DO”, she says.

This new freedom from endless debt has lifted a great burden from Brigitte. She is now able to dream of a brighter future. She dreams of saving enough money to build her own house where she and her husband can live out their old age in peace.

“A world of words made known”
Suppose you have an important message to send your sister in a near by village. It involves a delicate problem, but you have to call on a neighbor to write the note for you and hope he does a good job. This is the situation faced by millions of Beninese women today. The society is based on an oral tradition and it is primarily through formal education that one can become literate. Women have never had full access to the educational system and it is only in recent years that the population has begun to understand the importance of sending girls to school as well as boys. The result is a generation of women who can neither read nor write. The district of Sèhouè is no exception. Marie Hounsounon was just such a woman. Growing up in a family where neither parent ever had any formal education, school was never an option for her. Not only was she a girl, she was the oldest sister and bore the burden of taking care of the home and family. Consequently, she had to struggle with the obstacles imposed by illiteracy status. She bore the shame of having to call for help every time she needed to write a note or record a piece of information. It robs her of any sense of privacy or secrecy. But Marie’s life began to change when she heard a spot on the radio about the benefits of literacy. About the same time it was announced that the local NGO SIN-DO would be offering classes in literary. Marie had been a part of the NGO’s micro-credit program for some time and decided to seize this new opportunity. In the months to come, she learned how to read and write, as well as how to keep basic financial records and calculate profit and loss in the local language, Marie’s life today is much different without the problems of illiteracy that she faced just a few years ago. If someone gives her the name and directions for how to use a medicinal plant, she says, she can write it down so as to not forget when she treats a sick child. When attending a training seminar in how to improve the quality of the cassava flour she produces and sells, she was able to write notes that she can later use for reference. It is now she who helps her neighbors read and write important information. Her husband, recognizing in her the benefit of literacy and seeing her elevated social status, decided to enroll in a literacy class as well. He now looks to her when he has questions or difficulties in his lessons. “He’s proud of me”, she says. Unfortunately, Marie’s story is not widespread. Many women remain unwilling to take the time away from their income generating activities to devote to literacy studies. The employees of SIN-DO put much effort into discussing the benefits of literacy and encouraging local women to enroll in the free class the NGO offers. “I would tell all women to take literacy classes”, Marie counsels. As for Marie, her evolution has not ended. She has plans to start projects in animal husbandry and gardening, as well as opening a stand to sell products in the market. And since, through her literacy training, she has the skills needed to manage the finances of these endeavors, she is confident of her ability to succeed.

Technical training and microfinance
‘’New skills open doors to a new life’’
We all have of finding new ways to provide for ourselves and these we love. “It will get better”, or ‘’Enanyon’’ in Fon the prodominant language in the village of Sèhouè, was the group name chosen by twelve women who were offered the real opportunity to this dream. If you were to take a walk through the middle of Sèhouè, a southern district in the west African nation of Benin, you would see the road lined with women selling their merchandise, their metal basins heaped to overloading with a substance resembling uncooked nice. In fact, it’s ‘’gari’’, a course tour made from cassana, a major staple in the Beninese diet. Sèhouè’s high cassava potentials is popular. So much so that new vendors have subsequently flooded the market, driving prices down and diminishing profits. Jeanne Houndjrèbo found herself in this difficult situation. Her business consisted of buying the gari in bulk from producers and then reselling in the local markets. But with declining prices, she was not making enough profit and began falling into debt. She needed to find a way to create for herself a niche. As clients passed through buying gari, they began to ask for ‘’improved’’ gari, which incorporates sugar, coconut and lemon in the production process. They also were looking to buy improved tapioca, another cassava product which uses a transformation process similar to gari. When the local NGO SIN-DO proposed a training seminar in these transformation techniques, Jeanne thought she has found her way. She was already member in SIN-DO’s micro finance and literacy programs, and was eager to seize this new opportunity. In partnership with the organization DDE, SIN-DO financed a month long training class for 12 local women on the techniques for production of both standard and improved gari and tapioca. Upon their return, the group now named ‘’Enayon’’ began production and sales in local markets. Jeanne is now able to enjoy both tangible and intangible benefits of having a new, marketable skill. The profits have enabled her to continue paying for her child’s education and reduce her financial obligations. But it has also given her a new sense of value. “My kids are proud to be able to say that their mother can make improved gari”, she says. Others in the community have noticed her success and asked her to share her new knowledge. “If a women finds herself in my former situation,” she says, “I would tell her to get trained in new skills. It could improve her life.” Enanyon’s work is not over. They do not yet own the machine needed for the processing, and are forced to pay high rental rates. But, by saving their profits and displaying the same determination they’re shown this far, Jeanne and her group members are taking steps toward their financial independence.

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