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Archive for January, 2009

solitarioc-1For almost seven weeks, I have had the privilege of spending every day with the women of Mi Perrito Cooperative in Villa Elisa, Argentina. Through my internship, I have had the ability to see the trials and tribulations that face start up business in impoverished communities. I have also witnessed the power of community support as the women of the cooperative have tried to create a successful project with the hope of providing not only for their families, but for the improvement of their neighborhood.

The sewing cooperative was started two years ago by a couple of mothers whose children attended Arco Iris, a community center that provides educational and social development as well as nutritional meals to over 70 children in the neighborhood. Before I arrived, the group had focused solely on the production of dog clothing. This endeavor had been fairly profitable, but the group had reached a plateau in sales. Also, this past February, a terrible flood hit the area, wiping out a significant portion of their stock, as well as forcing them to spend much of their budget on the repairing of their sewing machines. A few months previous to the start of my internship, though, they received a contract from a fair trade association based in La Plata called Otro Mercado to make baby clothing.

solitarioc-2Within my first few days, representatives from Otro Mercado came to the cooperative to bring the necessary materials to carryout the order, including a professional fabric cutter. After two or three days of use, it was obvious that this machine would become a lifesaver for the group. Work that used to take them and hour now took ten minutes, as they were able to cut multiple layers of fabric at once. In turn, the project I ultimately decided to pursue was the purchase of a fabric cutter and other organizational materials that would turn the workspace into a sewing shop. I realized that what the cooperative was lacking was neither skill nor initiative to further their production capacity, but simply capital. The women were fully capable of creating higher quality products, yet without the necessary tools, they were forced to rely on dull scissors and faulty machines and to work in a cluttered room that doubled as a closet for the center.

One of the women, Isidora, corroborated my discovery as she recounted her history with the cooperative. She told me that when she first started with the group, she imagined what it would be like if one day they could have professional sewing machines and a workshop that no longer used second hand tools. There is no way to completely recreate how her eyes lit up as she described her pride and excitement when, after only a few months, the new sewing machines the group had bought with a loan arrived. She had always dreamed of running this cooperative as an actual business, but the women had never been given the opportunity to utilize high quality capital.

solitarioc-3The aspirations of all the women are as equally apparent as those of Isidora. When their children run into the workshop to see what “Mom” is working on, they have a great deal of pride as they show them the newest design or technique they are using. At the end of the day, all of their work is done so that their children will have better opportunities. However, they don’t even realize their most significant impact, though it is apparent to all those around them. No matter what financial gains they make for their family, the most important aspect of their work is the example they have set for all the children of the neighborhood as female entrepreneurs, succeeding even despite their poor odds because of their location in an impoverished community.

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paulm-1When I first arrived at Likoni Community Development Program (LICODEP) I was not sure which direction my internship would take. Located just south of Mombasa, Likoni is a bustling community with a rich culture and a diverse set of development issues. LICODEP is the flagship community development organization in the area and they work on issues ranging from advocacy to public health to microfinance. After several weeks of observing and trying to find my niche, I decided the way in which I could have the biggest impact on the community’s development was to help develop a small business management class with LICODEP’s fledgling microloan program, Mikopo Ni Maendeleo (MIMA), which means “Credit is Progress”. I was impressed by MIMA’s staff and clients, all of whom have come to entrepreneurship for different reasons and had to overcome serious obstacles.

Having started just a year ago through the work of another FSD intern, the program has been serving its clients very well. It started with just 50 clients last September and has over doubled its clients since. The clients join MIMA in solidarity groups of five, usually consisting of friends, neighbors, and sometimes family members. They meet each week with a MIMA staff to contribute their mandatory savings and discuss the status of their loans as well as who will be next to apply for the loans. In addition these groups serve as support for one another on various business issues.

This program serves a wide range of clients, most of whom are women running microenterprises with in the Likoni. After conducting a survey of clients, we found entrepreneurship is one of the only viable options for many individuals, especially women. Unemployment in the area is estimated to be as high as 48%, according to Action Aid Kenya. The jobs that are available often require higher degrees or specialized training, options which are out of reach for the poorest individuals in the community. It was only five years ago when primary education became free in Kenya, so MIMA clients grew up in families unable to afford education for their children. Over half of MIMA’s clients only completed primary school and less than one quarter completed secondary school, thus inhibiting their abilities to compete for the few jobs available.

Because of the lack of education, the sheer numbers of people who turn to business ownership, and the status of the economy, running an efficient and profitable business can be very difficult. When asked how MIMA could serve them better, clients responded overwhelmingly that they needed some small business training classes to help them run their businesses. In an interview with Hope Nyali, a MMA member and small shop owner, she said “I opened this business to cater my life and the life of my family. It is my hope that they will help me to run my business better. I want be a smart business lady.”

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