Banking on a future

By Oxfam America

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The warehouse is made of corrugated metal and the executive office is still under construction. A barbed-wire fence rings the property, separating it from a dirt road. It is an unremarkable sight in rural Ethiopia, and it’s easy to miss the unobtrusive sign labeling it as a microfinance project, funded by Oxfam America and supported by the Oromo Self-Reliance Association (OSRA). Yet the bags of grain inside the warehouse are unique. Unlike the grain in most warehouses, this grain is owned by women.

Shito Massele, a 30-year-old mother of four, sits outside, her back against the warehouse wall. She is one of 96 members of the Qubse cooperative, a cereal bank run by women and funded by Oxfam. In a community where women previously were not consulted on business decisions, today they are ensuring economic and food security for themselves and their families. In fact, their work will turn a profit, generating additional income for their village.

"Before, the women were not even supposed to come near the scale," Shito says. "Now we can weigh things ourselves, our own grain." On this property, the women are not just weighing the grain; they are also fixing the price and deciding when and where to sell it. The land is theirs as well, donated by the village administration.

The cereal bank began nine months ago, with help from Oxfam America and OSRA and the encouragement of the village administration. Given a warehouse and seed money, the cooperative now controls the purchase, storage, and sale of grain.

In Oromiya region, where the project is based, having control of these basic factors has a huge impact. Before the cooperative was established, farmers were forced to sell most of their crops immediately after harvest to settle loans and taxes. During the rainy season, grain was scarce and prices rose. To feed their families, farmers were forced to take out more loans at high interest rates—sometimes simply to buy back their own crops, continuing the cycle of poverty.

The new cereal bank has enabled the community to store some of its harvest, setting grain aside for sale during the rainy season when the market price is high. The women thereby make a profit and ensure food stability for the next planting season.

The cereal bank's organizers stipulated that each prospective member had to attend civic education classes focusing on women's rights. The combined impact of both the classes and the cereal bank has been enormous.

Following the training, attitudes toward traditional practices harmful to women have changed noticeably. Furthermore, the women have proved themselves just as capable of earning an income as men are, thereby gaining the respect of the entire community. Indeed, many farmers prefer to sell their grain to the cooperative because of its reputation for honesty; the women will not try to cheat the farmer.

Being valued in the community is new to the women, but hard work is not. Before the cereal bank, women had little power, according to 46-year-old Abebu Kebebe. She recites her daily activities in a monotone, as if it is a chant she is used to repeating:

"For us it is clear that men are not stronger than us. Early in the morning, I clean the house and take care of the animals, travel two hours to collect murky water, return, cook, take care of the children. It is the oldest burden. Nothing is as simple as it seems. We do a lot of work the whole day, but [the men] move oxen and plow for an afternoon and come home. They move the animals and consider they moved a mountain."

Now, however, the women make all decisions involving the cereal bank, and are able to control their finances and ensure their own economic security.

The success of the Qubse cooperative has not gone unnoticed in neighboring villages. Three kilometers away, another group of women approached OSRA and their village administration, asking if they too could start a similar project. Dirre Dame, 67, chairwoman of the new cooperative, says it began because "we were encouraged by the group, so we organized ourselves, inspired."

The new cooperative, Association Gura, has only been around for a month, but the impact on the women is already noticeable as they plan what to do with the eventual profits. This is the first time these women have had any economic power. In a village where the nearest school is a three-hour walk away, women see this is the beginning of change and a better life for their children.

Some of the changes may seem basic: food, clothes, education for their children. Other women have bigger dreams, hoping to invest in land or animals some day. Right now, however, they focus on meeting the basic necessities, including a secure source of food. They plan eventually to build a small health clinic with the profits, noting that many women die in childbirth because there is no clinic nearby.

Regatto Bedhasa, a 57-year-old mother of six, explains what empowering women to take control of their lives has meant to her community:

"This becomes a hope for us," she says. "We can change our life without having been educated, without knowledge, without experience. We can change our situation."