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With Oxfam's help, women become entrepreneurs in Khartoum market

By Coco McCabe

Surrounded by an array of thin metal pots, Awadia Abbis bends over a small fire and stirs a pan sizzling with diced potatoes and bits of meat—one of the aromatic dishes that she sells. Sweat beads on her upper lip. For 11 hours a day, from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., this small, hot kitchen is where Abbis dreams of the future her children will have. After 19 years of toil, she has managed to help all five of them—three girls and two boys—attend university with her earnings.

"When you educate your children, you provide a good generation for your community," says Abbis, 50.

That's the mantra that has helped to make her such a successful member of the Tea and Food Sellers Cooperative operating in the sprawling, dusty Elshabe market in Khartoum. It's one of three women's cooperatives that Oxfam America's partner, the Sudan Development Association or SDA, helped to launch. And now, with a new $50,000 grant from Oxfam, SDA is set to further expand its outreach to women vendors in the city by offering skills and management training, exploring new economic opportunities for them, and facilitating loans that will allow them to increase their incomes.

Established in 1990, SDA's central mission is to empower women. It started with the simplest of projects: a study of women vendors in Khartoum's markets—a group of people whose numbers had surged, but who faced few opportunities and little social support.

At the time, drought and conflict had driven many women and their children to Khartoum where the only way they could make money to support themselves was to sell food or tea in the markets, said Rugaia Salih Mohamed, SDA's program director. But they were not well-received.

"They were viewed as inferior," says Mohamed. And often, they were harassed or had their goods confiscated.

But with SDA's help, the women came together and formed a series of cooperatives, which offered them protection under the law, as well as financial and technical support—in short, a way for them to pull themselves out of the poverty that saddled them.

"Now, they know their rights," says Mohamed. "They can support their families and they don't need others to support them. It's liberating."

Among the projects the women launched was the Women Food and Tea Sellers Cooperative Restaurant. Housed in a long, narrow room in a building inside the market, the restaurant has a handful of tables and chairs at one end and a charcoal fire burning next to the wall. Co-op members can cook and sell their food here.

"They don't just stick to selling food and tea. They help others claim their rights," adds Mohamed. "Now, their children are going to university and they acquire other places themselves."

A few alleys away, in the mottled light of an expansive stall, co-op member Hiat Adam, draped in a peach-colored wrap, is serving tea from behind a tiny table.  Each serving, offered in small, clear glasses, costs about 25 cents. Customers can also buy coffee for about 50 cents.

Joining the co-op was a pivotal point for Adam and the business she wanted to launch: The co-op provided her with a license so she could secure the space she needed to run her tea service. It also offered her the requisite health training.

"It's good to be a member," says Adam. "If you are working alone it's difficult to have a license."

Divorced and the mother of six children for whom she has sole responsibility, Adam is using the proceeds from her tea business to buy food for them and to send some of them to school.

"They have learned a lot," says Mohamed of the women in the co-op. "You can see the progress in everything—in their style, in their home, in their children, in their interaction."