With the help of a few sheep, women improve lives of their families

By Coco McCabe
These women in North Shewa are among 250 who have received help from the Organization for Development in Action to establish new herds of sheep. Photo: Coco McCabe

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In the Ethiopian highlands of the North Shewa zone, where overgrazing has sucked the fertility from the soil, the ground around Jida can be spongy wet,  making it difficult for families in the region to grow crops when the moisture rots their seeds.

But that’s not their only problem.

Ironically, drought can be as big a concern as the water-logged plains. If the belg rains fail between January and mid-March, nothing will grow—neither pasture for the animals nor grain for the people.

“Drought is becoming an annual problem,” said Mulugeta Kechema, executive director of the Organization for Development in Action, or ODA, an Oxfam America partner. And many families in the Jida district face an inability to obtain enough food.

That’s where sheep restocking and women’s self-help groups come in—both initiatives launched by ODA aimed at providing sustainable solutions to some of the rural poverty.
Through ODA’s program, 250 women each received five sheep and as they produce lambs, that next generation will be given to another 250 women—thereby increasing the assets of 500 women-headed households. In this region, the major source of income for families is livestock.

“The happiest thing: after one month, the sheep started giving birth. Currently there are 70 offspring,” said Kuchema, one day in August, noting that if all goes according to plan up to 90 percent of the women will each wind up with small herds of eight to 10 sheep. “This is highly sustainable.”

The reason the program is targeting women is because they are most vulnerable to the hardship erratic weather brings: They are responsible for their children and can’t easily move to new locations in search of food or work.

Tige Balcha, a 51-year-old mother from the Siba Daga locality, said it has been almost four years since there was an adequate belg rain. In the past, droughts would come every three or five years she said. Now, the main rain seems as if it’s failing almost annually.

For Birhani Demissie, ODA’s restocking of the sheep, and the chance to build a herd, has meant she can help secure her children a better future. “Because of lack of money, I’m sending my children to be hired by the well-to-do and they dropped out of school,” she said.

“Now, we’ll stop this. By selling the sheep, we purchase food. We purchase clothing. We send our children to school.”

There’s another advantage to having a small herd, too: status.

“A person with property is respected, “says Yeshi Senyi, who’s 42 and has seven children. “And he is believed. And he can get a loan. Otherwise, no one gives money to a poor person. A person with property has hope for the future—and confidence.”

In the past, women might borrow money from local lenders—up to 100 birr at a time—to cover some of their immediate need for things such as food.  But the price of that loan was steep: They would have to pay interest of 20 percent. If they were late by even one day in repaying the small loans, the interest would jump to 40 percent.

Now, with the savings-and-loan groups the women are forming with ODA’s help, some of that pressure will be off. The goal of these self-help groups is to build more secure futures. Starting with some funding from ODA, the women will make regular contributions to their groups, and eventually they will have enough money to start making loans to members.

“The association we created is for development purposes, not for daily bread,” said Mulu Wodajo, 29. “This is for growth and development.”

 The women are still deciding how much interest to charge their members. But one thing is clear: It will be a lot less than what they have been paying to date.

“Be strong. Work hard. Plan for the future. That’s what we say to the women,” said Kechema.