Haiti: a grain milling operation offers an economic lifeline for women

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Construction workers are building an extension to house a grain milling operation for the women of RAFARE.

“Unemployment is the only thing we have here,” declared Dumel Deralus, smiling grimly as he sat in the shell of a concrete building that will soon be a new and expanded home for the Organization for Community Development in Thomazeau, or ODECT. He is the coordinator of the organization, which is an Oxfam partner working to improve economic and social conditions in the town, about a two-hour drive northeast of the Haitian capital Port-au-Prince.

Thomazeau—home to about 52,000 inhabitants—is a rural community in western Haiti, surrounded by mountains and little-touched by the earthquake two years ago. In fact, it was an area that saw a large influx of arrivals from the capital immediately after the quake. But it is also economically deprived.

Most people here are “planteurs”—small-scale farmers living off their land and selling what crops they can.  But poor roads are a major problem in getting goods to markets. And, as Dumel pointed out, there are few economic opportunities available in the community.

That’s also true across Haiti, where an estimated 75 percent of the population is not in salaried employment, and jobs are scarce.

Finding work is especially challenging in rural areas, where even the most casual of jobs are hard to come by. This was a major issue in Haiti, as much before the earthquake as now, and it is hampering people’s ability to rebuild their lives.

According to an Oxfam survey last year, finding work is the top priority for most Haitians. And that’s why a project which Oxfam supports in Thomazeau is raising the hopes of many women.

The women have their own section within ODECT known as RAFARE. That stands for Rassemblement des Femmes pour l’Accès aux Ressources Économiques, or Rallying Women to Access Economic Resources. Its goal is to try to improve the economic status of women. The group owned one milling machine and earned money processing grain brought to the center by farmers and merchants.  Oxfam hired RAFARE after the earthquake to help provide milled cereals which formed part of food kits that were distributed in the outdoor camps where people had sought shelter.

Oxfam is now helping the women again—with funds and training, including enlisting the help of expatriate Haitian experts with specific skills. The group is modernizing its service center and expanding its operation.

The small building where they’re currently located will double in size, allowing the women to have storage facilities where they can stock processed and unprocessed grains and market milled cereals. Oxfam has helped them to purchase two new grinding machines and is providing training and other equipment. The goal is to enable the women to run their operation as a full-fledged business. They will buy and sell locally produced grain throughout the year, rather than just seasonally; and during lean times, in between the harvests, they can sell surplus stocks in the local market.

“It will bring more economic opportunities here. There will be more jobs and more money coming in,” said Marie-Claude Estenfile, general secretary of RAFARE. “There was always a shortage of grains being sold in the local markets from April to June, but we will be able to provide processed grains during that period.

It means people won’t have to travel an hour or more to some of the markets, like in Croix des Bouquets, 24 kilometers away, to buy what they need. It will be easier to purchase food locally and we will help to strengthen the supply chain. The markets will be busier; the money will benefit the local economy.”

Having proper storage facilities and being able market their own cereals will enable the women to work all year round, and not just stay open for business during the busy harvest period.

“It will guarantee people’s food security here,” said Dumel, adding that it will also create new jobs. “During the lean periods, people would have to buy imported rice and grain from other places.  But we will have stocks to sell and supply to the local markets.”

RAFARE’s members are excited about the project.

“It gives me hope for the future,” said Hermircie Alfred, 40. “I hope we can buy and sell the grains locally all year round; and we can make more profits.”

“There are very few job opportunities here,” Alexina Augustin, 45, a mother of eight. “The only jobs we can really find are selling cereals and this project will help us.  I lost my home and land a few months ago during flooding and now I can’t send my children to school. This will be a lifeline for me,” she said.

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