Picture of ruins

Ethiopian Women's Economics by Rikki Patterson

Posted Sep 13, 2017

I stood in a small Ethiopian village, an open field to my left and a rectangular building with dried cow dung walls to my right. The walls had once been plastered and painted blue, but much of the plaster had worn away, and the cow dung was now visible along the bottom three feet of the building. An overhanging metal roof offered shade to the concrete pad beneath it.

About 75 women were gathered on the pad, some sitting, and some holding babies wrapped in colourful slings while others stood. One lady cradled her child on her lap, her knees rocking gently from side to side.

“These women represent four of the region's self-help groups,” said our guide. “They walked a long way just to meet you.”

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In this part of Ethiopia, a co-operative of women is a self-help group that works together to earn income for their families. Hope International Development Agency1 provides the group with an interest-free loan, and offers business-skills training courses. The women also learn efficient ways of saving money and effectual methods of administering loans to those starting new businesses. Typical businesses in this region include starting a new farm or resurrecting an old one, offering wood crafts or carpentry, creating fabric arts, and opening restaurants or tea shops.

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Group members are comprised of married women with children to support. To obtain a loan, members apply to the co-op's administrators, and if they agree on the idea presented, the application is taken to the entire group for a vote. The first loan would be anywhere from 400 to 1000 Ethiopian Birr ($25-$62 CDN).

Each woman must have two guarantors from within the co-operative to ensure that the loan will be repaid. Interest rates are decided within the group, and the interest collected goes back into a revolving loan fund. After a woman has borrowed and paid back a number of these smaller loans, her credit rating increases and she becomes eligible to borrow larger amounts. The women must set aside 25% of every loan as their own savings.

Women within these groups also contribute to a social fund, which pays for social events and the maintenance of their building. It also provides interest-free loans to members to cover the cost of emergencies such as funerals, medical bills and childbirth. The use of the social fund is democratically voted upon by the group.

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The women gathered in the shade of the building's overhang had been working together and earning incomes for the last nine months.

"Go ahead, ask questions," our guide prompted. We hadn't expected a meeting, but we were curious to know what advantages Hope International had made in their lives.

"What kind of goods are you making?" was the first question. With our guide acting as interpreter, we learned that some of the women made traditional drinks from seasonal fruits that they sold at local markets.

"What are the biggest changes you have seen since you received clean water?" A woman stood to speak and our guide introduced her as the community coordinator.

"We are healthier now," she started. "We no longer have to walk a long distance to find water. Because we are healthier, our children can attend school, and our husbands can work. We can work, and provide support for our families. My attitude has changed. I now have hope for my future, and the future of my family."

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My attitude has changed. I now have hope! Those words resonated in my head.

"That, right there, is what it's all about!" exclaimed our guide.

"Thank you! Thank you!" and "God bless you!" came from the women. Don't thank me, I thought. All I did was throw some money in the pot. You did all the hard work.

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The women scattered into the village to visit with friends, and our group was escorted into another building. The cow-dung walls on the inside were not covered with plaster or paint and I blinked a number of times so my eyes could adjust to the lack of light. Our guide indicated for me to take a chair. I flopped down and for the first time all day, realized how hot and tired I was.

Glancing around the room, I saw a long table surrounded by several worn, metal folding chairs. Lining the wall opposite the table were plastic containers filled with dishes. Our host brought a coffee pot full of water and a plastic basin for each of us to rinse our hands.

"Coffee?" our host offered me.

"Oh, no, thank you," I replied automatically. I don't drink coffee, so naturally I declined the offer. But seconds later, I realized my mistake. It is Ethiopian tradition when invited into a home, to accept the hospitality. In not accepting the coffee, I had refused my host's hospitality, and may have insulted him.

Minutes later, I was offered some food. I accepted, devouring the delicious red lentil stew and cooked, spiced cabbage that I scooped up with injera, a locally made flatbread that is used as a spoon.

But our day wasn't over. Once lunch was finished, we made our way to the Land Cruisers and unlike the walking locals, drove to the elementary school about two kilometers from the village.

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Note: There are two separate organizations in North America with the name Hope International. Hope International Development Agencyis based in New Westminster, BC (http://www.hope-international.com.) A second organization based in Pennsylvania, USA goes by the name Hope International. (https://hopeinternational.org) According to sources from both organizations, they are completely separate entities and are not affiliated with each other.