Only in the Darkness Can You See the Stars: the Struggles of a Social Entrepreneur

Isata Kabia
Posted June 30, 2020 from Sierra Leone
A saving Circle in Lunsar Town
In December 2019, our first ever created saving circle gathered for their annual End of year accounting Celebration, and announced they had saved $5,000. In their first year, 2015, they saved the equivalent of $500

Everybody has a driving force. Everyone has a why. It is the one thing that will get you up in the morning even after saying ‘never again’ just the night before. Nothing worth fighting for comes easily. The moment at which you want to give in is precisely the moment at which you should push harder. 

In June 2020 I had such a moment. I was tired, emotionally and mentally. It had been three months of covid-19 economic gymnastics: trying to navigate a difficult economy and keep our employees safe. All of this coming at the end of an already difficult business year.

At first we had to close our retail center. It’s located in an area frequented by air travelers but all flights in and out of Sierra Leone ceased in March. This is where we retail our locally made accessories and natural beauty products. These are products manufactured by our trainees: mostly women in rural areas; mothers with no schooling, who’ve managed to raise university graduates; or young men and women who’ve practically had to raise themselves.

In April we repurposed our business for the pandemic response, producing only a handful of products. Our extensive portfolio was reduced to antibacterial hand wash, sanitizer and antiseptic. We also engaged our tailors and used our beautiful fabrics to make masks instead of shirts and sarongs; a plastic covering we usually use to protect decorative table mats was now being used to fashion protective face shields. 

Even in the midst of our own economic hardships, we donated free masks; we provided food support during lock downs and we distributed hand wash stations, soap and sanitizer to crowded areas such as markets as well as to the wider community. The constant worry was for our women cooperatives, running very small businesses who were now in a double bind of economic and domestic hardships due to stay at homes and lock downs. 

These are women we have worked with and trained to be self reliant by running their own businesses; women who earn a daily wage through sales, who are now locked down in strenuous situations at home. Women who have been victims of increased domestic abuse during Covid-19.

By the end of May, we had no other option but to announce a layoff for our production staff. It was a brutally painful moment. There are no employment prospects in this area, no unemployment benefits and there is no safety net. It resulted in reflective moments and nagging concerns, questioning why I should continue to do this? There was confusion, not least because I truly love my work; frustration due to the maddening obstacles stacked up against us; and fear as to how long this will last and how will we get through it? Will we get through it?

Our training and manufacturing social enterprise (AFRiLOSOPHY) was established in 2015, in Lunsar town, following an increase in school drop outs and student pregnancies in 2013. These occurrences which were later compounded by the Ebola epidemic, were not unrelated to the booming iron ore outfit in our town, which employed mostly local as well as the migrant men,

We wanted to provide a way for women to build capacity and earn a decent living by teaching them new skills. Our goal is to provide marketable skills for entrepreneurship and business management to youth and women in rural areas. Skills acquisition is an urgent need in our quest to empower women. Our skills centre offers training in several manufacturing areas, including soap, cosmetics, food processing, and accessories such as shoes and Jewelery, and they currently manufacture a wide range of products including shampoos and conditioners, lotions and body wash as well as household cleaners such as antiseptic and bleach.

Initially trainings were held anywhere we could access, in schools, homes, and sometimes even outdoors. In 2017 we completed the construction of a training and manufacturing centre. We support capacity building for women in service of building stronger communities, by creating self employment avenues.

Women’s empowerment and leadership, cannot be divorced from their economic strength. The financial management and enterprise development training which AFRiLOSOPHY offers, contributes positively towards this. Our aim is to create innovative financing for women owned businesses, to support start ups and create opportunities for economic growth. 

Even legally registered businesses have difficulties in accessing affordable loans. The 30% bank interest rate means most businesses have to go it alone, and, for Social Enterprises such as ours, there is no patient nor venture capital to be sourced locally. With any attempt at borrowed financing, we are caught between our desire to do good and the bank’s wish for us to show excessive short term profits, their definition of ‘doing well’.

It means enterprises such as ours, putting purpose over profits, usually have to go it alone. Any investment is cold hard earned cash, whether from personal savings or from family and close freinds. This puts you, the social entrepreneur also in a precarious situation. It’s a similar gap we are trying to close for the informal sector and micro businesses, categories under which our women entrepreneurs usually fall.

The need for financial inclusion is the reason we established the Village Savings and Loans Scheme. Each circle of 25-30 women contributes an agreed amount of money from which loans are provided to members of that circle. The small loans given for business activity, are paid back at a 10% interest rate. Both the principal amount and the interest generated belongs to them.

Before we introduced this scheme, many had fallen victim to predatory loans. Women reported fear, embarrassment, anxiety over the monster of micro credit. In my community they call it ‘micro jail’. Women have fled their homes for as little as $10 with the hopes of not being found by the loan sharks or those who work for them.

Funds these small cannot eradicate shame, they cannot restore dignity, and they only provide temporary relief, resulting in further hardships when the repayments can’t be made. Maybe the loan was used to invest in a small business without any financial management knowledge to inform the investment; or it was used to handle an emergency. It might be for medical treatment or school charges, which could very quickly drag families into deeper poverty or keep a child out of school. 

Our savings circles teach financial management and record keeping for households as well as for businesses. The loans are informed by additional business skills so they understand where to spend, save and reinvest. The women also designate some of their savings into a special fund, which provides interest free loans in an emergency. This informal health insurance is one the women often call a life saver, pun intended. In the past, a single family emergency may result in the complete collapse of their small business. Now, an interest free loan means the child continues to go to school, the business survives, and the crisis is averted!

It has been a difficult year, and a most grueling month but my focus has been on finding a way to protect earnings for my employees, safety for my community and support for the women we have accompanied thus far in their journey to overcome. Our women are more than statistics, they are people with infectious laughs and daily struggles. June, despite the hardships, turned out to be the lesson I needed. I learned that this is truly the work I still want to do, to be in service of lifting up women. This dark month, proved that my North Star still shines bright, because ‘only in the darkness can you see the stars

This story was submitted in response to Economic Power.

Comments 25

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Jill Langhus
Jul 01
Jul 01

Hello Isata,

Welcome to World Pulse! Wow! What a greatly, inspiring story and mission that you have. Great job! I'm glad you're hanging in there. It seems like the areas in the world where women, and girls, need the most help, are the ones that have it the hardest. I'm glad to hear you're helping women with training and loans, too, and that you're hanging in there! Your work is so important. I'm looking forward to hearing more about your work and the initiatives you carry out.

Please let me know if you have a website and/or social media page(s)? I would like to follow/like them.

Hope you and your family are safe and well, dear.

Isata Kabia
Jul 01
Jul 01

Thank you so much Jill. It’s really encouraging when somebody sees value in your work. Th areas that are hit hardest get the least care, but there are more like me who know the importance of doing something, however hard that maybe. My websites are in progress: voice of women-sl.org and afrilosophy.com
Thanks for the follow on the handles!

Jill Langhus
Jul 03
Jul 03

You're welcome, dear. Oh, yes! I know what you mean.

Great! I'll check them out.

Chi8629
Jul 01
Jul 01

Thank you for sharing.

Isata Kabia
Jul 01
Jul 01

Thank you so much.

AKallon
Jul 02
Jul 02

Hello Isata
Thank you so much for sharing your story. As I read, I can feel the passion that comes from within and the determination and drive you have to contribute to creating a better live for the women of our country. I hope that the economic situation gets better and business can return to normal. I wish you all the best and hope that you get all the support you need to push forward this purpose.

Isata Kabia
Jul 03
Jul 03

Thank you @AKallon. Indeed it’s not easy right now, but that is when we have to dig deeper. Because you can only imagine how much harder it is for those we are trying to help. When we put women first, we will all win. Well keep fighting the good fight!

Arem
Jul 03
Jul 03

Hello Isata,
Hope you're safe and well.
Thank you for sharing your story! All I can say is - You're a superstar! You're truly a blessing to your community!
Sending you prayers and hoping you keep up the momentum.
I also hope you keep sharing your stories - you write very well!
Take care!

Isata Kabia
Jul 03
Jul 03

Thank you Arem, it’s really great to get this support from people who are also doing so much. I will keep sharing, hopefully each story will give somebody else what they need also.

Hello, Isata,

Welcome to World Pulse! What a joy to know a new voice from Sierra Leone is rising up!

Wow. You are a trailblazer, dear sister! Kudos to you for creating sustainable solutions for women and girls.

You've said it well, "Women’s empowerment and leadership, cannot be divorced from their economic strength."

These are tough times, dear sister. But just as you were able to start from scratch years ago, you can begin again but this time you have networks and experience to back you up. You got this, resilient leader!

Please keep writing your stories! We love to know more about you.

Welcome again to our growing sisterhood!

Isata Kabia
Jul 03
Jul 03

Thank you so much Karen. It’s a blessing to have found this space, at this time. Writing will surely help while we try to find ways to sustain the project. Thanks for the encouragement, sister!

You're welcome, dear sister. I hope you can connect to our sisters here for collaboration. Yes, please keep writing! You have no idea who you are inspiring through the power of your words! Continue making a difference, trailblazer!

Isata Kabia
Jul 10
Jul 10

Thank you.

Dr.Aastha Gaur
Jul 08
Jul 08

You are one of the strongest women I know ISATA ! It takes courage to help people in the time when you yourself are facing challenges and adversities !

Isata Kabia
Jul 10
Jul 10

Thank you @Dr.Aastha Gaur. The small acts of courage I see around me, spur me on to keep the faith. We have seen some much of this humanity during covid-19.

Deena Mae
Jul 14
Jul 14

Isata,
You are an inspiration beyond words. The extremely difficult work you are doing to keep women protected, safe, and able to better themselves with financial assistance is truly the work of a lifetime. That you have been thoroughly tested and have come out the other side with more strength, more determination, and more ideas is astounding.
Your words here hit me hard: "I learned that this is truly the work I still want to do, to be in service of lifting up women. This dark month, proved that my North Star still shines bright, because ‘only in the darkness can you see the stars."

If you can do this work during a pandemic on top of all the other struggles that were in place in your region/community prior to the pandemic—you can do anything. Keep up the good fight! We are here for you

xo Deena

Isata Kabia
Jul 16
Jul 16

Thank you so much, Deena. It has been a blessing for me too, seeing clearly that there is purpose to my work and i really feel renewed about what is possible post COVID-19. And thanks for the support!

Pam A
Jul 22
Jul 22

Bless you!! I, for one, am so glad that you find your star in the darkness. Keep making a difference and know that you have a community of women standing beside you! Much love and light to you!!

Isata Kabia
Jul 22
Jul 22

Thank you Pam. The greatest treasure I found at the end of that dark month: World Pulse. I am so grateful for this community, it was so timely!

Amanda Obidike
Aug 07
Aug 07

Skills. Skills. Skills.

It is really imperative in today's world especially in Africa.
Thank you for impacting and training these women and youths with transferable and entrepreneurial skills for their better livelihood.

Well done

Isata Kabia
Aug 09
Aug 09

Thank you Amanda, I agree. And in environments like mine, where job opportunities are so hard to come by, it’s great to create more potential employers through business ownership.

Phinnie
Aug 14
Aug 14

Isata-- Your passion and determination are so inspiring! I love the idea of training women to be entrepreneurs and forming women's savings circles. I know these endeavors can make a huge difference in the lives of the women and their families! Take care and let's hope that better days are ahead!

Phinnie, Portland, OR USA

Isata Kabia
Aug 16
Aug 16

Thank you so much Phinnie. The feedback from the women is so much energy for me too. It helps me keep going when I hear how much it means to them.

Phinnie
Aug 16
Aug 16

I love how World Pulse is a platform for women to find and to give support!

Phinnie
Sep 14
Sep 14

I love the idea of savings circles to empower women to help one another in their community. I wish you well during these especially challenging times! I am glad that you have the wisdom to not gibe up! Take care!

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