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