She belongs to the class of the fighters. Seller of fruit and vegetable from childhood, born in 1956 she never attended school. But nor her age, neither the illiteracy stooped her from following the path of her predecessors in organizing her sisters of the commerce sector. Her objective: Organize the women, major producers of supplies and provide food supplies on all the markets in Cote d'Ivoire.
“Everyone in this country knows me as Irie lou Irie Colette from Gohitafla, western region” starts the leader of about 1800 agricultural union in the 19 regions of the country. The 54 years old woman sitting in front of me looks 40 with the soft smile she offers to me. I was impressed by the beauty and simplicity around her. Some sample of maize, rice, beans on the table to recall each visitor we were in the sellers and farmers’ area.
She started her journey in 1983, after learning from one woman who inspired and taught her the basics of their work for many years. She created her own market of food supply in Treichville where is built today the Culture Palace in Abidjan. Her work was to buy from farmers and sell to people on her market. This experience confronted her with two major problems:
“Most of the time, women will come to me and ask for money to feed their families. It was very difficult to see them in such desperate situation. Again when buying from farms in villages, I was often asked if I knew some women who have been buying for some time and are no more showing up while owing the farmers. That is where my inspiration came to organised the sector.” explains Irie Colette
Facing the need of women and the farmers’ fear of losing profit led her to start an agricultural union: CODIPRAL. “Instead of giving them money, what I don’t have all the time, I asked those women to come and sell in the market the good I was ordering from the farmers. I was solving two problems: giving a net to women to fish themselves and helping the farmers sell their products with any lost.” For her, “being together will bring strong and weak work together for all, it will also help the idle ones to be gained by the laborious energy and enthusiasm”.
This achievement did not satisfy her. On her market, she was not able to propose all the products from the different regions of the country. She started developing the idea of promoting the country food and with constant availability, created a federation FENACOVICI and ended up with the implementation of a rice factory in Tiassale.
From 13 September 2010, date of the factory inauguration, 2.5t of rice is produce per hour. “We have in all regions, the appropriate soil for rice cultivation and secondly, we import a lot of rice in Cote d’Ivoire. It is just the right thing to think of making it available from here.” This factory brings an obligation to rice farmers to organize themselves and change their traditional methods to modern and innovative method to provide good quality of rice. “We need to learn and become professional because in five, ten years, we want to export our rice. And it demands a lot.”
This statement pushed me to ask her how she intends achieving this with the post-electoral crisis we are facing. Her smile gave and the brightness in the eyes gave me the answer before she opened her mouth. Her strength is the love for her job as she says “My only strength and weapon is the love I have for all these women and for the country, I never attended school to use strategies and rudiments in this work, but if I do not work I have nothing left with on this earth. Without love you cannot achieve and succeed in any dream or vision.” And her vision for the federation today is to be a mean of development for food supply in Cote d’Ivoire. “By development I mean producing in quantity and quality all kind of food we have in this country, not only produce but be able to make all our production available the whole year and also sell them at affordable price”.
The price aspect is very important because even sugar we take less has double and women are experiencing fear in going to farm or selling. “you know what, women are very sensitive because any time there is something like what we are facing today, it takes their children, brothers and sisters, parents and husband’s life if they are are not taken for target themselves. And all this affects their ability to work.”
The country will not move forward without food. So if women are not going to the market, if they cannot go to farm we will not only loose what has been own but we will be walking toward famine especially now that all the nations have cut off their relationship with Vote d’Ivoire. That is why Irie Lou believes that “Women cannot sit down and wait for their husbands or brothers to take care of their basic needs. With or without certificate, we can achieve great things for our nations. If today I, with no education, receive calls for orders or offers and can help supply all our markets from nothing, then we can all do it everywhere and even do more.”
“I would like to challenge you to use your arms, legs and brain; literate and illiterate women: our duty is to think and find out what we can do to improve life. After finding that, we have to pass it on to other women, help and advise them” continues Irie Lou.
Today, with all that is happening in her country she has one advice: “In all countries, women should seek peace, advocate for peace, fight for peace. Peace is essential.”
This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future, which is providing rigorous web 2.0 and new media training for 31 emerging women leaders. We are speaking out for social change from some of the most unheard from corners of the world.