Fighting poverty with onions in Mali
WOMEN'S MICRO-LOAN ASSOCIATIONS ARE A CREDIT TO THE COMMUNITY
Early in the morning, 50 or so kilometres from Bamako, the women of Soundougouba village gather together at their community garden plot, chatting excitedly about their onions. It’s harvesting day as the women prepare to bring the fresh onions to the market, and they are already debating about how to reinvest their profit.
Despite a mounting food crisis in the region and political turmoil in the country, the women of Soundougouba and surrounding villages are able to provide the necessities for their families by working together to maintain their community market gardens. Before the associations existed, women were only able to grow market crops in their rare free time on a small family plot, but the profit was never enough to make ends meet. Since Malian women have formed associations to exchange micro-credit loans and work together on larger plots (from 0,5 to 0,8 ha), revenue has started to pour in as more and more onions are taken to market.
Initially, the association of women was able to set aside $300 as capital. After a few years, the amount has increased to nearly $1000. The biannual collection of loan payments has allowed the members to reinvest the money into things they need most to continue their work. The last collection allowed the group to purchase new farming equipment, seeds, fertilizers and even labourers to tend their onion crops. With the support of Crossroads, about eight wells per village were also built so that the women are able to access water for their crops.
In the neighboring village of Massakoni, Crossroads is working with a local organization, Kilabo, to create and train 20 economic interest groups. Here, leaders of the groups meet together to find solutions to some of the village’s most pressing problems, such as the lack of access to basic food staples, including corn.
The women’s associations have helped in challenging major gender roles in the community. Salimata Coulibaly is the leader of one of the groups in Soundougouba. She explains how husbands were initially skeptical of having their wives spend time away from their domestic and family duties. “But more and more, we are seeing that the men are noticing that the work of the women in their group contributes to the wellbeing of the whole village, and they are now encouraging their wives to keep their commitments to the groups,” Salimata exclaims.
When her husband died, Soundié Traoré lost access to her husband’s land and became particularly vulnerable to the effects of poverty in her community. Community onion gardening now allows Soundié to continue to produce food, make money, and feel the support of other women. She has even saved enough money to build her own home.
The micro-loans are not only for gardeners. Last year, some of the onion revenues were reinvested into a community sound system for village activities. The women also rent out the system, a service that brings in further profit. In the same year, the women in the village used their money from harvest for a fence needed for the community mosque. The women’s association from Soundougouba also bought a cereal mill that benefits the whole village and provides even more revenue. The chief of the village saw the women’s group as essential to the community’s growth. “The micro-credit project has played a big role in recognizing women in the community as a force for development and mobilization,” he said.
The president of the village’s women’s association, Salimata Samaké couldn’t agree more. “Before, the women weren’t organized together and they didn’t have the opportunity to work for a common cause. The micro-credit and market gardening projects have been a springboard to be able to bring together and train the women,” she said.