Finding empowerment with help from village associations

Finding empowerment with help from village associations

In Selam Bekalsi kebele of Ethiopia’s Alamata woreda, Messay proudly invites visitors into her new home. It’s a sturdy concrete structure with a cement floor, solid walls, and two rooms. In this rural kebele, Messay raises goats and has a small plot of vegetables. She also keeps a few chickens in small coop adjoining her home.

Sharing a meal with her children, sister, and nieces and nephews, Messay wistfully recounts her life just a few years prior, when she earned what little money she could from selling firewood. A single mother of two, she explains how she lived through the definition of food insecurity; she was never confident that food would be there for her and her children. On some days, it wasn’t.

When GRAD (Graduation with Resilience to Achieve Sustainable Development), a Feed the Future (the U.S. Government's global hunger and food security initiaitve) programme, began in early 2012, it brought new opportunities to Messay’s kebele.

GRAD was implemented by a consortium led by CARE that also included REST (the Relief Society of Tigray) and SNV as the technical lead for value chain development. GRAD worked with chronically food insecure households in rural Ethiopia to increase their incomes and food security. The programme started VESAs (Village and Economic and Social Associations) in villages like Messay’s, facilitated business-to-business relationships between farmers’ collectives and traders, organised multi-stakeholders-platforms (MSPs), and increased these households’ access to improved farming inputs and methods. By the time the project closed in October 2016 it had supported 65,000 households (375,000 individuals) to graduate from the Government of Ethiopia’s Productive Safety Net Programme (PSNP).

Messay’s is one of those households.

By working with GRAD, she was able to achieve food security for herself and her family. She’s been able to increase and diversify her income, and she’s worked with the programme to understand and enact proper eating habits and nutrition among her family.

When Selam Bekalsi kebele was targeted by GRAD, Messay became a member of her village’s VESA, which now has 24 members. Through VESAs, smallholder farmers group together and meet regularly, allowing them to save as a community and provide loans to members, disseminate market information, and leverage larger volumes of aggregated livestock and produce to break into supply chains and bigger markets. Messay’s VESA was launched with support from GRAD, but is still going strong without support from the project because of how beneficial this innovation has been for members.

Each member of Messay’s VESA saves around 10 Ethiopian Birr per month, which allows the VESA to make loans of, on average, 1,000 Birr (43 Euros) to members. Currently Messay’s VESA is managing more than 13,000 Birr in capital used to support the growth and businesses of its members.

Through her VESA, Messay took out a loan and bought 12 goats, which quickly gave birth to 6 kids. Leaving selling firewood in the past, she both kept and sold these and the goats that followed, and quickly paid off her initial loan. With money to reinvest into diversifying her income, Messay bought a cow, some chickens, and a small plot of land where she now grows grains and vegetables. Then, she built her new house. Leaning against the sturdy walls of her new home, the old wooden chicken coop, no more than weather-worn slats of wood patched together with a plastic tarp, had previously been the structure where Messay and her children lived.

When recounting her transition and empowerment, Messay is quick to name her VESA, and the proper facilitation and utilization of loans that it made possible, as one of the most important aspects.

Across Alamata woreda in the Abia Hulegeze Lemlem kebele, Embafreshu, another single mother, is a member of her own village’s VESA. “GRAD is like my father,” she says. “The project has brought us from the dark to the light totally.”

Embafreshu looks over her herd of goats in Alamata woreda, Ethiopia

Embafreshu looks over her herd of goats in Alamata woreda, Ethiopia

Prior to support from GRAD, Embafreshu supported herself and her 5 children by finding inconsistent employment as a labourer around her village. She was earning about 8 Ethiopian Birr, or 36 cents, a day. “Sometimes we would eat two times per day, sometimes just once, or on some days not at all,” Embafreshu says, reflecting on her past. But now, Embafreshu, standing next to her healthy children, can look proudly over her herd of goats, her small flock of newly hatched chickens, and her two houses.

Through her VESA, and with guidance and support from GRAD, Embafreshu took out a loan to buy 4 pregnant goats, which were the beginnings of her flock, and the beginning a pathway that would transform Embafreshu’s life. From making less than a dollar a day, Embafreshu is now the proud of owner of two houses, one which she rents to members of her community, and 35 goats.

VESAs also help smallholder farmers like Messay and Embafreshu sell the livestock and crops that they have been supported to produce. Through the GRAD programme, CARE, SNV, and local partners such as REST worked with VESAs to communicate the most up-to-date market information to members, and let them know when the market was high, with buyers offering the best prices for livestock and crops. Having this information through their VESA means farmers can collectively bring their products to the market when prices are high, and can engage in collective decision making based on the price of the market. As Embafreshu explains, “the main thing that profits us is to know the market price.” GRAD also worked with VESAs to help them identify and connect with potential buyers, and facilitated B2B relationships between the groups and buyers.

Buyers also benefit from this relationship by knowing when farmers will be at the markets with quality livestock and produce. Because these relationships are mutually profitable to both buyers and sellers, they are expected to be sustainable, continuing long after farmers and markets are supported by the project.

VESAs are also important social structures where members gather to discuss important topics. Through VESAs, GRAD worked with households to introduce proper nutrition knowledge and habits, gender parity among households, methods to adapt to climate change, and discussions on graduating from the Government of Ethiopia’s PSNP programme.

“Nutrition was very much discussed in our VESA,” says Embafreshu, explaining how she used her new found income to change how she was feeding her children after she learned about proper nutrition within her VESA.  “Now, after GRAD, we eat three, or even four, times per day.”

In Alamata woreda where Messay and Embafreshu live, GRAD established 203 VESAs in rural villages just like theirs. In total, GRAD worked across 16 woredas in Ethiopia and established 2,861 VESAs. 68,820 women just like Messay and Embafreshu joined VESAs and gained the opportunities for empowerment that they presented.

“VESAs are one of the most important sustainability aspects of the project,” says Nega Mekonnen, GRAD project manager with SNV. “The community is building assets together. There hasn’t been a single example of a dissolved VESA yet.”

The VESAs that Messay and Embafreshu are a part of, and the thousands just like them, are one of the many innovations that GRAD supported smallholder farmers to successfully adopt and use to transform their lives. CARE and SNV, in partnership with USAID through Feed the Future, worked with the private sector, the Ethiopian government at the local and national level, and directly with households to create an enabling environment and pathways from food insecurity to self-sufficiency for thousands.