British volunteer Stephanie Green spent two years in Ghana working to help Shea nut processors become financially independent businesswomen. She returned earlier this year- and was delighted to see that the women are thriving, independent of VSO support.
Women’s economic empowerment
In 2013, Stephanie Green took a career break to volunteer with VSO in the deprived north of Ghana.
Women here, who traditionally hold a lower status in society, face extensive economic and social hardship. The vast majority are illiterate and have little financial autonomy despite performing most of the physical work.
As Stephanie explains:
“Women are making a little bit of money during the Shea nut season - and that’s it. Other than that they are at home trying to eke out a living. They have a hard life: they can be walking three miles for water during the dry season.”
Sharing skills to make a difference that lasts
VSO’s project gave Stephanie the chance to use her business development skills to help the women form community savings schemes. She was supporting an ethical, local company, TAMA Cosmetics to grow its business and support the vulnerable women who are the suppliers of valuable Shea nuts.
“Why I liked my placement so much is that this work is not about giving things to people; it is about giving people skills.
"It’s about making sure the women have got a market for their product, but also that when they get paid, they know how to manage that money. Because in this area, people are used to living a more hand-to-mouth existence,” says Stephanie.
Earlier this year, Stephanie got the chance to find out just how sustainable the approach is when she returned to the communities she had worked in – a year after her placement had ended:
“I stepped out of the car and saw all the women I had worked so closely with over those two years. They were shouting, ‘Oh my god, Stephanie is back!’ and they all came running towards me. It was really emotional.”
As part of the project, Stephanie had worked with TAMA and the women Shea nut processors, helping them to form women-only saving groups. This is designed to foster a savings culture and increase the women’s financial independence – but also provide a space for women to freely discuss the issues they face.
What happens after a volunteer leaves?
While Stephanie was passionate about this method of supporting disadvantaged women to become independent on their own terms, and had trained up her Ghanaian colleagues to continue her work, she had no way of knowing what would happen after her departure.
Any concerns she might have had were dispelled. On her return she was able to witness a ‘share-out’ - the pivotal moment where, after a year of saving, women get their stake, plus interest back as a lump sum, to invest in anything of their choosing.
"To see a group of ‘poor’ women come away from that meeting with a handful of cash was amazing. They’d been able to take control of their own financial situation, taken loans for school fees and to develop their own businesses and managed to save money every single week for a whole year."
“I was so proud that it actually happened. The groups are still going from strength to strength, and their savings and membership have grown. A lot of the women saw that their friends were in this savings group and had a load of cash, and now they want to be part of it,” explains Stephanie.
Change in status
Stephanie saw changes not just in the women, but in their husbands and male relatives too:
“At the beginning of my placement the men were a bit suspicious. They'd say things like, ‘Where are all these women going every week, why are they going to this meeting, why are we not included?'
“But at the share-out, some of the men made speeches to say how proud they were of the women and what they had done. I think it shows women kind of gained a bit of status in that community there. When you’ve got money, you’ve got a bit more power, you get a bit more say in the household.”
Stephanie is now at a new academic services and business development role at a top London university, that she says her volunteer experience was instrumental in securing. Her friends in Ghana are still at the forefront of her mind however: her belief in TAMA and its products has led her to become a distributor in the UK.
The project also led to an unexpected bonus: Stephanie met her fiancé. Together they have helped secure funding from the Ghanaian government to extend the community savings scheme, with training for thousands of women.
“These women are noticing a real change in their lifestyle. I have seen myself how slow change can be- but it could add up to a lot,” says Stephanie.
Find out more about Stephanie and her placement her blog, where she documented her entire volunteer experience.
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We want to thank the volunteers and supporters who have given us hope this year, despite the unprecedented challenges posed by the pandemic.
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