Two years ago, Mulusew Kebede had never imagined owning a business.
On her small farm near Woldiya, Ethiopia, Kebede, aged 43, and her family grew crops and raised a few livestock. But starting a new business was something she never thought was possible.
A project supported by Canadian Foodgrains Bank member Mennonite Central Committee changed things. As part of the project, Mulusew and 17 of her neighbours started a self-help group.
The group met weekly to encourage saving and discuss local issues. At every meeting, the group members each brought five Ethiopian birr (about 25 cents) to save. Across the region, 22 similar groups were started with 400 participants.
Saving a quarter a week doesn’t seem like a lot, but over time, the savings grew. Group members began talking about how they could put these savings to use.
This was a big change for Kebede.
“Before being in a self-help group, I never thought of going into business,” she says. “The group served as an eye-opener to every one of us.”
As the group members discussed local issues, they also began to share and think about visions for business.
“When you discuss together,” says Kebede, “ideas come in.”
This past year, an idea came. Eight women joined together to take out a loan from the self-help group to start a business making and selling fuel-efficient stoves.
After four months in business, the women have sold enough stoves to pay off their initial loans with some additional profit set aside to grow their business.
Each week, the women work together for one day to make six or seven stoves, which they then sell to members of the community.
Years ago, an outside non-governmental organization had tried to introduce similar stoves, but there was no promotion and the stoves were not widely adopted.
Now it is different. The women have become the best salespeople for the stoves, knowing the difference they can make.
Kebede glows as she shares the impact of fuel-efficient stoves. The stoves retain heat and create less smoke. This makes cooking more comfortable and quicker. Smoke also no longer fills the house when she cooks, Kebede says.
Not only that but “it previously took 35 or 40 minutes to make 20 pieces of injera, an Ethiopian flatbread. Now, the same amount takes 10 minutes,” she says.
The stoves also require much less fuel.
“Previously, we had to go many times to the field to collect bundles of sticks. Now, one bundle can last months.”
Collecting firewood for cooking is a major contributor to local deforestation, so these new stoves can have a big environmental impact.
Being part of the self-help group has not only created an economic opportunity for Kebede and her neighbours. The success of their first business venture has group members excited for the future.
They plan to invest their profits in new business activities. Kebede shared her vision of expanding the business to raise chickens, open a shop, and start a flour mill. She hopes they can find a new location for their business closer to the main road to attract more customers.
The women anticipate a day when they are economically self-reliant.
“We want to be people who donate in the future. We want to be donors,” Kebede says.
The self-help group and the business have made Kebede a respected leader in her community. And they have given her a new positive outlook on the future, perhaps best captured in the name of their self-help group: Growth Sunrise.
Stefan Epp-Koop is program development officer with the Canadian Foodgrains Bank.