One component of my (Mollie) program is to teach income generating activities for women of Nkongsamba. Income generating activities (IGAs) are theoretically supposed to teach a new skill, typically making something, that they can then sell to contribute to the family funds. While I wholeheartedly agree with this principle, here are the realities I am struggling with in the implementation of this aspect of what I am supposed to do in Nkongsamba…
1. Where is the market?
There are a lot of IGAs around bead-making and jewelry. Why? Because the paper beads are awesome, look good, easy to make, and cheap for the women to produce allowing for a high profit margin. Furthermore, purses, dresses, and any textile-type products are great IGAs too, as the western world loves African-esque accessories and clothing. But, I have yet to see this work at the sales level since arriving. The fundamental problem I see, is where is the market?
Living in a country where the population has limited discretionary income and a virtually non-existent tourism industry, there are no already existing markets in place for the women to sell their newly created handicraft. Let’s take Uganda for example. The tourism industry is alive and well, allowing paper beads, pagne purses, and wrap skirts to take off like crazy. The market is there, and therefore, teaching women how to participate in an active market is a great thing! When compared to Cameroon, the only in-country population that has the funds to buy these types of products are Peace Corps Volunteers, and while we may be 200 strong, we cannot sustain a full market of African handicrafts (as much as I wish we could…).
2. Market Saturation
The other popular go-to IGA that is taught a lot in country is how to make soap or tofu. While Shaun and I enjoy the benefits of having a mama who learned how to make tofu deliver it to our house every Sunday, we are her only clients. When training sessions are held that teach 50 some individuals how to make soap or tofu to sell in their communities, the market immediately becomes saturated. Even in Nkonsamba, with the population of about 135,000, you can’t have 50 new vendors all selling the same product spring up on the same day and realistically think they are all going to be successful.
So, what’s the problem?
Why am I sitting here venting/ranting about teaching IGAs as Peace Corps Volunteers? The fundamental problem is that for a volunteer to teach and carry out these seminars, they more times than not, request funding. The funding usually comes from PEPFAR (President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, all funding from the US government created in 2003 under the Bush administration), and the result of the funding has little to show for it.
Take this example, a volunteer plans and organizes a training to teach a group of HIV+ individuals various IGAs. Then, the same volunteer requests a sum of money from PEPFAR. The training goes well, and undoubtedly, everyone has a good time. A few weeks or months after the training the follow up survey reveals that only 1 individual is now carrying out a project they learned at the training because…
- The start up costs for the activities presented were outside of the realistic means of the participant
- The participants did not have a desire to learn the activities that were selected by the volunteer
- There is no current market to sell the final product that the sessions taught on
Was this money spent correctly? That is for each person to decide for themselves, but arguably, the ratio of participants that were involved in the training to the participants carrying out a business afterwards is slim.
So, what’s the solution?
Am I saying we, as Peace Corps Volunteers, shouldn’t teach people new income generating activities? No, absolutely not. Am I saying we shouldn’t do it the way we have been doing it? Yes, yes I am.
The solution, as I see it, is that we need to drastically change how we address the issue of carrying out IGA trainings. The IGA idea needs to be changed to holistic business development, starting from the training of the individual on the good or service they want to offer, to the management of a business, to the follow up to ensure its success and longevity. It definitely requires more time and effort, but, in my mind, it is so worth it. If we, as the volunteer, are deciding what activities to teach, how do we know that the participants will have interest in that? What market research has been done to know that introducing this final product or service into the market will be successful? And lastly, what follow up is there for business support and advising assuming the participant takes the activity, runs with it, and actually starts a small business?
These are all the questions, that unfortunately, we aren’t asking or answering. I think that IGAs need to come from the community, that if a volunteer is to teach an activity, it needs to be based on the request of an individual in the community. Furthermore, I think that it needs to be a sustainable business from the beginning. That means not teaching 50 people in the same community the same trade, that cannot be sustainable. And, lastly, I think we need to take more time. If the person who is asking the volunteer to teach them something cannot prove that there is a viable market on the other side, then I don’t think we should teach the activity. Yes, it will definitely take more time to make sure the activities we are teaching and leading are community based, able to be successful, and have means to support themselves once the volunteer goes.
If we keep teaching the activities that we learned in our Peace Corps training, to 50+ individuals, without market research, we are doing more harm than good. We are leaving all of our participants with ideas that they do not have the funds to invest in, we are teaching them a skill that there is no market for them to sell, and we are, sadly, leaving them more frustrated with their economic situation after the trainings where our intentions were to do good.
All that to be said, this is my opinion from my observation in one community. I know in other communities, it has worked more successfully than what I have seen and experienced. But, I know it has cautioned me to focus more on sustainable businesses and markets that lead to empowerment, not to only teaching a skill that may or may not lead to income generation. Again, this is my opinion and perspective, and I would love feedback on how to access markets, how to sell these awesome handicrafts in a sustainable way, and how to teach women who want to earn money for their families (an honorable demand) without leaving them with false hope. In the meantime, I wont jump into leading an IGA conference for the need to feel productive but will keep pondering and looking for sustainable projects in Nkongsamba.