Alshoni Women’s Cooperative, Gurage, Ethiopia
TREE AID travelled to Gurage recently – a mountain region 130km south of Addis Ababa. We drove for 3 hours from our base in the capital. The last 45 minutes was up a steep and incredibly uneven mountain road. It had only been “completed” the week before. This meant that, for a while at least, the village was more accessible.
Despite the road, the last leg of our journey was beautiful. The backdrop of the giant, peaceful mountains was breathtaking. We arrived at our project office, in the heart of the village next to the local school, 3400 metres above sea level. The air is thin and it takes a while to adjust as we pile out of the car.
Here, the members of the Alshoni Women’s Cooperative were waiting for us. They’d been here all morning, all keen to meet us and share their story. Fifteen women made the journey from their respective villages to the project office to greet us. We were ushered into the room – mud lined with a tin roof – to take a seat on the benches along the back wall. Meskerem, the chairwoman of the cooperative, immediately started brewing a pot of coffee. The women shyly sat in a circle all around us as Cheru, TREE AID’s country manager, made the introductions. And then the stories started pouring out.
We heard from Meskerem who explained how the cooperative works. She told us the main aim of the group was to initially set up a savings and loans scheme. This is where each group member saves 25 Ethiopian Birr each month and deposits it into a safe that is kept double-locked in the project office. Once the money has had time to build up, each member has the chance to take a loan. She explains that 25 Birr felt like a huge amount of money to some of the women at first, but they managed it. Now, most members have had their opportunity to take a loan of 625 Birr from the Loan Scheme – an amount of money that would normally be fantasy to these women.
Starting to earn an income
With support from each other, and training from the TREE AID project team in areas such as agriculture, vegetable production and beekeeping, the women started earning money. In many cases for the first time in their lives.
Lemlem, the treasurer of the group, told us how her life had changed since joining the cooperative. She used her loan to buy beehives and received training in beekeeping. Now she sells the delicious honey at the market in Butajira.
And there’s Hayat who used her loan to buy chickens. She now earns an income from selling the fresh eggs and is able to use that money to pay for her children’s school books and uniforms.
We also spoke to Rauda, the oldest member of the group, although we wouldn’t have believed this if we weren’t told. Rauda was so youthful and seemed to have managed the walk across the mountains from her village with little difficulty. Even more remarkably, she told us that she recently broke her leg. For us in the UK, breaking a limb would be a real inconvenience, but because of the conditions in Gurage, for Rauda the consequences were unimaginable.
Hospital – a 4-hour journey away, by donkey – was out of the question. She was treated at the nearby medical centre and was housebound for many months. She was dependent on her husband and son for everything. Because of this, the whole family was limited. Amazingly she told us she still managed to bake bread at home which helped the family earn a little income during her housebound months. Thankfully Rauda’s leg seems to be healed, this means that Rauda can get back to working as she was previously, and just as importantly she is not confined to the house.
Despite the incredibly difficult terrain and their limited resources, it was so inspiring to hear from these determined, motivated and harmonious women, all earning a living and supporting their families. It is because of TREE AID’s work, as well as the hard work and dedication of the local women, that this is possible.