How butter leads to women’s emancipation: a self help group in Ethiopia

Rift Valley Children and Women Development. On the way, Hussen Delecha, an ex-Save the Children staffer who decided to switch to a local NGO in the shape of ‘Rift Valley’, as everyone calls it, filled me in. They work with ex-pastoralist communities who have settled and are trying to make a go of farming on tiny (typically quarter hectare) plots. The small size and regular failure of the rains means that drought and hunger are the norm (although thankfully, the rains are good this year, and the valley is lush). Although men have traditionally dominated access to resources, with women often isolated in their homes, Rift Valley spotted a tradition they could build on: the butter economy, known as wijjo in the local Oromo language. Oromo women have traditionally shared and exchanged butter, e.g. as gifts to the sick, or at weddings, providing a model for establishing savings groups that could help people through crises, diversify incomes and reduce vulnerability to drought. Hussen sees it as an example of ‘community based risk management’. Rift Valley SHGThere followed one of my favourite experiences of working for an NGO. Sitting under a tree and talking for an hour with a circle of some 15 Oromo women of all ages, as the rainclouds loomed and the birds squabbled in the branches overhead. (Sorry, no pics, my camera has got trashed somewhere on the trip – but here’s a pic from the Rift Valley website, obviously taken in drier times). Here are some highlights: Savings: “We save about 14 Birr (US$0.90) a month, and can take out loans that we can use to buy goats and cattle. We didn’t have a culture of saving before – now I have what I didn’t have before.” Community: “When one of us gets sick, we visit. We support each other for weddings and social occasions. We help the poorest members of the group improve their houses.” Relations with men: “Before, it was our husbands who bought assets. We were stuck in our houses, we didn’t meet. Now the decision is up to me – what to do with my money. That’s a big change. Our husbands are changing too – they have their own group now.” Climate Change and living with drought: “1984 was a terrible drought, but it was unique. Now it has become routine – we never used to see all the plants die. It’s really difficult, but last year we fought back through petty trade, we collected salt lick from the lake shore, and got some food aid to feed the children. Animals died, but no people did.” Family size: The older women have 7-10 children, but add “we are struggling to change their (the younger ones’) lives. It was ignorance that led to large families. Now we are starting to use family planning and we get education from the health office. Some of our children are getting educated and moving to the town, but there are not many jobs there.” The younger women say they want only 4-5 children. (See this week’s excellent post on family planning and safe abortion in Ethiopia from Owen Barder) What’s next? They want to be able to store grains, and buy a grinding mill. They dream of having their own vehicle to get to market. They would like to finish their education – most are barely literate – and have started a literacy class. “We want more skills and knowledge. That’s why we have come together.” As well as supporting the self-help groups, Rift Valley is helping women increase their income in the face of climate change by providing drip irrigationthem with low tech drip irrigation systems (suspended waterproof bags  distributing water to pierced rubber tubes – even lower tech than the example in the pic). These allow the women to grow food in gardens, even when the rains fail, improving nutrition and income, which in turn allows them to rent more land and set off a virtuous circle. Nothing flashy, just the hard graft of long-term development and women’s emancipation, running up the down escalator of climate change and shrinking farm size.]]>

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5 Responses to “How butter leads to women’s emancipation: a self help group in Ethiopia”
  1. glad to read this. RCWDA are good at the hard graft. A top outfit.
    Otherwise, intrigued to see that NGOs continue building on existing local institutions in Ethiopia. Ten years ago, burial societies were all the rage. It demands shrewdness and sensitivity to do it well: qualities which RCWDA have (or at least they did when I knew them!)

  2. Jeffrey Ashe

    Dear Duncan,
    What you described for the Rift Valley Children and Women’s Development is almost exactly what the Oxfam America/Freedom from Hunger/Stromme Foundation Saving for Change initiative is carrying out in Mali, Senegal, Cambodia, El Salvador and Guatemala. Twenty two thousand savings and lending groups with 450,000 women members have been trained since 2005. Services are delivered through 16 local NGOs trained and financed through the Oxfam America and supported by the Community Finance team in Boston and regional offices in West Africa, SE Asia and Central America. The cost is approximately $20 per group member, a tiny fraction of the start- up costs of an MFI that would not be able to reach this population because delivery costs are too high and there is no profit to be made on $25 loans. Showing the relevancy of SfC to the women, in Mali over half of the groups have been trained by group leaders who continue supporting existing groups and training new ones as the villages carry out SfC with very little outside support. OGB and NOVIB are planning to expand Saving for Change in other countries with Intermon also expressing interest
    Like the Rift Valley program, now that the basic group training package has been perfected and adapted and seeing the innovations that are bubbling up spontaneously from the groups, SfC will develop business literacy and additional health training modules as it introduces soil fertility building agriculture. Since the population of Sahelian countries has tripled in fifty years with more people using the same land soil fertility and therefore production is collapsing.
    Oxfam America through the microfinance networking organization SEEP will sponsor a worldwide conference on savings led microfinance in Tanzania in the fall of 2011 where savings group practitioners from all over the world will meet to discuss what they have learned, the challenges they face with a major outcome the writing of a communiqué advocating for this model. A half billion women could benefit from this simple highly replicable model that can be carried out by ordinary NGOs as the groups develop financial muscle, management skills, social capital and the commitment to build for their collective futures.

  3. I could only sigh as I followed all the coverage of the goings-on in New York this week (U.N. MDGs meeting, Clinton Global Initiative). The web of local organizations and grassroots initiatives like Rift Valley Children and Women Development Group, still largely undocumented and unrecognized around the world, offers an opportunity for sustainable and large-scale responses to relief and development that even the most comprehensive and impactful white-in-shining-armour efforts may never be able to accomplish. has already registered over 110,000 local organizations and movements working on a wide variety of issues in 243 countries. They estimate that they may well be over 1,000,000 such local groups operating across the globe.
    Yet the sad reality continues; community-based organizations are not the drivers of development, nor the setters of priorities, nor the controllers of resources. While local non-profits may lack the accountability mechanisms and sophisticated procedures that would make them more recognizable or esteemed in the development sector, they have important competencies and strengths that distinguish them from other civil society actors, such as their resourcefulness, flexibility and community responsiveness.
    As those gathered in New York this week discussed mega-infusions of funding in the developing world, many (even most?) small, local organizations must wonder, “Is that trickle of money ever going to reach us?”
    Thanks for this dose of humility during this week, acknowledging the vision, structure, and impact that grassroots activists and community leaders in Africa have.
    Duncan: Thanks Jennifer, it was pure coincidence that I was in Ethiopia when the MDG summit was happening, but it certainly changed my viewpoint. It certainly didn’t make me think aid is irrelevant, (it pays for a lot of the good things that are happening in Ethioipia in areas such as education) but it certainly reminded me that issues of power and politics, both large scale and small, are at the heart of development, something that often goes missing from the more technocratic MDG discussions.

  4. TM

    Great post!
    Wanted to share a bit of history A friend reminds me that before the Oromos were crushed some 150 years ago by Northerners (Amaras and Tigreans), they used to follow a very democratic system called the gadaa system. In that system, Women made to leadership possition. One iconic women leader is called Akko Mannoyee( Grand Mom Mannoyee)Here legacies are described here
    So goes for the history of power of women in the Oromo society. I can’t help but to think that can they ever make it to power again under very conservative northern based country of Ethiopia?

  5. Duncan, whether or not it was lazy and supercilious, I think Bill was right..
    ..please check out table 5.1 on p45 of this IFPRI publication. It is a careful study comparing hunger estimates from household surveys and FAO data for a dozen African countries.
    Some of the mismatches are breathtaking, e.g. Ghana, 51% hungry from survey, 15% from FAO estimates.
    I don’t know why IFPRI did not make more of it!
    The world deserves better estimates of hunger–both from a level and a distribution point of view. And from an ethical point of view (the surveys look like they give higher numbers).
    Lawrence Haddad, IDS
    Duncan: thanks Lawrence, I’m now looking for some humble pie to eat, especially given Bill’s (or at least Laurar Freschi’s) rather more thorough response on Aid Watch today (