Chad is one of the poorest countries on Earth. Most families in the country’s Logone Oriental region struggle to make their livings by growing crops, perhaps selling garden produce, and raising small livestock like sheep and goats. For years successive rebel groups have impeded development initiatives in the region, and life here is especially difficult for women.
This is the story of Chadian women who defied their environment and are building a business empire.
“God Help Us”
In 2006, a group of 18 women in Bebedjia in southern Chad came together in an experimental financial partnership, or tontine. They named the group Mbailassem, which in the local Ngambaye dialect means “God help us.” They each contributed to a pool of capital worth about $550, a significant amount of savings for an average family. With this seed money, the group bought a piece of land to produce cassava. The first year’s harvest generated a net income of about $630, and in their second year, the women began processing cassava into “cassava sticks” to sell to wholesalers to transport to neighboring towns. However, low prices made turning a profit difficult.
In 2008 Africare/Chad’s local staff identified Mbailassem as a unique group ready for a challenge. Through the Initiative for the Economic Empowerment of Women Entrepreneurs, funded by ExxonMobil, Africare collaborated with the women, and a new business strategy was born. The area had no safe food service. Local street food was always served cold and caused illness often. So Mbailassem founded a restaurant.
Initial business management training from Africare helped Mbailassem achieve financial stability. Africare then financed a new restaurant with a grant of about $7,000 and constructed a borehole for clean water in the restaurant compound with financing from the African Well Fund. Africare also provided training on borehole maintenance, including how to procure spare parts. After eight months of joint management, Mbailassem took full control of the business.
The restaurant was an immediate success. Each member of the co-operative began netting more than $300 every month, allowing them to better provide for their families and other vulnerable people in their community. They even prudently established an emergency fund providing each member smaller weekly pay-outs to use in the event of unexpected health needs in their families. And these savvy women of course invested the remainder of their earnings in an interest bearing account. After only twelve months of independent management, the women fully repaid their start-up loan.
The women of Mbailassem had no intention of stopping there. They next developed a systematic expansion plan. With their accumulated savings they purchased another piece of land and opened a second location in nearby Donian town. Their success and capacity enabled Mbailassem to secure a contract supplying cooked food to employees of a Canadian oil company operating in Donian.
As the years of success continued, the women of Mbailassem became well-known in the region, attracting other women’s groups, almost doubling in size and growing their company’s value over 550%.
The business eventually caught the attention of Chad’s national government, who became confident enough in the women to pay to fly them to Burkina Faso earlier this spring for a two-week international conference where they further increased their capacity in food processing and improved their culinary knowledge.
Positions of Influence
Mbailassem has made it. After Africare and ExxonMobil’s investment and training, the women dramatically improved their lives. But once they gained momentum they never slowed. They have also begun reshaping their communities and inspiring others. In a country considered one of the most difficult places in the world to be a woman, they are now leaders, helping to chart the course for the region’s future. In a recent interview with a local radio station Mrs. Brigitte, Mbailassem’s president, gave advice to other women listening who desired to become successful business owners too.
In the interview she also stated that Mbailassem’s success is owed to Africare, but we disagree. These women always possessed the drive and the smarts to succeed. Back in 2006 when they lacked opportunity, they sought to make one for themselves. All they needed was an initial spark, and Africare is proud to have helped provide it.
There are almost half a billion women in Sub-Saharan Africa. Imagine how many more Mbailassems are out there, who need nothing more than one good opportunity.
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