Sometimes a development project works, but not in the way it meant to. Can NGOs listen and learn from incredible women like Nimco?
I’m in Wado Makhil, a small village in Somaliland, on the border with Ethiopia. When I say ‘border,’ I mean the small piece of string slung between two trees that separates the two countries. Children from the village routinely cross the string and go to school on the other side, and the main water source is also on the other side of the string. There is no well-defined road to the village, just a rapidly changing mud track and shrubland that all looks the same. It’s a wonder how people get anywhere, and I’m told by locals that losing your way is quite common – especially when it rains and the ‘roads’ fill up.
In the village, I met Nimco. Only a couple of years ago, she was just like many of the other women I met – married, four kids, and rarely travelled beyond her immediate neighbourhood. She would take care of the kids, the home, and the livestock, and then in her “spare” time tend to the family’s fields.
Then one day, Nimco’s life changed – though not quite in the way expected.
Oxfam and HAVOYOCO started a project aiming to support communities like Nimco’s to become more resilient in the face of frequent droughts. Nimco was selected as part of a women’s group to receive young goats, which could be fattened and sold for a profit in the market. With the profits, it was expected that the women would buy more goats, and the cycle would continue. Oxfam and HAVOYOCO would provide the women with training, access to veterinary support, and help link them up to markets.
Nimco had one look at the project and decided that her heart was not in it. She wanted to do something else. So she sold her first batch of goats and did not buy any more. So did the project fail with Nimco? Well, not exactly.
Instead, Nimco decided to run a small restaurant in the village. Why a restaurant in the middle of nowhere? Well, taxis run regularly between this village on the border and the capital Hargeisa, two and a bit hours away. People from neighbouring settlements come here to catch the taxis, and they are dropped off here too. Nimco decided to capitalise on the opportunity provided by all this traffic.
She was already a good cook. All she needed was to increase the quantities and add some variety, and a small infusion of capital to get her started. So with the money from selling the first batch of goats, Nimco bought some rough tables and chairs for seating customers, and some pots, pans and plates. She bought a cell phone and, in an extended shed in front of her home, opened her restaurant.
She has a simple system. She cooks up a meal in the morning for her customers and family. Over time she has got the maths right – depending on the season and weather conditions she knows how much to prepare. Rarely there is any wastage, she says. The food has to be finished the same day because there is no refrigeration possible.
Every 2-3 days she calls her supplier, a small retail shop in Hargeisa, and tells him what she needs. A taxi driver picks it up and delivers to her shop. On the return the driver takes money and pays the retailer, and gets a small commission – sometimes money, sometimes a meal.
Nimco has been doing this for a few months now and can already feel the difference in her life. She no longer goes to work in the family fields – her husband manages this instead. She can take care of the small children since she works at home, meaning her eldest daughter now goes to school as she doesn’t have to stay behind to look after the siblings. Nimco has an income that is clearly identified as her own. She controls it and that, she claims, has actually made family life much better. She has more say in what goes on in her home.
Nimco’s story made my day and I came back inspired. There is no doubt that Nimco is an exceptional woman who would probably have succeeded regardless of whether Oxfam had landed up there. She knew what her strengths were, what was needed in the market, and how to manage her supply chains.
The interaction with Oxfam changed her life. Will it change Oxfam though? I feel that there are lot of lessons for development workers in this story.
The most important one that I have taken away is to listen – to what the community has to say and to what the surroundings have to say. Just because it is an agro-pastoral community does not mean that livestock and agricultural inputs are the only possibility to improve livelihoods. Not everyone can open restaurants and run them profitably of course, but there could be other options in people’s minds.
Another lesson is one of humility – to know that we don’t have all the answers. Many a time, the answers may lie outside us, in unexpected places. We need to learn to spot them. George Bernard Shaw once said, “Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.”
Development workers are supposed to be change agents. Can we change our minds?
This was originally posted on the Musings of a Wanderer blog