The “River of Life”: Business journeys in Zimbabwe

Alexandra Crofton is a project officer with CARE Canada’s Women’s Economic Empowerment team. She recently returned from a trip to Zimbabwe where she saw firsthand the work that CARE is doing to empower young people by teaching them business skills through the Youth Empowerment Project (YEP).

What comes to mind when you hear the term ‘entrepreneur’? Maybe you think of high-tech moguls living on Bay Street, or maybe your local family restaurant owners. But do you think of young women like Edith living in rural Zimbabwe?

After her father passed away, Edith began helping her mother sell vegetables, eventually saving enough money to buy some chickens to start a poultry business. She participated in business training facilitated by CARE and was encouraged to take a loan to grow her business. Edith increased her stock and built an enclosure to accommodate 300 chickens. With her increase in profits, this allowed her to send her sister to boarding school. One small loan led to one big transformation that will create a ripple effect beyond Edith herself.

I hear stories like Edith’s on a daily basis in my work at CARE Canada. When given the opportunity and a small investment, people living in poverty are able to lift themselves out of it.

I also met 30 year-old Cecilia on my trip. After attending business management training from CARE and local partners, Cecilia had an idea for her own business. She discussed the idea with her husband, and with his support, she turned to her savings group and took a loan for $150 to start the business – buying and selling bananas. With the profit she made, she bought a bed, three goats and built a one-room house.

As any small-business owner can attest to – whether in Canada or Zimbabwe – for every success in business, there are just as many challenges and set-backs. Local markets can be very small in these regions, which makes it difficult to find people to sell to, and women are typically more limited than men in terms of how far it is acceptable for them to travel. Getting start-up money in the form of a loan is also a major challenge for many new business owners, especially women. In many developing countries, women are forbidden to take out loans (or need their husband to do it for them) and often do not have a bank account. That’s where CARE comes in.

Over 25 years ago, CARE created the first Village Savings and Loan Association (VSLA) with women in Niger. The concept was simple – a group of people, often women, each put an amount of money into a shared lockbox which acts as a bank that they can then take out individual loans from to start or grow a business. Savings groups are now run in 35 countries. CARE also facilitates business skills training so that entrepreneurs can learn how to be smarter with their earnings, where and how to invest, etc.

The business owners that were the most successful (highest income earners) in YEP attributed their success to family and community support. Often women that were supported and encouraged by their husbands and families had a higher return on their investment and were able to continuously grow their business and achieve their goals – whether sending their children to school, fixing their home, paying medical fees, or saving for an emergency like a drought.

In the YEP project, the journey of entrepreneurship is referred to as the “river of life.” This eloquent term is such an accurate and compelling analogy for the beautiful, challenging, winding, inspiring voyages the participants embark on. The path may not always be calm and clear, but it will always keep moving.

Learn more about CARE’s work to empower women and girls, men and boys, through savings groups, business training, skills development, and more.

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