When a Woman Leads the Way

By Libasse Sow

Each time I visit a Hunger Project epicenter community, I am reminded of the strength of rural women in Africa. They are at the heart of the community and when they feel empowered, they make sustainable change that has ripple effects for generations. As I reflect on the fact that 50 epicenter communities have declared self-reliance, and are now sustainably and independently maintaining development momentum, I have come to the conclusion that when a woman leads the way, progress happens. Just take the story of Ndeye Ndiaye, a woman living in Fadam, Senegal.

To get to Fadam, we drove down a sandy track lined with euphorbia, which frequently crashed on the windows of our car. The dry grass rubbed shoulders with piles of peanut straw waiting to be stripped of their seeds. It’s a reminder that the rainy season ended not long ago; the harvest period is beginning. Women, scarves tightly wrapped around their backs, picked cowpeas, one of the main crops in the area.

We arrived in Fadam and were greeted by Ndeye Ndiaye. She welcomed us into her home, setting us up on a veranda, which was also used as a sewing workshop. Standing about 2 meters tall, I remember thinking that she should be recruited for one of the Dakar basketball teams.

Ndeye sat on a mattress thrown on the floor and began to answer our questions, sharing about her beginnings as a Hunger Project animator (community volunteer) and setting up her sewing business and workshop.

Ndeye with her brothers, who she employs as part of her tailoring business (Photo: THP-Australia).

“I started with the grace of a 50,000 FCFA credit from the savings and credit program at Koki Epicenter to purchase a sewing machine. One of my uncles bought me a second machine. With these two machines, I committed myself to train the young people of the village because at the moment only four are qualified and I am the only female tailor here,” she shared.

“I make all my own designs. I have nothing to envy about the rich tailors of Dakar. Whenever I wear a boubou, people ask me where I got it. They are amazed when I tell them that I made it by myself, especially because I live in a village that does not always have electricity!”

The construction of her workshop has allowed her to recruit young people who have dropped out of school, giving them the chance to learn a trade in an austere environment, where rain-fed agriculture is the main activity.

Khadim Ndiaye, one of the tailors, confided to us that this workshop is a godsend for the surrounding villages that no longer need to go to urban centers like Louga to dress well. Fortunately, Ndeye Ndiaye has risen to the challenge with her leadership and initiative, growing her business to meet the need.

Ndeye and Couma, another woman leader who works with The Hunger Project at Koki Epicenter in Senegal. (Photo Credit: THP-Australia)

Ndeye Ndiaye’s proven leadership is not fortuitous. Very early on she distinguished herself in The Hunger Project’s training sessions, where she participated in capacity building and leadership trainings. She is a natural teacher and has decided to use her skill to create change in her community — from teaching sewing to young people to leading adult literacy courses for her neighbors.

Women like Ndeye, who are committed to their vision for a better future, are the key change agents in The Hunger Project’s Epicenter Strategy. Without them, I don’t know that we would be celebrating self-reliance alongside 50 (plus!) epicenter communities.

At The Hunger Project, we know the value of a learning-minded, holistic development approach. We partner with communities, designing programs that build the capacity of local women, men and children to lead their own development and evolve to meet changing needs. When the Epicenter Strategy in Africa was launched over 20 years ago each epicenter progressed through four phases, eventually graduating to a designation of “self-reliant.” Since then, following a thorough data analysis and to improve sustainability, our gender-focused self-reliance strategy has evolved and has proven successful across eight countries in Africa. Within the current Epicenter Strategy, when an epicenter makes measurable progress in nine designated program areas, the communities declare self-reliance, sustainably and independently maintaining development momentum. We ended 2020 by marking a monumental milestone: more than 50 epicenters across eight countries have declared self-reliance. That is, over 50 epicenters, representing 974 communities and nearly 900,000 people, have demonstrated the ability to leverage local resources and governments to achieve economic and environmental sustainability.

These communities have made transformational progress during their time with The Hunger Project. A total of 34 out of 54 epicenters have eliminated severe hunger entirely and nine more have reduced severe hunger to less than 1%. A diverse and reliable income is key to maintaining progress in these communities and, as of the end of 2020, over half of rural households have sustainably increased their income through new, non-farming businesses. For the 468,000 women participating in programs at self-reliant epicenters, learning new business skills has enabled them to launch their own businesses. Now, more than a quarter of new businesses are woman-owned. And with health concerns at the forefront of our minds worldwide, healthy practices at self-reliant epicenters have improved conditions for community members of every age. Programs in water and sanitation have successfully reduced diarrheal disease for children under 5 years to 11%. And Gender Inequality Workshops have reached 43% of people over the age of 15 with accurate and comprehensive HIV/AIDS information, debunking myths and destigmatizing treatment and prevention.

The successes of these self-reliant communities represent not only an end to hunger, but also hundreds of thousands of lives of self-reliance and dignity being lived each day. Women who were once silent are now the leading voices in their communities. Children once denied access to education have a brighter future. Individuals who once woke up each day in food insecurity are looking to the far future with confidence. And mindsets of resignation have forever transformed into mindsets of potential and opportunity.

Over the last 20 years, we’ve continuously refined the Epicenter Strategy and what we are implementing today looks very different from what it looked like when we started. As we look to the future, we will continue the trend of learning. We will learn from these self-reliant communities as they thrive and will find new ways to implement proven models for community leadership. This collaboration between The Hunger Project and community partners serves as a testament to the potential for widespread adoption of community-led models throughout Africa and beyond.

Libasse Sow served as the Head of Monitoring, Evaluation and Learning for The Hunger Project-Senegal and supported five epicenter communities on their journey to self-reliance.

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