A Woman on the Move

Starting With a Loan of $1.40, Fourera Soumana Grew Her Way to Business Success in Niger.
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This is an excerpt from Leading with Care: How Women Around the World are Inspiring Businesses, Empowering Communities, and Creating Opportunity by Mary Cantando.

With the temperature hovering around 100 degrees, Fourera Soumana travels to the market in western Niger with her donkey cart piled high with hand-woven mats. Although hundreds come from all over to sell their wares at this loud, noisy market, Soumana is one of the best known--a 50-year-old widow who runs her own business and is enjoying prosperity for the first time in her life. Soumana is an unusual woman with an amazing success story.

Before her husband died, Soumana had never been allowed to possess money or property of her own because, in this part of the world, men traditionally own everything, including the crops and goods produced by their wives. But her husband's death left Soumana a "free" woman, with the attendant opportunities and risks.

After her husband's death, Soumana joined one of the Mata Masu Dubara women's credit and savings groups that CARE has helped to organize throughout Niger. Mata Masu Dubara translates roughly as "women on the move." And Soumana has certainly earned the right to that title. In an impressive fashion, she has moved to progressively higher levels of economic security than she ever could have imagined. Soumana says this program has been the answer to her prayers.

Getting Started on Pennies a Week
Although extremely powerful, the program is simple. Over an eight-month training period, a group of 25 to 35 women come together on a regular basis to learn how to save money and use the funds to make loans to one another. Each woman deposits a few cents a week into the group's "cashbox," which serves as a revolving credit fund. As they generate a profit, the women reimburse the cashbox with interest at a reasonable rate, which is agreed to by the group, making the money available for more small loans. Thus, without any collateral, these women, who would certainly be rejected by traditional banks, build a reliable and ready source of credit.

When Soumana's group first started, each member deposited a mere five cents a week. Later, they doubled that to 10 cents. And as impossible as it may seem, the money started to pile up. By making small loans and charging 10 percent interest, the group was able to amass $1,000 in the first year. Now this doesn't sound like much by Western standards, but in Niger, where the average person survives on 40 cents a day, $1,000 is significant. And this is even more remarkable when you consider that most Nigerian women possess no money at all.

Building a Business Step by Step
Shortly after joining the group, Soumana decided to take out her first loan, for $1.40. With this seed money, she bought leather laces to weave mats. These laces enabled her to make and sell several mats, and the profit from those sales allowed her to pay off that loan quickly and take another loan for $7. With this second loan, she bought baobab leaves and okra in one market, packed them up and carried them through the heat for several hours, and sold them in another market at a higher price.

She then paid off the $7 loan and took yet another, larger loan for $14, which she used to buy and sell a sack of millet. With the profit from that sale, she bought more leather laces and made 60 mats, more than she had ever completed in her life, which she was able to sell for $43.

Her next step was a bold one. She decided to take her $43 in mat sales and couple it with a loan of $35 to buy a cart and donkey. Now this was a totally new line of business for Soumana, but that had never stopped her before. Traveling by foot up and down the national highway with hundreds of others, she had been considering this purchase for some time. As she carried her goods, she watched as the ill or elderly struggled on the path. And even the young and healthy labored under the weight of their heavy jugs or firewood. On a daily basis, she saw that a need existed, and her entrepreneurial instinct told her that a good donkey and a simple cart would generate a profit almost immediately. And she was right.

Achieving Amazing Results
With the help of her nephew, Amadou, Soumana began to rent her cart to transport firewood, as well as other heavy items, such as water and clay to make bricks. In almost no time she turned a significant profit. And as she tallied up her money, she realized that she didn't have to do the actual work herself in order to make a profit. She could hire others. With this thought, she began to consider how she might provide additional services by employing others from her village.

After thinking it through and discussing it with several women in her credit union, Soumana decided to hire a worker from her village to collect and chop firewood. She paid him a monthly wage of $14; her firewood business ultimately generated a profit of $45 a month. Once again, she was in the position of deciding how to reinvest her money.

So on and on she went: borrowing, buying, selling, hiring, repaying her loans. And each effort seemed more profitable than the last. All the while, Soumana remained active in her Mata Masu Dubara group, while developing a reputation throughout the region as a successful businesswoman.

With only her Mata Masu Dubara training, Soumana seems to have acquired the business savvy of an MBA. With her current loans paid off, she now produces a steady income that singles her out in her community like a Fortune 500 CEO--quite an accomplishment for a 50-year-old widow with no formal schooling who, until a few years ago, owned nothing at all.

But beyond her financial success, Soumana has achieved other goals that are out of reach for most Nigerian women. For one, the donkey cart business has always been totally dominated by men, but her move into that arena has been successful from the start. At least on the surface, the men seem to accept her, and the smartest among them keep an eye out to see what she is up to next.

To see pictures of Soumana and other women supported by CARE, go to LeadingWithCare.org

This excerpt reprinted by permission of the publisher, Jossey-Bass, from Leading with Care: How Women Around the World are Inspiring Businesses, Empowering Communities and Creating Opportunity by Mary Cantando. Copyright (c) 2009 by Jossey-Bass. All rights reserved.

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