Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Monday, February 14, 2011 – Day 6 – Great first day in Niger

We have been going pretty much non-stop since we got to Niger. I'm writing this at the end of our stay here - day 8 of the trip - but I only just finished the blog post from the first day! More to come...

We had a terrific – and exhausting – first day in Niger. At this point, we are traveling with Robin Mednick, founder and president of Pencils for Kids, which has adopted the cluster of villages centered around Libore, Niger. Here’s Robin with one of the girls Pencils for Kids has helped.

Libore, Niger - 2.14.11

Robin has been successful here in large part because she has developed relationships with a group of amazing local people, including the former mayor of the cluster, Amadou Madougou; Amadou’s daughter, Ramatou (at left below), who works for UNICEF; Fatouma (below, between Judy and John) the former vice mayor of the cluster;

and Hamani Djibo (below with his daughter), whose NGO Libo is the implementing agency for the work Pencils for Kids does. We anticipate working through this fine group of people to expand on this work, especially in projects which generate economic opportunity.

We visited the center of the Libore cluster. The center is better off than the rest of the villages in the cluster (and better off than many of the villages we see in the Millennium Villages Project) because it is a short drive on a paved road to Niamey, the capital city, giving Libore’s residents access to the Niamey market – both to purchase necessities and to market their own goods. And Libore treasures its relationship with Pencils for Kids, which has built 3 schools, 1 school library, provides school supplies for children, microcredit for women, secondary school scholarships for girls, and more. Check them out at

At the school library (built by Pencils for Kids) about 12 girls who are receiving scholarships greeted Robin warmly. They are all in the last two years of high school. The two in their final year expect to attend university, and all the girls want to be doctors! Their lovely uniforms were created by the sewing center, our next stop. Pencils for Kids started the sewing center in 2008. In our very first grant, Eliminate Poverty Now purchased 6 sewing machines to expand the sewing center.

The sewing girls, some of whom are this year graduating from the 3 year training program, are doing very good work which they are able to sell locally. Nine girls (4 second year students and 5 third year students) had requested and received microcredit to enable each of them to purchase a sewing machine. We attended a ceremony celebrating the graduates and watched them take their new assets (non-electrified foot treadle machines) home on donkey carts. Each girl will pay off her loan over a year at about $12 monthly. Even while paying off the machine, a girl will be able to earn significant income.

This was one of the real high points of the day. The sewing center model that Pencils for Kids has worked out is very successful, and we intend to replicate that model in another village in the cluster. We need to find one that is close enough to Niamey to enjoy the benefits of this proximity, but not too close to the existing sewing center to compete with the newly empowered sewing girls.

As you know, we had planned to begin working with the sewing center to produce reusable sanitary pads for donation to local girls’ groups. We met with a wonderful group of women from all over the area (one came on motorbike from about 45 minutes away), and discussed issues relating to girls finishing secondary school. Surprisingly, for them lack of sanitary pads is NOT the problem. For them, the problems are distance, hunger and poverty, and women’s empowerment.

· Distance

o Roads are not safe for girls walking 8-10 km (5-6 miles) to school (girls walk, boys bike)

o Providing bicycles would not help because parents would give bikes to boys

o Many schools close sporadically during periods when the government doesn’t pay teachers and the teachers strike

· Hunger and Poverty

o Overpopulation is an enormous problem. Many families have 12 children, sometimes also caring for relatives’ children if they are orphaned. They cannot afford the cost of education (books, notebooks, pencils, uniforms, lunch)

o There are no school feeding programs here. If children go to school at all, they go to school hungry. Even preschoolers.

o The villagers had thought of offering a school feeding program for girls (to encourage attendance) but knew they would not be able to maintain it, and did not want to start if it could not be maintained

Clearly, they did not believe that access to sanitary pads would make the difference for their girls in attending school.

The conversation turned to THEIR ideas for alleviating the problems of hunger and poverty. All of them revolved around increasing economic opportunity for women, empowering them to feed their families and educate their children.

The women in the meeting were impressive. They are smart and outspoken. Fatouma, the former vice mayor, is one of the acknowledged leaders in the group. She spoke of the opportunity to organize a grain warehouse to store the harvest until it can be sold at a higher price. Others were interested in accessing land to create a women’s cooperative garden. We shared with them the stories of the grain warehouse Eliminate Poverty Now has funded in Uganda, and our women’s cooperative garden in Mali. We talked about the Farmers of the Future program, which Pencils for Kids has begun piloting at two local sites, and for which we are in Niger to begin creating the curriculum. Towards the end of the meeting, three of the women proposed the idea of sewing and selling reusable sanitary pads locally.

We are eager to help these women improve their lives. We asked Fatouma to work up a proposal for how the grain warehouse would work, and we hope to be able to help the women make this a reality. And we agreed that Eliminate Poverty Now will help them test whether reusable pads is a viable business opportunity.

All this was very exciting, but the high point was yet to come. We visited the Farmers of the Future pilot that Robin began at the Gueriguinde school. The project is already a huge success. We saw beautiful rows of tomatoes interplanted with lettuces, and mango trees the children had grafted. The tomatoes have set fruit, the lettuces and mango trees are ready to be sold. People had already asked to buy the produce, but the children wanted to be able to show us what they were achieving.

The kids LOVE working in the garden and are very proud of it. Each child works one hour/week, and they even come in on weekends voluntarily.

The initial income from garden will be used to bring in electricity to power a flour mill donated by a French NGO. As with the flour mill we funded in Ethopia (our very first investment in economic opportunity in Africa), villagers will then be able to have their flour ground locally –and the money they pay for grinding will stay local. Income from the flour mill will go back into the school and the garden.

Our last stop was the large Libore central market. We visited fabric stores to check out local textiles for Elizabeth Yates, who is thinking about selling these fantastic fabrics in Colorado. Wouldn’t it be great if this trip led to increased international trade!

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