By Alisha Rodriquez, Senior Program Development Officer
For the 53 members of the Bouté women’s cooperative in Mauritania’s Guidimakha region, a simple grain mill was all it took to transform their community.
The women cobbled together 40,000 Mauritanian ouguiya – the equivalent of about $140 U.S. – to found a simple community garden. They used the initial funds to buy seeds, and men in the village worked together to dig a well to irrigate the garden. Counterpart International kicked in a motorized mill, providing them with an additional source of income.
“In Mauritania, staple foods are typically cereals that must be milled,” says Romain Kenfack, who leads the Counterpart program in Mauritania. “Grain mills are valuable labor-saving technologies which allow for generation of income that can be leveraged into other projects. Having cereals milled at the village level also promotes increased food intake, as food is more often ready when needed.”
The proceeds of those initial enterprises in Bouté yielded incredible growth: The cooperative accumulated more than 2 million ouguiya in savings – nearly $7,500 U.S. dollars. The co-op used 10,000 ouguiya to open a butcher shop and 350,000 ouguiya for the construction and supply of a community store. Today, these businesses thrive and the cooperative has accumulated 800,000 ouguiya, about $2,800, in savings.
“In the past, a family would sell a milk goat to earn money,” says the cooperative’s President. Selling animals too early reduces a household’s assets and takes away valuable sources of nutrition for children. Now, she says, the families leave selling goats to the butcher shop, which buys goats for 7,000 to 8,000 ouguiya and earns 20,000 for a butchered animal – a 150 percent profit.
The cooperative’s community store, members say, has a tremendous impact on food security for families. Cooperative members who work on monthly rotations as shopkeepers earn income from the store’s proceeds, which enables them to buy food when harvests are scarce; and the community is also able to maintain a stock of food to last two or three months during shortages or when heavy rains leave roads to nearby markets impassable.
Other communities working with Counterpart have experienced similar success.
Reaching more with innovative activities
In the Assaba region’s Laouessi commune, one Village Development Committee’s (VDC) grain mill has generated income to support 15 businesses and development projects in four villages, plus seeded an emergency fund to pay for transporting sick residents to hospitals or managing other crises. A third VDC in the Guidimakha region leveraged a community garden supplied with a water pump, irrigation pipes, fencing and seeds to start four additional gardens and accumulate 4 million ouguiya (nearly $14,000) to fund community projects and buy furniture for the school.
In total, Counterpart has supported 160 committees through small initial investments and training in the creation of community development plans, implementation of community projects, and management of community funds and assets. Counterpart staff members can now take a back seat as VDCs are able to use their new skills and growing resources independently. At a recent meeting, Counterpart staff met with leaders of VDCs to review comprehensive action plans that included development objectives, time lines and assignments.
The benefits of the VDCs’ activities go beyond economic growth and community development. Committee members say they have also yielded immediate benefits on food security and health. Community gardens provide a steady supply of diverse, nutritious foods; one VDC member cited the impact of these gardens in reducing anemia among pregnant women and lowering the incidence of diseases among children in the village.
“Projects like community gardens can have a major impact on nutrition, especially for children,” says Jennifer Burns, Counterpart’s Nutrition Technical Specialist. Once parents learn good practices in nutrition, the gardens “provide communities with an opportunity to improve dietary diversity through increasing food availability and access,” Burns says. “Dietary diversity is vital to support optimal physical and cognitive development for children.”
The Bouté women say their cooperative’s activities have improved conditions for everyone in the village by guaranteeing that they have healthy food, clothing for children, and better health for everyone.
The Sollou cooperative says the initial investment by Counterpart has not only provided the village with immediate benefits but also has made families more self-sufficient and resilient for the long term.
“We need new tools and irrigation pipes for our community garden,” the group’s President says. “We don’t have to wait for an NGO to help us, because we have the money to buy them. We know one day Counterpart will leave our community. We need to be ready to take over for ourselves.”