Women are the backbone of Haitian society, but they have little access to the resources they need to build a better life for their families. In one rural farming community, Holt is now working with a local partner to lift up the women of the region — equipping them with the tools and resources to build a small business, as well as the life skills they need to sustain and grow their business long-term.
Marie Guerdie dreams the dreams of mothers everywhere. She dreams that her children will complete their education. That her eldest son, now 13, will study mechanical engineering. She dreams that her 6-year-old daughter will grow up to be a nurse. And that her youngest son, just 18 months old, will one day work as a doctor. Marie Guerdie dreams that her children will grow proud and strong, give back to their community through meaningful work, and experience all the riches that life has to offer.
In her hopes and dreams for her children, Marie Guerdie is just like every mother everywhere. But where she lives, Marie’s dreams are unusually out of reach.
Marie lives with her husband and five children in the Lamardelle area of Haiti — a rural farming community about 20 miles east of Port-au-Prince. The seven members of Marie’s family share a two-room earthen house in a village with no paved roads, minimal electricity, no water or sewage treatment and no hospital. With poor sanitation and no water treatment plant, Lamardelle residents frequently experience outbreaks of cholera and diarrheal illnesses. Most of the residents are subsistence farmers, but Marie and her husband have no access to water to irrigate crops. Instead, her husband buys bread to re-sell and occasionally finds work as a mason — but his income is unstable, and never enough to feed five children.
For Marie and her family, life has always been a struggle.
But three months ago, Marie Guerdie took a significant step toward a better life when she joined Chache Lavi — a microenterprise program established by the local organization Fondation Enfant Jesus (FEJ). Loosely translated to “Seeking a Better Life,” Chache Lavi aims to promote gender equality and empower women living in Lamardelle by equipping them with the tools and resources to create and sustain small businesses. In turn, the women have increased economic stability and greater capacity to provide education, healthcare and nutrition for their families. Since the program began in 2007, 115 women have successfully graduated from Chache Lavi. Today, 75 percent still own and operate their businesses.
When Holt’s Haiti program learned about Chache Lavi, the felt excited about the opportunity to resume family strengthening services in the region — and to serve vulnerable families in a new and meaningful way.
“It has been a couple of years since we completed family preservation activity near the city of Saint Marc in an area north of Port-au-Prince (PAP) and in Jacmel, south of PAP,” explains Mike Noah, Holt’s director of services for Africa and Haiti. “We were looking for opportunities to initiate similar activities again. The Chache Lavi program seemed very similar to our model of family strengthening and preservation, and like an excellent opportunity to restart.”
Holt began supporting the Chache Lavi program in October 2015 — providing funding to assist with training and micro-lending for the women participating in this 18-month program. We also enrolled their children in Holt’s sponsorship program — matching each individual child with sponsors who give a monthly donation to meet their everyday needs. With this additional assistance, the women can focus on building their business.
“Sponsorship provides the needed backbone for the women to build self-sufficiency,” explains Mike. “Upon completion of the Chache Lavi program, the women will be in a much better position to care for themselves and their families.” Ultimately, their children will graduate from sponsorship once their mothers have built a thriving business, and their families have become both stable and self-reliant.
For Marie, the incentives to join Chache Lavi were numerous. She would learn business operations and management systems from specialized professionals brought in by FEJ. Her children would receive monthly support from sponsors. And once she completed the training, Marie would receive start-up funding as well as a mentor to advise and assist her as she built her microenterprise.
Although Marie had tried starting a small business on her own once before, the stakes were considerably higher. She took out a loan from a Haitian micro-credit institution — a profit-seeking company that required more than a 2 percent monthly return on her loan in addition to repaying the initial loan amount. If she did not earn enough to make her monthly payment, Marie would have to pay additional penalties. “This activity was really stressful for her,” writes Stéphanie Mésidor, chief financial officer for FEJ.
To open up lending to other women — and in “the spirit of solidarity” — FEJ does encourage all graduates to return 3.75 percent of their loan amount over a 10-12 month period. With Chache Lavi, however, the women who graduate from the program do not have to repay the original start-up funds provided for the business.
“In micro-credit institutions, beneficiaries are also not provided with basic life skills and business trainings,” Stéphanie adds. Chache Lavi is all about empowering women by equipping them with the tools to change their lives in ways that are both positive and sustainable. And for sustainability, the women of Lamardelle need more than just a small business loan. They need education, good sanitation and hygiene, healthcare and nutrition for their families. They need to understand their civil rights. And they need the confidence to stand up as strong business leaders in their community.
“Women are the backbone of Haitian society, [but] they have little access to financial or business support,” Stéphanie shares in an FEJ factsheet about the Chache Lavi program. “They are often hindered in their capacity to develop their business due to lack of self-esteem, gender issues, limited knowledge of their rights, as well as the importance of hygiene, nutrition and family planning.”
To help provide these critical life skills, the program begins with a training period for the women selected to be a part of Chache Lavi. FEJ aptly refers to this period as the “transformation phase,” with workshops and trainings that cover topics relevant to the participants’ lives such as self-esteem, healthy relationships, human rights and autonomy. For women like Marie Guerdie, these trainings are truly transformative. “Guerdie confides that since she is part of CLV, she becomes more confident,” says Stéphanie. “She says the training sessions have enabled her to have better communication with her husband and her children, increased her knowledge, and become more patient with her children.”
For the second part of the transformation phase, the women focus on building their business acumen. They participate in workshops on business planning, budgeting and marketing. They learn about pricing, market identification and how to access financing. They are encouraged to reflect on their strengths within the context of their culture and community, and to develop a business idea that corresponds with their interests and abilities.
And once they have selected a business idea, local experts help train, support and guide each woman toward economic success. Not insignificantly, FEJ strives to recruit experts who are Haitian role models or people with practical experience of life in Haiti.
“Being from the Lamardelle area themselves, the directors of FEJ were intimately acquainted with the needs in their community and developed their NGO to try and address those needs,” Mike says, explaining the importance of partnering with local professionals. “They have an intimate knowledge of the people in their community, and this knowledge positions them as the best ones to provide services to those at most risk.”
Another goal of Chache Lavi is to create business opportunities for the women that focus on producing goods to sell, rather than simply buying and re-selling items. During a pilot phase of the program in 2007-2008, FEJ staff observed that the profitability of the women’s microenterprises was limited by the fact that they were not producing any goods. In the years since the pilot phase, FEJ has developed several production-based enterprises for the women to participate in, such as vocational training to work with textiles, livestock to produce foods such as milk and cheese, and a cassaverie to produce and sell casav —a dry flatbread made from yucca, a popular food in Haiti.
Today, 85 percent of the women who have graduated from Chache Lavi are producing their own goods. However, Stéphanie explains that the women need some level of education at the beginning of the program to launch a production-based business.
Marie Guerdie has a primary school education, which is fairly standard for the women in her community. Raising livestock might have been a good option for her. However, to be successful in this enterprise, one natural resource was critical. “For each beneficiary, a CLV team does a field assessment in the area where they intend to launch the small business to see the opportunities,” Stéphanie explains. “In the case of Guerdie, the team has noted a lack of water, which makes it almost impossible to do agriculture, to produce goods. This is why she starts with trades.”
Today, Marie Guerdie has completed the “transformation phase” of Chache Lavi, and has received financial support to start her small business purchasing clothing wholesale and reselling the items in her community. A CLV team worked intensively with her to develop a business plan selling products that are easily sold and in demand in her community. And together, they crafted realistic objectives to help measure and evaluate her progress.
Holt’s Haiti team is excited to see the progress women like Marie have made in just a few short months of participating in Chache Lavi.
“I was inspired when I first visited FEJ and saw some of the projects they initiated to address their community’s greatest needs,” says Mike. “Not only were their programs well organized, but as exemplified by Marie’s story, they are also effective. The Chache Lavi program provides hope for her and other women in the program to be able to meet their needs as well as those of their family.”
Marie now has greater capacity to meet the needs of her family. She is a respected member of her community and has even taken on a leadership role advocating for better waste management in her neighborhood. And most of all, the hopes and dreams she has her children seem so much more attainable.
As Stéphanie says, “She no longer has stress… She [has] blossomed.”
Robin Munro | Managing Editor