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Sahel: New diplomas in hand—and proud of it—these women entrepreneurs are ready for the uncertainties of pastoral life

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Launched by four women in the village of Bouteydouma, the tannery collective today involves 17 women, who can work on their own schedules at home, balancing their family and work lives. © Elena Queyranne, World Bank

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STORY HIGHLIGHTS

  • The 20 million people in the Sahel who depend on migratory livestock herding face mounting environmental and social challenges that are pushing them into extreme poverty and threatening their very way of life.

  • To diversify their sources of income, the Regional Sahel Pastoralism Support Project (PRAPS) has provided over 517 skills training sessions in rural areas on topics chosen by communities.

  • This has helped more than 20,000 people (88% women) in Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Niger, Mauritania, and Senegal successfully engage in other income-generating activities.

NOUAKCHOTT, MAURITANIA, September 21, 2020—Their multicolored long veils contrast with the monochromatic dunes and bushes surrounding the tent where the women of the village of Bouteydouma sit. Their faces show their satisfaction and their broad smiles reflect their pride in having accomplished something significant. One by one, Fatimetou Mint Mohamed unrolls the hides that have just come from their tannery: “We used to spend all day drinking tea; now we are busy and contributing to the household finances.”

Although they have always done some rudimentary tanning for their own personal use, things changed a year and a half ago when Fatimetou and four other women from this village in southwestern Mauritania attended training at the Technical and Vocational Training Institute in Boghé, more than 200 km away. In this region, where the main occupation is raising livestock, “We realized that no one saved the hides of slaughtered animals. They had no value and were thrown away,” says Fatimetou, who today is the head of the Bouteydouma Women’s Association.

Receiving full room and board for two months with other women from all parts of Mauritania, some of whom brought along their babies, Fatimetou and fellow trainees learned a less noxious, more environmentally friendly technique to tan hides. Their teacher Hassan also showed them how to make new items, like special gourds that keep water cool.

“We have stayed in contact with him on WhatsApp and he helps us when we have questions,” says Fatimetou. They also benefited from a management course and equipment and funds to purchase hides and some working capital to launch their business.

Choosing a trade and training for it

Training courses and financial assistance like the women of Bouteydoum received are being deployed in six countries of the Sahel—Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Niger and Senegal—under the Regional Sahel Pastoralism Support Project (PRAPS). It is transforming the lives of many rural households whose main source of income is livestock. For years they have faced climate, security, and population challenges that have made them increasingly vulnerable. Today, 40% of 20 million livestock herders live in extreme poverty, no longer able to earn a decent living from livestock. The situation is precarious for many more, so it is essential to diversify their incomes to preserve and improve their way of life.

“We first conducted surveys of households so they could identify the activities that they would like to develop and the skills needed to take up those activities,” explains Doussou Hamzata Dicko, who is responsible for gender and social mediation for PRAPS. “The project targets young people and women in particular and supports them until they begin to produce high-quality products and become independent.”

Leather and hide tanning, animal fattening operations, milk processing, and the manufacture of milk products are all income-generating activities that are rooted in the pastoral world but also respond to collective needs, like plumbing and electricity or the processing of agri-food products.

The project, which is being implemented by the Ministries of Livestock and Employment and Professional Training, has received $248 million in financing from the World Bank through the International Development Association and is coordinated by the Permanent Inter-State Committee for Drought Control in the Sahel (CILSS). PRAPS directly supports more than 2 million people in six countries through parallel activities that aim to protect natural resources, promote animal health, and facilitate the marketing of livestock. It has provided 517 skills training courses for people living in rural areas and has provided equipment and seed capital to more than 12,000 individuals, 77% of whom are women.

"Now that they see money coming into the household, the husbands have no objections!"
Fatimetou Mint Mohamed
PRAPS Beneficiary

A snowball effect: Transmitting knowledge from mother to daughter for worldwide sales

Back in their village, Fatimetou and her four friends have trained other women and have set up a small business that now involves 17 people. What they love the most is being able to work at home, on their own schedules, as their family obligations allow.

“Our new method for processing hides is much quicker and easier to fit into our home life,” explains one young mother. For example, it used to take 10 days to process a hide, but now it takes only three. Working together, the work goes even faster, with just one day needed to process a hide. Purchased at a price of 26 Mauritanian ouguiya (MRU) from the village butcher, the raw hide is transformed and sold for MRU 350. Tanned hides are numbered and each worker knows how many she needs to sell, with profits pooled to keep everyone motivated. The women have also found new social status in a job once reserved for blacksmiths. “Now that they see money coming into the household, the husbands have no objections!” say many of them.

Their small business is thriving and is developing new products: calabash holders, prayer rugs, small decorative objects, and key rings, among others. Recently, their gourds, which keep water cool longer, have become a flagship product sold outside Mauritania in the market stalls of Senegal.

Profits that are not reinvested into the cooperative are used to improve the daily lives of its members and enable them to send their children to school. But as in life, it is not just the essentials that are important. They can now indulge in more superfluous purchases, such as “new veils or jewelry,” or, for the youngest members who are still in their teens, mobile telephones to connect them with the rest of the world. “And why not a car someday?!”

Today, leather from the small village of Bouteydouma is sold as far away as Turkey through a wholesaler in Nouakchott. Fatimetou and her associates are thinking big. They would like to continue to expand and build a factory to process even more products. They promise themselves that one day they will sell their products around the world, confident in their knowledge that no climate hazards can take this away from them and that they can face the future and its uncertainties with greater serenity.