Friday, 26 July 2013

Bonjour Yovo (Good morning stranger): Notes from a visit to Benin

  Last week I went to Benin (1). I got out of the plane in Cotonou, the largest city in Benin, as a tropical storm was receding and I was greeted by warm wet air, the sight of palm trees, the wet red soil…. and by the mosquitoes.

 The following morning, the first people who said hello to me were school children. As I made my way past them they all chimed “Good morning, Yovo.” And then smiled at me, I felt I had been welcomed.                                                           

I was in Benin to meet and talk to some of the entrepreneurial women funded by our lenders and to do the annual monitoring visit for our lendwithcare partner, the Microfinance Institution, Association des Caisses de Financement à la Base, or ACFB.  They run a busy office in Cotonou; from 7 to 10 in the morning, applicants queue to make enquiries, receive their loans, open savings accounts or make repayments. After 10:30 the loan officers set off to make visits to customers at their businesses.

I noticed that according to the profiles of women we receive, every woman entrepreneur in Benin invariably wants to buy a plot of land and build a house with the profits of her business. I decided to find out why they were unanimous in this aspiration. I found out. Polygamous marriages in Benin were only outlawed in 2004 so most men still have more than one wife. In practice, very little is done to stop men from taking a second wife and having more than one wife is a symbol of status and pride for men especially in the villages. Marriage to a second wife puts the first wife in a vulnerable position because she will be asked to leave the house she has shared with her husband. In most cases this house is the house of the husband’s parents, she has few rights there.

Until recently, getting access to land has not been a straightforward matter for people in Benin, and almost impossible for women living in the countryside. The reasons for this are quite complex, but the main one is that lands around villages belong to the “community” and the households that comprise those community are always represented by men. If ever a woman was going to have access to land it was going to be temporary and through a man, through either the husband or the father.

In fact, one of the women I met was in a particular difficult situation because her husband had just divorced her and she had to leave the house they lived in so that the new wife could come and live with the husband. She had to take the children with her and she found herself with nowhere to live and 3 dependents.
This is why almost every woman who is a member ACFB and lendwithcare recipient of in the project wants to secure her future by acquiring land in her name.

In fact, over a period of 6 years our local office CARE Benin has developed a project to tackle this problem. CARE has worked with partner agencies and the Government of Benin to ensure that women living in poverty can have access to property. Thanks to the project, access to property is now possible for women in Benin.
Lendwithcare expects that ACFB and CARE Benin will be able to work together so they can provide more and more women entrepreneurs with access to acquire land. In this way a significant number of women will be able to exercise their newly acquired right and will be able to own land and to further contribute to economic growth and social stability of their communities.

While I was there, I interviewed 28 women and men who have received lendwithcare loans through ACFB. Most entrepreneurs I visited live in the countryside and they cultivate and then process crops like red palm nuts, cassava, yam and maize. Other entrepreneurs have stalls from which they sell their basic food-packaged products.
Their views and comments were interesting and encouraging. Access to loans has had a very positive impact in their lives. The opportunity to run a business has provided them with the means to contribute towards their household needs, to employ relatives and neighbours and to help extended families.

The women all spoke of the peace of mind they have gained knowing that there would be food to put on the family table the following day; most of them mentioned how it made them particularly happy to be able to send their children or grandchildren to school. Many women talked about the independence they had gained, about enjoying being able to make decisions, about feeling safer and hopeful because of their savings accounts and even about having a more active role in their communities.

The women also talked about the challenges they face in the daily running of their business mainly not being able to reinvest as much money as they would like to, because of the many needs at home.  However, in most cases I saw resilience, determination and hope. I also noticed a strong sense of solidarity in their communities.
The attitude of the entrepreneurs was inspiring. I left Benin with a positive feeling, the people are right when they say that “le meilleur reste a venir” or “the best is yet to come”.

Teresa Hall
Consultant at

(1) Benin is a small country in West Africa. It has 9 million people and its economy is based on agriculture. Benin is number 166 out of 181 countries in the Human Development Index,  and 47% of its population live on less than 1 US $ a day.  In recent years there have been improvements in access to education, in women’s health and women's economic empowerment.

No comments:

Post a Comment