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Unlocking Capital, Unlocking Opportunity

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Diallo Mali Iwd

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By Carybeth Reddy and Aichata Mohamed Sako

Diallo Mali Iwd

Diallo Sako runs a successful soap import company in Bamako, Mali.

In Mali’s capital of Bamako, Diallo Hawa Traore runs a soap company, one of the first in the city to sell gabakourouni, a special soap from Ivory Coast. She started the company more than a dozen years ago. Diallo’s wholesale and retail customers know that her gabakourouni is the best quality available in Bamako.

But as the demand for the imported soap grew, Diallo began eyeing a growing landscape of competitors. If she was going to keep her reputation as the best in the business, she would have to makes some changes. And to do that, she needed money.

More than a billion women and girls worldwide don’t have access to formal financial services, according to the World Bank’s Global Findex database. Women make up more than half of the self-employed in low-income countries—the need and demand are huge. Globally, women are less likely to get a bank loan, and when they do, they pay higher interest rates. In many countries, women are unable to own land or inherit money, so it’s hard to show the collateral necessary to get a loan.In Mali, women are often denied credit regardless of their ability to repay. Bias, discrimination, and misperception abound—women are seen as more of a credit risk because of their perceived spending and saving habits.

After a long, laborious, and confusing process, Diallo did finally get a micro-loan. She struggled to manage it, but not because her business wasn’t sound and not because she was a woman. She just needed a little knowledge and education.

IESC seeks to bridge this knowledge gap to help women entrepreneurs scale their businesses. To most effectively increase women’s access to financial services, IESC supports both partners in the financial relationship—the lender and the borrower—to help them make smart financial decisions that aren’t based on stereotypes. We train women in financial literacy, business planning, the loan application process, and at the same time, help banks and other financial institutions to develop new loan products, manage risk, and apply sound business analysis to loan applications, rather than make decisions based on gender.

Through her involvement with a U.S. State Department program for women entrepreneurs, Diallo was referred to IESC’s program in Mali that is increasing access to finance for agricultural and women-owned small businesses.

In addition to financial literacy and business management training from IESC, Diallo also participated in a mentorship program for women entrepreneurs. Diallo took her new knowledge all the way to the bank. She qualified for two microfinance loans with reasonable terms.

And her business is thriving. She has 20 new wholesale customers and has hired 25 more people to help her fill orders on time. She has a new contract to begin working directly with a factory in Ivory Coast, and she has even expanded her product line to include plakali, a traditional food made from cassava.

Unlocking capital for women transforms lives and has huge potential to create jobs and grow economies.

Madjeneba Coulibaly works at one of IESC’s partner microfinance institutions in Mali. She says that working with women who have received the training and support that Diallo received is good for business, “because the women are already aware of and know what it means to get a loan.”

These loans have revolutionized Diallo’s ability to do business. She says new opportunities present themselves every day.

And she intends to take full advantage of all of them.


Carybeth is senior program associate and Aichata is monitoring and evaluation manager on the Mali Finance for Food Security and Women Entrepreneurs Program. The program, which runs through 2020, expands access to credit to businesses in the sorghum, millet, rice, livestock, and agroforestry value chains and to women entrepreneurs and associations. It is awarded through Volunteers for Economic Growth Alliance (VEGA) and is funded jointly by the U.S. Agency for International Development and the Swedish International Development Agency.

The Time is Now to Dismantle Systems that Hold Women Back

The theme for International Women’s Day 2018 is “Time is Now: Rural and urban activists transforming women’s lives”

By Tom Miller, President and CEO

This Thursday, March 8, we celebrate International Women’s Day. This year, it comes in the midst of what feels like a cultural tipping point. After a series of high-profile cases, the #MeToo movement has drawn attention to the heartbreaking prevalence of sexual harassment and assault against women, and #TimesUp has gained momentum with a call to end systemic inequality in the workplace. A record number of women are running for office in 2018. And just in the several weeks since the horrific Parkland shooting, passionate and brave young women are putting themselves front and center of #NeverAgain, the movement demanding action on guns.

Women are clearly having a moment. I am hopeful that this moment won’t be just a moment, but will be the start of a new wave of change.

I have three grandchildren: a girl, age 4, and two boys, age 2 and 6 months. When I spend time with them, I am uncomfortably reminded of just how much work there is to be done, not simply changing or stopping bad behavior, but reforming entire systems (The absurdity of women being accorded a single day to be celebrated underscores this point).

Already as babies and toddlers, my grandchildren are drawn to toys long considered “appropriate” for their gender—my older grandson plays with trucks and blocks, and my granddaughter seeks out dolls and pink princesses. When I ask my adult children about this, they insist that they not steering their own kids toward these choices. Between television and other media and their peer groups, children are already advanced students in the school of gender expectations by the time they start preschool.

These early expectations compound over childhood and into early adulthood, setting women up for an unfriendly game of snakes and ladders, where they navigate a maze of difficult choices and a set of options do not fully allow them to reach their potential.

As the head of IESC, I have an obligation to provide women at our organization equal opportunity and equal space to develop professionally, to promote women to leadership roles at IESC, and to contribute to a culture and structure that supports women.

I look at what is happening in the United States, and then I think about the places around the world where IESC works. Our mission is to deliver private sector solutions to reduce poverty and promote equitable and sustainable economic development. Our vision is a world where everyone has the opportunity to pursue gainful employment and has equal access to the resources necessary to be economically empowered and to prosper. The systems that prevent women’s full economic participation in these places are many magnitudes more challenging what we are facing in the United States and include legal, political, religious, and cultural dimensions. And yet the benefits of realizing our vision are substantial and tangible. If women play an identical role to men in the labor market, it is estimated that as much as $28 trillion (26 percent) could be added to global annual GDP by 2025.

I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t have the solutions to systemic problems of gender inequity, but that doesn’t mean they are aren’t worth taking on.

And we at IESC do work to do that. I am proud of all that our organization has accomplished in the past few years to consciously ensure a culture of equity and inclusion and to redouble our commitment to development interventions that are not just available to women, but specifically tailored to them and their needs. It is overwhelmingly the younger women at IESC who are leading the charge on these fronts, with enthusiastic support from our male colleagues, including me.

And so I recognize, in the midst of this cultural moment, that it isn’t my generation that will come up with the solutions.But everywhere around us are signs that change will come, perhaps slowly, perhaps painfully, here at home and around the globe. My grandchildren will be part of that.

And that is something to celebrate.

Let Women Show You Who They Are, and Change Will Happen

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Let Women Show You Who They Are, and Change Will Happen

By Victoria Barone

I recently had the opportunity to talk with Tarana Amini, the human resources manager for IESC’s Assistance in Building Afghanistan by Developing Enterprises Program in Kabul. Tarana has been with the ABADE Program since it started in 2012. In 2016, IESC honored her with the Tarek Nabhan International Achievement Award, which recognizes team members in the field who regularly go above and beyond to achieve excellence.

Tarana and I discussed how she started her career, what it’s like to work in Afghanistan as a woman, and how she sees the future of women’s equality in Afghanistan.

‘I have to make sure no one from my neighborhood, or even my close relatives, know where I work. . . Although Afghanistan is improving, it is still a dangerous place for women, especially the emancipated ones.’*

Tarana said it is difficult’and even dangerous’to work as a woman in Afghanistan, especially working, as she does, with a team of primarily men, in development, and on a USAID project. Tarana must be very aware of and take great care with how she dresses and behaves. She said that, despite how difficult this can be, with the help of her family and colleagues, she has been able to overcome these obstacles. She believes that while it is still dangerous for women to work in Afghanistan, the situation is improving.

Tarana did not always intend to have a professional career. Previously, the situation with the war in Afghanistan was so bad that her family had to leave the country. They went to Pakistan, where Tarana went to school and learned English and basic computer skills. Being in Pakistan, she said, gave her a chance that other Afghan girls did not have. She sounded very thankful for the educational opportunity.

‘At the beginning, my only motivation was to help my family. . .and to see them happy. Eventually, what gave more motivation for my career was to contribute to building my country, and especially in a sensitive political environment.’

After her family returned to Afghanistan, Tarana got an entry-level job to help support her family. She worked hard for a number of years, building her education and skills. Success at work’and being recognized for her efforts with promotions’motivated Tarana to work even harder. And she began to think about working as a way to help build her country.

When I asked her what she most enjoys about her career, Tarana said working in human resources allows her to help ensure that women have rights and protections in the workplace, so they are better off than she was when she first started working.

‘I thought, if I let him behave like this, they’ll all behave that way.’

Talking more specifically about being a woman in the Afghan workforce, Tarana believes it’s important to stand up against gender norms and expectations in the workplace. She recalled an incident where a male colleague shouted at her in the office. Instead of letting it go, she sat down with him one-on-one to discuss the issue. She wanted to make it absolutely clear to him and to others in the office that it was not okay to treat her that way.

Tarana’s managers and colleagues were supportive. More importantly, she relied on a female colleague and mentor who had undergone similar experiences and was able to advise her and give her the courage to stand up for herself.

‘To me, a role model is a person who has positively influenced my life, and who has helped shape my personality and my character. They are people we can look up to for advice in a hard situation.’

Tarana has benefitted from a number of role models and mentors who have actively supported her career development. First and foremost among them is her mother, the woman who inspires her the most and who, Tarana said, pushes her to be proud of who she is, make decisions she believes in, and never to be ashamed. Tarana also named several colleagues on the ABADE Program’both men and women’who have provided support, advice, and comfort. Among them is her boss, Miroslav Levanic, whom she describes as her ‘best friend’ and the most important person in her professional life.

‘Looking back to the Taliban time, I thought very clearly that there was no future for women. But looking at the current situation in Afghanistan, I am sure that one day we’ll change things. It may take a bit longer, but we will achieve women’s equality.’

Tarana admitted that in the past she did not have much hope for women in Afghanistan. Now there are women in the workplace, women in the government. She is confident there will be equal rights between men and women. ‘They are going to help their country, their families. . .It is not that far off.’

‘It is on us [women]. If we want, we can do anything. If we sit at home and we just. . .tolerate these problems, then it will never happen,’ she said. ‘But if we work for ourselves, for our country, for our families, we will achieve it.’

Tarana can see for herself the progress that is being made through her work with ABADE. The program has supported about 300 small and medium enterprises in Afghanistan through investment partnerships that help companies modernize or expand. About 20 percent of all the businesses receiving support from ABADE are owned or co-owned by women. It used to be that if a woman owned a company, her husband was the president. But now Tarana sees women-owned businesses with husbands and brothers working under and reporting to their wives and sisters.

Tarana ended our conversation this way:

‘To my brothers, to the men: they should not think that they are the only source that can help the family or the country. They should also look to the women to help, and they should count on us. Because if they count on us. . .if they give us the chance, we will show them who we are and how we can support them. . .and the success of our country.’

*Quotes from Tarana have been lightly edited for language and clarity.

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Victoria Barone is the gender intern at IESC. She is a first-year graduate student in the International Development Studies master’s program at The George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.

Narcisa Bautista, the Legacy of a Woman Who Knocked Down Walls

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by Riamny Méndez

Narcisa Bautista recalls that in 1981, when she began working as a secretary at a produce export business in La Vega, Dominican Republic, there were no women in charge of such export companies.

Eighteen years later, when Narcisa became owner of the same company at which she began as a secretary, there were still no women in charge of similar companies. Narcisa grew her career and developed leadership skills in a male-dominated environment with no female role models.

Narcisa Bautista

That wasn’t the first time Narcisa knocked down a wall. She has always had a love and natural ability for mathematics. This opened doors for her in a country where, even now, the stereotype persists that women and numbers do not get along.

“I understood math more. When they hired people. . .they looked for someone good in math, and I was ranked number one. I had not entered university, just graduated from high school,” she said, sitting at a table in one of her company’s offices. On the wall are a map of the world, a small painting of Sri Lanka, and some family photos.

A short distance away you can hear the sound of workers coming in and out of from the cold storage quarters, the voices of producers working to close a deal, and the other typical sounds and conversations of a busy office. The packinghouse Narcisa runs has 55 permanent employees and buys oriental vegetables, such as Chinese eggplant, and tropical fruits, such as coconut. Of the 125 producers she buys from, about 30 are women.

When Narcisa graduated high school in 1981, the Dominican Republic, like many Latin American countries, was undergoing a major economic crisis, and higher education was out of reach for most poor families like Narcisa’s. But her job in the packinghouse allowed her to cover the tuition of a private university.

Narcisa is suddenly lost in a memory. The figure of her mother emerges, a protective woman who has come to wait for her teenage daughter at 8:00 at night by the side of the road to make sure she arrived home safely from her job doing inventory for a farm in Santiago Rodriguez, near the Haitian border.

‘I arrived in a truck. The driver would leave me, and my mother would be there waiting for me on the route. So far we have come,” she says, clearly proud of her success and what she has built.

When she took over the business, it was very basic, consisting of just a small building where the products were received and a cold room. Narcisa has had to deal with the hazards of hurricanes and floods, closed export markets (such as the United States), and government bureaucracy.

But she succeeded in growing the business, regaining access to export markets, and increasing her customer base and sales. Staying afloat in a business full of ups and downs has required well-honed negotiation skills and a willingness to partner with other exporting companies. In fact, she credits much of her success to good, long-term relationships with employees, colleagues, and clients.

For example, when she acquired the business, a Canadian company offered her an exclusive, ten-year contract and a loan on very favorable terms. To this day, she maintains a close relationship, ‘like a family’ with the company’s owners.

Narcisa believes she has a responsibility as a business owner to help her community, and Exportada Cruz Bautista carries out social responsibility work, for example, paying tuition so that producers’ children can attend university and building houses for suppliers.

She also feels an obligation to use her position in the community to support the local La Vega economy. Thousands of families in the region earn their living from agriculture. Narcisa serves as vice president of the Association of Oriental Vegetable Exporters (ADEXVO) and represents her sector in the Dominican Agro-Business Board (Junta Agroempresarial Dominicana). Chief among these groups’ activities is advocating for state support when there are closures or trade difficulties.

Today, Narcisa is no longer the solitary female voice among a chorus of men. There are now several women as owners or co-owners of family-run vegetable export businesses.

Narcisa is married to an oriental vegetable producer and together they have two daughters who are also involved in the business. It falls to them to live out a future with more opportunities, but they will still face a world full of gender imbalances and in which the unemployment rate for women is practically double that for men.

The interview draws to a close. There is business to attend to, and Narcisa says it’s time for her to do a walk-through. On her way, she’ll observe the bustle of a company that is increasingly adapting to international quality standards. She’ll see producers who work hard for their livelihood. And she’ll see the living expression of her own life story, a Dominican woman who overcame obstacles, built strong business and community relationships, and became a pioneer in her field.

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Riamny Méndez Féliz is communications and gender specialist with the Dominican Republic Exporting Quality Program, a USDA-funded program implemented by IESC. The program is increasing productivity and domestic and export sales of high-value fruit and vegetables: avocado, greenhouse and oriental vegetables, pineapple, and cocoa. IESC works with producer groups and packinghouses to help them meet international food quality and safety standards.

Powered by Chocolate, Women Drive Community Change

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By Julissa Almanzar 

The smell of chocolate in the air is heady, even a bit distracting, as I sit down to talk with about 10 women who run Chocolala and Chocal, two factories in the northern Altamira region of Dominican Republic. They came together to tell the history of their businesses and how hard they have worked to build them, persevering despite significant personal and societal obstacles, and how their economic empowerment is in turn strengthening their community and empowering other women and girls to do the same.

The early times were hard. Nelfi Garcia, who works at Chocolala, remembers how she and the other women had to bring their children to work with them. “We would lay them under a cocoa tree and take turns taking care of them among ourselves.”

In addition to juggling entrepreneurship and child-rearing, this community of aspiring chocolate makers questioned themselves in every way. Were they capable of running a business’ Could this region produce fine chocolate’ Did they have the necessary skills’ Was it worth the effort’

Chocal and Chocolala were started with the support of international donors as a community development initiative for women and youth. At that time, it was not unusual for families to leave Altamira in search of better opportunities, so it was very important that any new enterprise supported through this initiative be based in the community and draw on readily available local resources. Cocoa had been—and continues to be—one of the most important crops in the area, and many local women had experience making sweets with chocolate at home.

But until then, none of them had considered that they might be able to make fine, quality chocolate themselves. Most of them worked at home at the time, caring for their children. Many had left school to raise a family. They didn’t know anything about running a chocolate business.

Ultimately, it was not a lack of education, skills, or experience that presented the biggest obstacle to starting a business. It was finding their voice in a space where they were not always heard, where the men did the talking, and where women depended exclusively on income generated by their husbands.

Still, they did need extensive training, and the training took place outside of town, which provoked even more pushback from the community, and especially from their husbands.

“I’m the only one who knows how difficult it was, and the difficulties I had with my husband,” said Noemi Crisostomo, who is vice president of Chocal. “But in the end I showed him that I was really learning and needed the courses to take the project forward.”

Today, Nelfi, Noemi, and the others refer to themselves as courageous and empowered women who are role models for their children and for the community.

In addition to improving their own quality of life, they are committed to helping as many others as they can. For example, through an employee rotation program, Chocal allows anyone who comes in search of a job to work there for two months. During that time, the employee generates an income, and the factory management is able to identify skilled people that can be fully integrated into the company. Employees range in age from 30 to 85. The older women are valued equally, and even if they aren’t able to handle the most physically demanding tasks, they take great satisfaction from their work.

The journey to a successful chocolate enterprise has been long, but the positive effects are far-reaching. For women, generating an income reaps benefits that go well beyond material things. Women’s economic empowerment changes mindsets. With more of a say in decision-making at home and household responsibilities that are increasingly shared by their husbands, the women of the Altamira chocolate factories have carved out a space where they have a voice’and are heard.

As we finish up our conversation, the atmosphere in the room is friendly, almost joyful. The self doubt they experienced when they were first getting started is gone and is replaced with a unanimous belief that they are achieving their goals on a personal, career, and community level. Yes, they fantasize about being able to buy nice things for themselves and their families, but they also dream of stronger factories that provide more opportunities for women and young people in Altamira. They imagine their children getting involved in the business and carrying on the dream that united all of them. And what I notice is that behind their dreams and fantasies is an underlying current of tangibility, driven by the knowledge that given what they have accomplished already, perhaps they can make these dreams come true, too.

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Julissa Almanzar is value chain facilitator for cocoa and gender with the Dominican Republic Exporting Quality and Safety Program, a USDA-funded program that is increasing productivity and domestic and export sales of high-value fruit and vegetables: avocado, greenhouse and oriental vegetables, pineapple, and cocoa.

When Women Help Women, Entrepreneurs Thrive

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Haoua Cheick Seip, IESC volunteer expert, on assignment in Ampara, Sri Lanka, in 2011.

When Women Help Women, Entrepreneurs Thrive

By Marissa Germain

Women in West African cultures’some of which are historically matrilineal’hold positions of respect and strength. As the providers of shelter, food, wisdom, and comfort, they have often been called to firmly hold their communities together in the face of conflict and strife. It is not uncommon for women to turn to entrepreneurship’often at a very young age’to support their immediate and extended families.

In Mali, for example, the adult literacy rate for women is around 22 percent. Business ideas are hatched at the kitchen table, and business skills are not honed in school, but with time and experience and, perhaps most importantly, with the help of other women in the community.

IESC is hoping to leverage this existing inclination toward informal business mentorship into a more formal structure, piloting a mentoring program that will create a space for relationships to build between experienced entrepreneurs with those who are just starting out.

At the heart of this endeavor is IESC volunteer expert Haoua Cheick Seip, a woman who clearly embodies the West African qualities of strength, determination, and support. Born and raised in Mali, Haoua left at the age of 22 for Ivory Coast, where she earned a degree in chemistry. She emigrated to the United States and started working as a management consultant. Haoua had always been inspired by the vibrant West African women who started businesses from nothing and grew them into successful enterprises.

As she prepared for a trip back to Ivory Coast, some female business associates asked her to bring back cosmetics from New York. In return, they would send her back with a selection of their tie-dyed goods to sell in the United States. That experience led Haoua to build an incredibly successful import-export business.

Since 2004, Haoua has volunteered with IESC six times, in Ghana, Benin, Swaziland, South Africa, Sri Lanka, and Lesotho. She has trained artisans to access markets and develop export-quality products. In 2012 in Sri Lanka, for example, she worked with the Sri Lanka Peace Collection, an initiative to assist war widows in traditional hand-loomed textiles and creating a competitive brand for international markets.

For her upcoming assignment in Mali, Haoua will work with IESC’s project team in Bamako to design a women’s entrepreneurship mentoring program, facilitate the first meeting of mentors and their mentees, and plan for the long-term growth of the program.

Haoua is eager for the opportunity to work one-on-one with women business owners to get to know their real problems and figure out how best to assist them.

‘They need to figure out how to grow their businesses and then they need money to move forward’and understand the best ways to use it,’ Haoua said.

While capital investment in these businesses can catalyze growth, there is no substitute for having a supportive network. Haoua’s unique knowledge of the challenges women entrepreneurs in the region face will ensure that the mentoring program responds to women’s real world needs and positions them for long-term success.

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Marissa Germain is a senior program associate with the Finance For Food Security and Women Entrepreneurs Program. Implemented by IESC, the program is funded by USAID and the Swedish development agency, Sida, through the Volunteers for Economic Growth Alliance. The program is expanding access to credit to businesses in the agriculture sector and to women entrepreneurs and associations by building their capacity to become creditworthy borrowers. FFSWE also strengthens banks who are part of USAID’s Development Credit Authority, increasing their capacity and willingness to loan to small and medium enterprises. In the first program year, 2,600 businesses registered with the program. Of these participating businesses 62 percent are owned by women. 

Finding a Voice, Finding a Path

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Finding a Voice, Finding a Path

by Esther Lee
Najeba, a civil servant at the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation, and Livestock in Kabul, Afghanistan.

As a recent transplant to the D.C area, I can’t help but feel like a small fish in a big pond from time to time. This city attracts the best and the brightest. It can be ruthlessly competitive ‘a harsh reality for someone from a relatively small town where, to a degree, I felt ‘special.’ It is easy to succumb to feelings of insecurity and anxiety, to not speak up for fear of saying something ‘stupid.’ Sometimes I feel as vulnerable as an egg without its shell.

I have been the Afghanistan programs intern at IESC, for just a short time, but thankfully, the environment has been truly welcoming and non-hierarchical. I welcomed the opportunity to contribute a blog post for International Women’s Day, even though I had no idea what I would write.

And then I read about Najeba Karemi. Her story struck a chord.

Najeba is a civil servant at the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation, and Livestock in Kabul, Afghanistan. As a woman in the male-dominated world of government and agriculture, her path was not easy.

‘I lacked the confidence to even raise my hand and voice my opinions in front of my peers,’ she said. ‘I lacked the required skills to be able to effectively carry out my position’s responsibilities; I felt hugely inadequate.’

For me’a woman and a minority who did not come from privilege’this hit close to home. Suddenly I felt a kinship with a woman I’d never met, who lives many time zones away, and who has likely experienced far more hardship in life than I ever will.

But for one small moment in time, we carried the same heavy heart. We shared a desire to speak up, a yearning to stand tall.

Najeba received coaching and mentoring through the Capacity Building & Change Management II Program, which IESC implements. The program strengthens the agriculture ministry by modernizing systems and technology and by embedding a cadre of ‘change management specialists,’ experienced Afghans who work side-by-side with civil servants to build their skills.

Najeba’s skills increased, and so did her confidence. ‘The agriculture sector in Afghanistan is still very much a male dominated environment even though women have always played a critical role,’ she said. ‘It can be intimidating at times, to enter into a meeting and be expected to speak your mind, it was not easy for me at the beginning. Now I lead meetings.’

As a manager with the home economy department at the ministry, Najeba designs and implements food security and other agriculture projects to women farmers, a task that can be dangerous as well as undervalued. Because of her own struggles and achievements, she encourages a legacy of women to feel empowered and strong. ‘It’s a truly great feeling to go out to the villages, speak to the women who live there and be able to provide them with the technical knowledge they so desperately need, to raise their income and adequately feed their families. It’s a feeling of pride that I am now trying to install into my own children.’

As the world recognizes International Women’s Day, we see Hollywood actresses given large and well-funded platforms to discuss global women’s issues and garner a worldwide audience. While their accomplishments are impressive, celebrity spokespeople are detached from everyday life. It is women like Najeba who truly inspire me.  Candid about her insecurities, relentlessly hardworking and quick to recognize those that helped her along the way, Najeba is blazing a trail. To me, she is bravery personified and a role model’not just to me, not just to women, but to all.


This blog was written as part of IESC’s International Women’s Day 2016 campaign. To view all posts related to this campaign, click here

For Women, The Struggle to “Have It All” is Universal

By Lily Alcock 

Margarita de los Santos

It’s obvious within the first few minutes of talking with Margarita de los Santos that she is a powerhouse. Quick to crack a joke but just as eager to get down to business, Margarita is the sort of magnetic person who has a natural ability to inspire you to match her tempo. Daughter and mother, aunt and friend, she is part of a close-knit family where everyone is supportive of each other. Her children and family are the center her life. Margarita is also a professional woman, and describes herself as very active. Her vibrant and full life mirrors that of the city in which she lives: Santo Domingo.

Margarita’s energy and talent, combined with her passion for improving life at home in the Dominican Republic’and around the world’serve her well in her role as finance and administration manager for IESC’s Exporting Quality and Safety Program.

This four-year program funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Foreign Agriculture Service will increase productivity and sales of agriculture products for domestic and export markets. The program focuses on high-value fruits and vegetables, such as pineapple, avocado, peppers, and eggplant.

Margarita has been an invaluable member of the startup team in Santo Domingo, setting up systems and processes that will help the program run efficiently and effectively. As the team member in charge of making sure the program meets USDA and IESC standards, Margarita’s oversight is essential, and she understands the importance of her role. ‘I have a responsibility to record the complete history of program implementation in the best way possible,’ she said. This is not just a legal and financial responsibility to the donor, but also a technical one. The record of this program’s successes’and learning curves’will inform future agricultural development programs in the country, the region, and elsewhere.

Margarita has a wealth of experience that informs every aspect of her work, from the hefty responsibility of maintaining quality standards, to the day-to-day responsibilities. She’s been working on development programs for five years.

Yet, despite her experience, knowledge, and energetic nature, Margarita notes that it can still be a struggle for professional women to get a foothold in the Dominican Republic, a country ranked 67 out of 134 in the world for gender equality, with a gender salary gap of 16 percent.

‘Every day, women in this country are gaining more professional capacity, but there is still a mentality among businesses that a man is the preferred executive.’ Margarita attributes this to the fact that many women require time off for maternity leave and other childrearing responsibilities, causing all women to be perceived as less dedicated than their male counterparts. So essentially, the very thing that matters most to Margarita ‘ supporting and caring for her family ‘ could also be seen as a disadvantage by potential employers, making it difficult to do the work that she also loves. It seems that the struggle to ‘have it all’ is a universal one for women.

Margarita’s determination and the support of her family help her to press on in this challenging professional environment. Plus, she truly believes in the work. ‘[Working for a nonprofit] has been an enriching experience,’ she said. ‘I love to work for these types of organizations due to the way they are structured and the transparency that these organizations require.’

Though juggling the numerous administrative and logistical demands associated with launching a big program keeps Margarita busy, she says that meeting potential beneficiaries face-to-face is a huge motivator, and she hopes that the program will help Dominican farmers earn a better income.

Margarita also sees the benefits of this program extending right to the family dinner table. ‘I would like if, in addition to the great impact we expect the program to have on our exports, Dominicans would also, by the same token, be able to consume quality products at home,’ she said.

Margarita is special. But she is also representative of countless Dominican women who find great value in their roles as mother, wife, sister, daughter, but also want to grow professionally and have positive impact in their communities and in their country. The struggle to have both is very real, but a firecracker like Margarita won’t let that stand in her way.

‘I would love to continue developing myself within international organizations, applying my knowledge and also facing new challenges. The world is constantly evolving, and each day there are new things to learn.’


This blog was written as part of IESC’s International Women’s Day 2016 campaign.

RACHA Executive Director Chan Theary Talks Women’s Empowerment

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RACHA Executive Director Chan Theary Talks Women’s Empowerment

In Cambodia, IESC implements a program that is strengthening local NGOs. The CBCLO Program is led by a small team in Phnom Penh who are bolstered by expert consultants and volunteers who offer training on critical topics such as accounting and financial management, policy and planning, human resource management, and more.

Susan Gurley is an IESC volunteer expert with a wealth of expertise in non-profit management (She also happens to be IESC’s newest board member). Susan completed two volunteer assignments in Cambodia, providing training and mentorship to a large health NGO called the Reproductive and Child Health Alliance.

In recognition of International Women’s Day, Susan had a few questions for Chan Theary, the executive director of RACHA.


Chan Theary receiving the U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh’s “Woman of Courage” award on International Women’s Day in 2013.

As one of the few female executive directors of a Cambodian nonprofit organization, what are the three lessons you would like to share with the next generation of women non-profit leaders.

That is a really good question. Number one is, never forget that women can be empowered, if they are willing to step up and take the responsibility for that power. The second things is that women can do whatever a man can do. They can lead and inspire. And the third thing is, women are catalysts of change’they are creative and innovative and think clearly.

Did you have a mentor and what did that mentor teach you’

Yes, I have had many mentors. Every day I learn different things from all kinds of people. My family, my friends, my staff. My organization works at the grassroots level to educate and strengthen communities. In order to teach them, you have to learn from them.

Sometimes when you work hard to achieve something, you feel tired. Early in my career, I had people who told me nothing is impossible. One woman I met on my first job. I was a midwife, and so was she. ‘Be strong,’ she said. ‘Be determined.’ Another woman who mentored me, a doctor, taught me that you have to take calculated risks. One of my favorite sayings is, ‘A true leader is one who is humble enough to admit their mistakes.’

How do you suggest that women find mentors in the workplace’

First, I would suggest that women look for professional mentors both inside and outside their organization, and don’t forget about family and friends. But most importantly, to find a good mentor you have to know what it is you need and seek out people who have those skills.

How do you engage your staff to share their ideas and innovations’

My philosophy is that I should hear from them first. When they talk first, I empower them by listening and observing. They don’t feel pressured to agree with my idea, because they talk first.  It is also important to give motivational and constructive feedback. This requires confidence. You have to be strong in yourself to give this kind of feedback.

What professional risks have you taken’

For midwives, there are many risks in the decisions we make. Sometimes you fight with the family. If there was a complication, the family or husband might say, ‘Just delivery my wife, don’t seek emergency care.’ The thing is, the baby could die. Maybe they give bad advice. I might please the family, but the baby will die. How can you balance the situation’ Sometimes you get advice, but you don’t have to take it.

When I was young, my dad said, ‘I don’t want you to be midwife.’ Why’ Because being a midwife is risky. During those days, I was on-call at night. I might have to travel long distances in the night to deliver a baby, and it was not safe. But I knew I wanted to be a midwife, so I did it.

What is the typical profile of your beneficiaries’ Who are they’ What are the problems they are struggling with.

Our beneficiaries are poor women and their partners, newborns, children, and adolescents. The health system is not good, and they struggle with health concerns, especially emergency obstetrics and newborn care, and nutrition for children. Newborns die. Family planning is available in Cambodia, but the people need a lot of education. The messages are misunderstood. And male involvement in family planning is also very important.

How do you empower your female stakeholders in the villages to become more self-sufficient in their decision making’

We have a project to empower women at the grassroots level called Saving for Change. Women become members of a collective savings group. They pool the money together and decide on the interest rate, say 2 percent, and women can borrow from the group at that rate. At the end of the year, they share the interest earnings with the group.

Having their own money that they control empowers women. It also cultivates leadership skills. After this group, many women become village chief or council member. They also learn negotiating skills, which helps with many household decisions, including when to have children. Once women have these skills, they share and impart them to other women, especially young mothers.

This builds a kind of social coherence that is very important at the grassroots level.

Do you have any final words for International Women’s Day’

Empowering women at the grassroots level is very important. Early interventions, and interventions that involve partners and their children, will bring a bright future for families, communities, and the country.


This article was written as part of IESC’s International Women’s Day 2016 campaign. To view all posts related to this campaign, click here

Saluting Unsung Champions, This International Women’s Day and Beyond

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Saluting Unsung Champions, This International Women’s Day and Beyond

By IESC President and CEO Tom Miller

Dr. Shahla, gender director of IESC’s CBCMP-II Program.

Today we celebrate International Women’s Day. In many of the countries where we work, March 8 is a true holiday. Women receive flowers, gifts, and other expressions of honor and appreciation, and the IESC field offices participate in these celebratory traditions.

Here in Washington, DC, the IESC home office will recognize the day by having our annual staff retreat, when we spend some time reflecting on our accomplishments during the previous year, but, even more importantly, look enthusiastically to the future, planning how we will bring about inclusive, sustainable economic development in the next year and beyond.

Over the past several days, you have heard voices from across our organization’interns, volunteers, program associates, senior leaders, and beneficiaries. Our bloggers champion the strength, determination, and achievements of women in every corner of the globe, yet every one of them shares these stories with a keen awareness of just how far there is to go.

The theme of this year’s International Women’s Day is #PledgeforParity. At IESC, we know that no community, no society, no nation can truly prosper when half the population is cut out of the equation. In its latest estimate, the World Economic Forum forecasts that it will take 115 years to close the gender gap.

I believe we can do better than 115 years, but things will not change overnight, especially in certain parts of the world. IESC has two large programs in Afghanistan, where we are supporting the growth of small- and medium-sized businesses, and strengthening one of the government’s largest ministries, the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation, and Livestock. In a place like Afghanistan, the international development community can do a lot to improve infrastructure and systems, and bolster the private sector, improve access to health care, even advocate for changes in the legal and regulatory framework. But it is harder to change minds and mindsets in places where deeply held religious and cultural customs work against equal rights for women.

But there are voices’strong, confident women’s voices’that are working actively to bring about change in the country they love. One of those women is Shahla Amiri.

Dr. Shahla’as everyone calls her’is the gender director of our program with the agriculture ministry. She is a highly educated, committed, and passionate advocate for women’s empowerment and the future of women in Afghanistan. Dr. Shahla is a consummate professional, but don’t expect her to back down from an argument. In a completely male-dominated environment, she speaks her mind, argues her position, and quite often, gets her way. She is a change-maker.

In Afghanistan, the vast majority of the population’around 80 percent’depends on agriculture for their livelihood. Women make up the majority of the agricultural workforce, yet own none of the land and control little of the profits.

Dr. Shahla knows that gender is not an issue on its own. Issues of gender equity and gender constraints cannot be separated from agriculture, or health, or nutrition. Last year, under her leadership, the Afghan agriculture ministry established the first ever Women’s Empowerment Working Group.

The working group serves an advisory role to the ministry leadership on gender issues, advocates for the hiring of female employees, and promotes increased transparency and accountability within the ministry when it comes to women’s empowerment.

Not even a year old, the working group is already making its mark. This year in Nangarhar province, the ministry is establishing 700 kitchen gardens, greenhouses, and small-scale food processing facilities. Ultimately, the project will create 34,600 home-based kitchen gardens with drip irrigation systems in 20 provinces, increasing food security and promoting sustainable livelihoods. The primary beneficiaries of the project are poor and vulnerable women, including widows and their children.

Dr. Shahla didn’t waste any time extending women’s empowerment groups out into the regional offices of the ministry, with immediate plans for groups in seven provinces. And I’m told that the ministry receives ongoing requests from other regional offices for their own women’s empowerment working groups. Dr. Shahla is clearly onto something.

It is stories like these that give me hope for the future. In the meantime, we at IESC will keep working to promote strong and resilient economies’that benefit everyone’and to champion women like Dr. Shahla. Happy International Women’s Day.


This blog was written as part of IESC’s International Women’s Day 2016 campaign. To view all posts related to this campaign, click here

The Far-Reaching Benefits of Women’s Economic Empowerment

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The Far-Reaching Benefits of Women’s Economic Empowerment

By Aissata Traore 

Nour Haddad’s* family struggled to make ends meet. With the average teacher’s salary in Lebanon around $900 a month, supporting a family of ten on her husband’s income alone was a challenge. Nour wanted to open a flower business to help support her family. But with limited resources, little family support, and a culture that reinforces women’s role as homemakers, she had few options.

Nour’s story is not unique. We know the numbers by now:women grow half of the world’s food, but only own two percent of its land, and their labor force participation rates continue to trail men’s. When they do participate in the economy, they often face discriminatory laws and practices. From needing a man’s permission to open a bank account, to being legally required to obey their husband, women are often playing a game with the cards stacked against them.

Nour was lucky; she turned to a bank that was partnered with IESC’s Lebanon Investment in Microfinance program and received a business loan. Her enterprise quickly grew from one to five stores. Her earnings financed her family’s new home and her daughters’ university studies.

For Nour, starting a business enabled her to assert her independence, support her family, and build her confidence. But not all women have that opportunity. So how can development help women like her find the tools they need to overcome gender inequality’

“A woman is economically empowered when she has both the ability to succeed and advance economically and the power to make economic decisions.” 
– International Center for Research on Women, “Understanding and Measuring Women’s Economic Empowerment” (2011)

The first step is to stop thinking that ‘gender’ equals ‘women.” Gender is about how society defines people’s roles and responsibilities based on sexual differences. What that means is that empowering women goes beyond giving them loans or tools for their farms; it requires tackling the underlying reasons that people lack equal access to resources. This view of gender highlights the significant role that men have to play in advancing equality. Changing societal relationships can’t happen if half the population isn’t on board. That’s why development organizations have a responsibility to examine the status and roles of all genders in our programs.

Recently, IESC conducted a gender analysis for our Mali Finance for Food Security and Women Entrepreneurs Program. We asked men and women about everything from their experiences in business, to which family members make financial decisions. Talking to all genders, and learning about the relationships between them in the home and economy helped us understand what drove differences between their businesses. We learned, for example, that 70 percent of men lived in a home where a wife did most of the domestic work. Though women didn’t feel burdened by chores, their comments revealed that housework is a woman-specific burden that limits their economic potential. By identifying the root causes of gender inequalities in business, we can now implement a program that tackles the causes of these imbalances, and not just the symptoms.

Gender inequalities affect almost all aspects of women’s lives, making it impossible for one organization to tackle them all simultaneously. The pervasiveness of inequality, however, is a blessing in disguise. It means that all development organizations, no matter which sector they work in, can promote gender equality.

This is good news, because we know from experience that empowering women in one domain or sector can advance equality in many others. Increasing women’s financial contributions to the home, for example, increases their voice in household decisions, lessens their vulnerability to domestic violence, and contributes to keeping their children in school longer. It gives them the power to assert their independence and agency in the home and broader community. That is why it is vital that all development organizations examine their programs’ impacts on gender relations, regardless of whether or not their work is woman-focused.

Women who have the tools and freedom to participate in the society and economy on equal terms with men are models for future generations. They reshape gender norms and ideas about what women are capable of. When development organizations do their work right, they can replicate Nour’s story, showing us that gender equality is not just good for women; it’s good for all of us.

*Name changed to protect privacy


This blog was written as part of IESC’s International Women’s Day 2016 campaign. To view all posts related to this campaign, click here