Q&A: Young African Leader’s Co-op Helps Single Moms Grow Jobs

Q&A: Young African Leader’s Co-op Helps Single Moms Grow Jobs

Selma Neves was frustrated by the lack of opportunities for rural women in Cabo Verde so she took matters into her own hands and created a food and handicrafts cooperative to empower women.

Neves traveled to the U.S. in 2014 to take part in President Barack Obama’s Young African Leaders Initiative as part of the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit.

She started the cooperative for single mothers on the island of Sal, a major tourist destination. The single moms in the co-op cultivate food and produce handicrafts for tourists.

The Cooperative Women of Sal, an Incubator, has faced many challenges but it’s growing.

Neves employs 10 people directly, but benefits more than 30 women who do handicraft all over Cabo Verde through the co-op’s store. During the season, the co-op employs up to 30 people selling vegetables, benefiting more than 60 people and their families.

The women in the co-op grow veggies in a small hydroponics center designed by Neves. We’re talking carrots, beets, cauliflower, coriander, parsley, lettuce, arugula, tomato and beans. Handicrafts include dolls, ceramic turtles, bags, and wallets using fabrics handmade from recycled materials.

During the Young African Leaders Initiative program, Neves met other African innovators and she joined forces with a YALI fellow from Kenya who developed Agua Kenya, Inc. a system for purifying waste water for irrigation.

An Agua Kenya rep visited Cabo Verde to share how the system works and now, with this watering technique, Neves said the coop’s growing area can expand to 6,000 square meters (a little more than an acre). In 2015, Neves expects to employ an additional 15 single mothers as a result of the water purification system. She is also negotiating with the Cabo Verde government for 10 acres of land.

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More than a third of Cabo Verde households are headed by single mothers, according to a 2008 study by tech company ProQuest and Brigham Young University. With few jobs for women, many households are poor. Unemployment rates are higher for women than men, and women are vulnerable to informal, socially undervalued, low paid, and insecure work. Women are often the sole resource for family survival, according to the UN Entity for Gender Equality and The Empowerment of Women.

Some women turn to entrepreneurship to support their families. Neves spoke to AFKInsider about her cooperative for single moms that’s providing work in Cabo Verde.

Photo: Facebook, The Cooperative Women of Sal, an Incubator.


AFKInsider: Why did you start this cooperative?

Selma Neves: I always have been around women that work a lot, to create and sustain their children alone and most of their jobs are not well paid. Sal Island is one of the islands that produces only 7 percent of the food consumed. The rest comes from other islands or countries, making it very expensive. The local agriculture is very difficult because of the lack of rain. It rains once a year and is not enough. The water we consume is desalinated making it very expensive. Sal Island is very touristic and has a lot of handicrafts but 90 percent of them are from the west coast of Africa. There is a lack of national handicrafts in Sal. With the big hotels and the high number of tourists we receive, there is big production of waste.

We started the cooperative because we want to help the single female heads of families with a sustainable project concentrating on the opportunities that we have in Sal Island. Opportunities like national handicrafts, agriculture, recycling, and training in several areas that help organize the family and its budget, the creation of self-employment through small businesses, or through the global development of the cooperative.

AFKInsider: What were some challenges starting the co-op?

Selma Neves: Our challenges included the bureaucracy, making people believe in this project, and finding funds and partners. We have some projects that we had to stop because we didn’t have funds for it, but we are still looking.

AFKInsider: Why did you participate in America’s Young African Leaders Initiative?

Selma Neves: In 2012 I was selected to participate in a program called DART in Dakar, Senegal, through the (West African Research Center) for young African leaders. The program was sponsored by the U.S. Embassy in Dakar, and they send to me the link to apply to YALI. I did and I was selected because of the cooperative’s projects.

AFKInsider: What were your experiences like with YALI?

Selma Neves: The Young African Leaders Initiative was one of the amazing experiences in my life, because of the college we were at — Dartmouth College — one of the best in U.S. for business and entrepreneurship. (They) taught us the steps to create a sustainable and successful business. Also living with the other 24 Young African Leaders Initiative fellows for six weeks was the best experience ever. I could get to know more of Africa than any book can teach me, and know about all the projects that each one of them has and how they are doing for their communities, getting nothing back except the great feeling of people being helped. This made me feel part of something bigger and that Africa is developing and we (young people) can be part of this development.

AFKInsider: How did you get to team up with another YALI fellow from Kenya?

Selma Neves: All the Young African Leaders Initiative fellows have amazing projects that they are working. I began to team up with a YALI fellow from Kenya named Mshila Sio, who works with biological waste water treatment using only plants — no chemicals and no energy (fuel, electricity). In Sal, the wastewater treatment is done in a small portion, and only with the water from hotels, using chemicals and lots of energy. On top of this, the water doesn’t have the quality to be used in agriculture. The Kenya fellow and I are creating a partnership to work with his project in the cooperative so we can have this technology here in Sal on our land … we can have access to water of good quality for agriculture in our project, decrease the cost of water, and introduce the new technology to Cape Verde so that maybe it can be used on national level.

AFKInsider: What are your goals for 2015 with the co-op?

Selma Neves: To complete the implementation of the agriculture project, get the official documents for the cooperative land with government, to implement the project of biological waste water treatment, to start the recycling project, and to keep the handicrafts project going on.

AFKInsider: Does the Cabo Verde government support your efforts?

Selma Neves: Yes, the government has been a great partner. The Minister of Rural Development helped us get the land for the agriculture project and they gave us one hydroponics greenhouse with all the materials we needed to start to work in it. The government was one of the first to believe that our project was possible.

AFKInsider: Why do you love what you do?

Selma Neves: I don’t have a exact answer for this question, but since I was a little girl I saw my family helping others (who has less). Since I was 14 I worked with associations that helped families and others. I love the knowledge I have learned, the experiences I have had, the fact that I want to help my community and create job opportunities for myself and others.

AFKInsider: Have you faced obstacles being an entrepreneurial woman in Cabo Verde?

Selma Neves: Yes, lots of them. Being young and a woman, some people didn’t believe in my capacity and they didn’t believe in the co-op. I introduced this project in the city hall of Sal Island and its president, but they didn’t believe in the project, so I decide to go to Santiago Island and asked for a meeting with the Minister of Rural Development — Eva Ortet. When I got to present the project, she believed in it. But even this took so long for something happen. Every time a member of the government came to Sal Island I found a way to speak with them until most of them started to help me with this project and help the Minister Eva Ortet to help us. They started to participate in events like institutions inaugurations and exhibition for agriculture and tourism, to get people to know the co-op’s name. I also had the opportunity to speak with the Prime Minister Jose Maria Neves about our project. After that people started to know about us and to believe and help us.

Also, after the Young African Leaders Initiative, more people started to believe in this project and in me, and they help our project any way they can. Little by little we are accomplishing the cooperative project. We still have a lot to do, but we will do it.