Relying on local resources, Matinyani women are a global model

MATINYANI, Kitui District, Kenya - Were it not for the training she has received from her participation in the Matinyani Women's Group, Tabitha Muthui believes she would be a bar-girl today - if she were alive at all. "I've seen so many people left by their parents, having to do dirty things, like working in the clubs," said Ms. Muthui. "And they get AIDS and then get sick and die."

But thanks in part to the skills she has learned at weaving classes held at the Group's community center here, Ms. Muthui today runs a relatively prosperous household, bringing in even more income than her construction-worker husband. She works at home, weaving colorful wall-hangings that sell for the equivalent of US$65.

"I have built a house for ourselves and our children," said the 28-year-old mother. "The weaving made it possible."

Ms. Muthui's story is not uncommon here, where the success of the Matinyani Women's Group at helping its members get the skills they need to set up small-scale income generation projects has made it one of the most acclaimed development efforts in Kenya.

Founded in the late 1980s, the Group started with a simple idea - let's build a community center for ourselves. Achieving that task attracted the attention of other women's groups, plus development organizations and donor agencies, leading to a string of projects that include the weaving and marketing of sisal baskets and artistic wall-hangings, a simple but highly profitable mango-drying scheme, several small bakeries, a grain-grinding mill, brick-making efforts, and a pottery production center.

"In my professional experience, and I've been in international development work for almost 30 years, this series of projects are, collectively, examples of the most outstanding sustainable community development activities that I have observed," said Alfred K. Neumann, a senior advisor to the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) Center for Health Sciences.

"The projects have not only focused on income generation in a moral and ethical framework, but have also focused on the wise use of the income," said Dr. Neumann. "The result is that you have more children getting immunized, more children in schools, especially girls, improved nutrition, improved health and better houses."

Dr. Neumann estimates that the projects have directly benefited more than 1,000 women - and 10,000 extended family members. "The ripple effects are probably helping many more, so these are conservative figures," said Dr. Neumann. Anecdotal evidence, such as Ms. Muthui's story, indicates that income has risen substantially for many. And the Group's success has inspired others in the region to launch projects, like the Kalimani health center.

Collectively, the projects will be featured at the Expo 2000 World's Fair in Hanover, Germany, and at the Epcot Center in Florida, USA. They have also been recognized with a "We the peoples..." award by the International Institute for Sustainable Development for demonstrating "significant positive self help attributes."

The project has succeeded because of a variety of factors - including specific traditions of the Akamba people that give women a high degree of autonomy and promote respect for each other within groups. But by many accounts, it is the efforts of two women - one an indigenous Akamba and the other a European raised in South Africa - that provided the outside perspective and guidance that allowed the groups really to succeed.

Susan Mwendwa, who was born in nearby Machakos district, used her leadership role as the wife of a Member of Parliament in the late 1980s to travel about and organize the Akamba women into large and well-structured groups that were able to mobilize themselves to launch the many projects undertaken in the region. As chair of the Matinyani Women's Group, she oversaw the construction of the Matinyani multi-purpose center - the Group's first big project. The center, in turn, provided a venue for the training in small-scale income generation activities.

Geraldine Robarts, a London-born, Nairobi-based artist, entered the picture shortly after the construction of the multi-purpose center and, as an agent of Rehema, a Bahá'í-inspired NGO, brought critical knowledge that enabled the Group to refocus its efforts from the production of simple and low-value baskets to much higher-value wall-hangings. Ms. Robarts introduced the mango drying technology and Rehema sponsored workshops on topics ranging from hygiene to consultation, which improved the Group's functioning and awareness of health issues. Ms. Robarts was also a critical link in obtaining outside aid.

Throughout their involvement, Ms. Mwendwa and Ms. Robarts promoted some key principles that kept the income-generation efforts of the group on track, resisting the kinds of problems that often cause other grassroots-based projects to fail, such as the reliance on expensive outside inputs to their businesses or aid dollars that artificially prop up the project through payments to participants of training programs and the like.

In the case of the Matinyani projects, Ms. Mwendwa and Ms. Robarts emphasized the importance of developing handcrafts and marketable items that would be made almost entirely from local resources, such as sisal, using appropriate skill levels and relying upon minimal technology.

In the case of the sisal wall hangings and baskets, for example, the women do almost every step at home and use local materials, separating the sisal fibers from the spike-leaved sisal plant and spinning them into yarn or dying the fibers with inexpensive local dyes when possible.

"Every woman in Matinyani now makes baskets," said Sally Nduku Kilonzo, the manager of the Mwendwa Kitui Center, a fledgling library that is yet another spin-off from the projects spawned by the Matinyani Women's Group. In making both the baskets and the wall hangings, the women also design their own patterns, giving them a distinctive freshness and appeal.

"I've taught art in schools all over the world and have never seen talent like this," said Ms. Robarts, who brought to the group the idea of doing wall hangings. "I always tell them - weave what you see."

According to Ms. Muthui, she can make a medium-sized wall hanging in 5 days - and sell it for 1200 shillings, equivalent to about US$20.

The case of the mango drying project also shows how the Group has made excellent use of local resources. Mangos grow wild in the region and ripen all at once during several weeks each spring. In the past, the women would gather them and sell them to middlemen for the equivalent of about one US dollar for a pickup truck load weighing roughly 200 kilograms.

By cutting up the mangos and drying them in relatively inexpensive solar dryers, however, the women can sell the resulting product for up to US$20 per dried kilogram. Ten kilograms of ripe mangos yields roughly one kilogram of dried product. In the end, then, the same 200 kilograms of mangos now brings back the equivalent of US$400. Plus the women are not forced to sell all of their ripe mangos during the harvest season, when prices are the lowest.

It is worth noting that the consultative process was crucial to the success of the mango project. The women at first wanted to make mango jam, but, after discussing it thoroughly, they realized they would need a major investment in jars, sterilizing equipment, and printed labels. Ms. Robarts contributed to this consultation by bringing in an Akamba woman from another location in Kitui. She told of the complicated process involved in jam-making, emphasizing the huge quantities of scarce firewood that would be needed, which convinced the Matinyani women of its infeasibility. Ms. Robarts then suggested the use of solar dryers. In this way, Rehema, as an outside NGO, contributed to the discussion but did not dictate the terms of the project, allowing the impulse for the project to emerge genuinely from the grassroots level.

Dr. Neumann echoes the conclusions of other development specialists who have visited the projects - that they will sustain themselves long into the future. "The local people have the knowledge, the skills, and the will to continue," said Dr. Neumann. "And they have a sense of ownership. No one was paid to do these projects. These projects emerged from their ideas and their desires, fulfilling a real need."