Tanzania: Rebuilding women-led businesses

After I finished my volunteer trip in 2016, I reflected on my time spent with the group of incredible Tanzanian women. They were all so bright and resilient, and I knew I wanted to do something for a handful of them to ensure their lasting success. I chose to sponsor several women with the help of Give a Heart to Africa -- the non-profit business school for disadvantaged women living in villages around Moshi where I had spent nine weeks volunteering. I have stayed in touch with a few of the women, through the school, and discovered that some had succeeded in their entrepreneurship, and some were struggling.

I knew I couldn't visit all of the women so I picked two -- two women who needed it the most, two women who had seen hardship and needed an extra bit of support, love, and care.

We started the day with a quick visit to GHTA. We were here to pick up Tausi, the school's top translator and a local living just outside of the city. She would be taking us around to visit the women, as their english was fractured and there would be bartering and difficult communication in the marketplaces.

These were the classrooms I had taught the women mathematics in two years ago -- today, two volunteers were teaching english and business. John was on his seventh trip to Tanzania and had spent a great deal of time working with GHTA. Also teaching was Sarah, an 18-year-old girl from California, who was here on her first trip to Africa.

Before heading out, I visited the small shop next door to the school to buy some sodas and biscuits to enjoy with some of the staff. We sat on a log across the road with Tausi (left), Gabriel the security guard, and Margaret (right) the cook, and we laughed as we reflected on my past experiences here at GHTA. It was just like old times!

After we polished off our snacks Tausi, Lauren, and I jumped into a cab and headed off to visit Yulita. She lived in a village just ten minutes outside of central Moshi. Her small corner store was located in a derelict orange building and she served her customers through a window covered by a metal grate.

Inside, was comprised of three small rooms -- an entrance space where we could sit and chat, her store, and she had separated a small room where she slept with a white lace curtain. This was her home.

Tausi and I got to work right away on crafting a detailed inventory list and budget. We had to create a careful plan of attack to ensure we would optimize our time and money before heading off to the market -- this tool would also help Yulita understand how to manage her stock and profits going forward.

After observing her store, we realized she was operating with very little product. Over the last year, she was diagnosed with mouth cancer. She was forced to sell her stock at low prices and spend her overhead on medical bills which left her with very little to maintain the business. At this point, she was barely scraping by.

All four of us hoped back into the cab and set off to visit her go-to wholesalers.

Store after store, we would enter, Yulita would negotiate with the distributers, I would hand over the cash, and then men would come out of the back storage rooms with arms full of product to load into the trunk of the cab.

We purchased everything from heavy bags brimming with rice, beans, and flour, to daily necessities like batteries, laundry soap, and toothpaste. Twice I also picked up on Yulita looking at a items not on the shopping list -- "luxuries," Tausi translated. "We can't afford those in this budget." I brushed it off and handed her more cash -- it was important to me that she had a few extra items that would bring her a little extra income.

When all the products were purchased, we headed back to Yulita's store. She carefully unpacked all the inventory and placed it on the shelves, serving a few curious customers excited to buy from her replenished supply. We also accompanied her to order a few crates of soda and beer, which would be delivered later.

To thank us, she served a snack: a sweet mango juice, that Tausi loved, and roasted peanuts. She was eager to show gratitude for the gesture with what little she had -- which to me was a relatively small expense and very little time out of my day, but to her meant she could regain economic stability. After her medical troubles this meant she could start supporting herself again.

Before we said our goodbyes, she hugged me and said "come back. This is your home too." It meant the world to me to see her smile and proudly walk around her store again.

Next was Veridiana. Her shop was very similar to Yulita's, just located in a separate village. Upon arrival, her youngest children came rushing to greet us. They were excited to see newcomers and jumped on our laps to play as soon as we sat down.

Veridiana welcomed us into her store -- a small room located on the back of her house. Inside, much like Yulita's -- the stock hung from clotheslines and was piled on shelves. Tausi and I made another stock list, going over each detail with Veridiana, and budgeted our expenses for the trip to the market.

First on the list was kerosene oil for lamps and cooking stoves.

Then, we popped over to the grain store to load up the taxi with rice, beans, and lentils.

Much in the same way, when we returned with the product, she unloaded it into her store -- proudly replenishing her shelves. With a few warm hugs and several "asante sana" (thank you), we set about back to our bed and breakfast.

It was hard not to get emotional as we left each of these women. Spending time with them brought back memories of meeting them and their families all those years ago. Now, each had suffered hardships and lost much of their ability to support themselves. I knew throwing money at the issue wouldn't help, so giving them stock and reinforcing the budgeting and inventory skills they had learned at GHTA meant they could continue working on sustainable solutions. What was more powerful was the moments when they took my hands in theirs, squeezed me tightly in an embrace, and looked me in the eye...I could see the relief, joy, and confidence a small gesture had brought back to their lives.

The world is rife with problems and sometimes I find myself struggling to think of solutions...often thinking that I am only one person and I can't create a big change quick enough. But when I saw what a relatively small amount of money and time could do for the lives of just two women -- and how that impact could trickle down into their families and village -- I realized that even the smallest gift can create lasting change. If we could all just take responsibility for reaching out a hand to one other person, asking them what we can do to help, and following through...the world would be a better place.

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