Monday, July 18, 2011

Introducing the Women of Aklala Batik: Part 2

Chantal Donvide

Chantal is the oldest of 8 children and moved to Kpalimé from Benin when she was 5 years old with her family. Art is the common thread that unites every member of her family, and she takes pride that she can take part in this tradition that will be passed down for generations. After moving to Togo, her father, a farmer and sculptor of wood, partnered with a Frenchman to form the Centre Artisanal of Kpalimé, now one of the town’s leading tourist attractions. It was originally founded as a way to spread artistic knowledge and skill set training by offering craft apprenticeships. Finished student products were sold in the showroom, using a percentage of the profits to pay teachers and for centre development.  The Centre was becoming extremely successful when it caught the eye of the Togolese government who saw it as a potential revenue-generating project for the state.  Without any fair warning, explanation, or due process, Chantal’s parents were thrown into jail and the government seized ownership of the Centre.   While Beninese lawyers and government officials objected and were able to free her parents, her father decided to abandon the centre and focus on his own medicine and wood sculpting enterprises, seeing how public projects were easy targets for political corruption.  It is from that vantage that Chantal has always been inspired to start her own enterprise and become successful on her own terms, rather than do so in the government domain.
            Chantal started her apprenticeship as a couturier, but when she became pregnant with her first daughter, her doctors forbade her from using the foot-pedal sewing machines, forcing her to find another way to support herself and her future child.  With a grant from a western foundation she was able to afford to take a costly batik course to learn a new trade.  Chantal finished this introductory course in 1 month and then took unpaid positions at five different batik workshops in order to learn all of the available batik methods.  She could then combine the best of each to create her own unique aesthetic and process of production.   Now possessing the necessary skills and the ambition to start her own batik enterprise, she took out a loan from a local microfinance institution.   She had to give the bank a large security deposit amounting to a third of the total loan in order to be deemed eligible to borrow. Interest would accumulate depending on how long it took her to pay it off.   In order to showcase her newly produced batik products, Chantal took the opportunity to participate in a huge industry trade show in Burkina Faso. Still in need of start up capital and not wanting to take out another loan from the MFI, Chantal took out an additional loan from a relative of the existing Peace Corps Volunteer. The show was not as successful as she had originally intended, and while Chantal was able to pay off the microfinance loan, she still didn’t have enough money to pay back the additional money she borrowed in preparation for the trade show.  Luckily tourist season was coming along, and Chantal worked hard to find customers to buy her products and was able to pay everything back in full. 
It was at this point that Chantal became involved with Nest. Nest provided Chantal an interest-free microbartering loan to purchase raw materials and supplies to be repaid back in product.  Chantal was finally able to start to see the possibility of growth for Aklala Batik as a successful and sustainable enterprise, as all funds could be dedicated to the development of her business rather than to loan repayment.
Chantal and Aklala also greatly benefitted from Nest’s business training, whereby Chantal learned the importance of financial planning, marketing, western consumer preferences, and quality control. Kpalimé’s economy is for the most part seasonally determined.  In the summer months the influx of volunteers and tourists causes universal growth spurts, and it is this time when Aklala generates the most revenue.  Before Nest, despite Chantal’s success during the tourist season, she would struggle to provide for her family throughout other times of the year. Without markets in which to sell her goods, some months she wasn’t even able to take a salary for herself. Now with the added revenue and markets of Nest, Chantal is not only more supported in these “dead months” with orders from Nest, but she has learned from the business training how to understand the seasonal pattern of her sales, so she can save and prepare for them. During the summer months Chantal now puts away some profits into a bank reserve, so that during the dead months she can buy supplies in bulk and start building up her inventory stock. She also uses this time to train apprentices and focus on her product and business development.  When summer rolls around she has greater quantities of finished products to sell so that she can make more profits with increased demand. Chantal knows that she must develop her own capacity to direct, analyze, and improve her own business and she feels that the business training is giving her the capacity to do so.   After training, she started to develop a plan to construct a fully equipped workshop in order to better improve her efficiency and effectiveness in organization and production.
Recently Chantal’s husband lost his job, and the responsibility fell on her to be the sole breadwinner for the family.  Before Aklala and Nest, it would have been extremely difficult for Chantal to stay afloat and support her family on a typical woman’s seamstress salary. Now, while still challenging to be a one-income home, Chantal takes pride in her status as the primary and capable supporter for her family. She is aware that in Africa, women suffer more than men given the leading cultural mentality that women and young girls should be confined housework and it is the husband’s role to provide for them.  This little investment in girl’s education or economic advancement means that when a man loses his job, which frequently happens given the unstable nature of Togolese infrastructure and industry, a family suffers.  Women can, and need to be able to make money to support themselves and their families. This is especially true given the proven fact that women’s income generation is directly invested to improve children’s education, health, and community development.
Before the Nest loan, Chantal lived in a shared house with her siblings and all of their children.  In the past year she has been able to construct her own house, buy a big plot of land to start construction of her own workshop and storefront, install electricity, and begin plans for constructing lodging for her apprentices.  Her children, who used to go to inadequate public schools, are now enrolled in private school and with the help of private tutors, are in the top 5% of their class.  Beatrice, her oldest daughter, is in school studying medicine with the intent of becoming a doctor.   
Chantal doesn’t see Nest loans as loans, rather they are business investments that allow her to develop her production capacity and pave channels for market access by connecting her to western consumers and retail firms through ethical sourcing.  While it hasn’t always been smooth sailing, and she has experienced her fair share of difficulties, failures and set backs, Chantal knows that it is all part of the learning process of running and growing a sustainable business.  If poverty can be called the tyranny of emergency, Chantal now has insurance.  Not only can she pay for her own family’s medical expenses, for instance she just took her 5 month old daughter Ashley to get a number of vaccinations and immunizations, but she is also providing care for her apprentices and employees who need medical attention and can’t afford it themselves.  She has a stable income and savings, provides nutritious meals for her and employees and apprentices, and is building and improving the quality of her life. 
Chantal has seen how beneficial the Nest model has been to her life, and now she wants to extend its impact to help orphans and other disadvantaged women.  Chantal’s image in the community has changed, she has noticed that she is respected for being a woman who has started a successful business with new connections, clients, business and orders that is adequately providing for her family. With her newfound influence, Chantal wants to provide economic opportunities to women who already have the skill sets; they just don’t have fair access markets, capital or financial knowledge to improve their own livelihoods.  She is working towards getting to a production capacity that can manage large orders so that she can hire more apprentices, provide more employment and contribute to the development of the community as a whole.  She wants to empower women to realize their own potential and change the leading cultural mentality where they are confined to the domestic sphere and incapable of providing for themselves.  She believes in herself as both a businesswoman and as an agent of change in her community and she is hopeful about what the future will bring for her.   

1 comment:

  1. Hi Julia-
    This is Jackie. 10 days and counting until I'm in Togo for my fellowship. Your photos are incredible. I'm wondering if there is any way for me to get copies of high res versions of all your Togo photos- particularly of Chantal, her workshop, product, apprentices etc. I think we overlap for a few days, so we can do the hand-off in person. Hope you are having a fabulous time and looking forward to meeting you in person soon.