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Mobilizing AIDS Widows and Orphans of Kasavai, Kenya toward Self-sufficiency through HIV/AIDS Awareness, Prevention, and Management, Small Business Enterprise, Education, and Nutrition... and Clean Water

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The Widows' Collective Businesses
- A story and a lesson for all -
In early 2008, many widows expressed the desire to learn how to sew, but they had no equipment or training.  What an opportunity for us to solve their problem (oops)!
At their request, we set up a sewing training center in the small CLOUT Cares Watafutaji "office" space donated by Chris and Connie Shisanya in Kasavai. We renovated the facility, painted the walls, provided cutting tables, materials, security services, teachers, and two new sewing machines. We did most of the work while they watched.  All was ready. 
But after a year, nobody was learning to sew and we could not understand why those who had been so eager to learn to sew were not doing so.

The sewing center had three treadle sewing machines, an embroidery machine, and a license to operate as a business. Did they use them?


Instead of teaching, the "teachers" made items including school uniforms for sale locally. The teachers made the products, we paid their salaries and purchased materials, and the widows watched and made the "profit".


What was the problem?
(As you will see, the problem was us!)
Many of the widows told us the problem was their poor eyesight. 
So, in late 2008, we arranged for free eye exams, glasses, and medications for every widow and anyone in the village who wanted or needed this care.  The widows and many others in the village took advantage of the opportunity, including free cataract surgery for those needing it.  This was worthwhile effort but it did not solve the problem - still no real participation by the widows in their project. 
So, what was the problem?
Many women told us they did not participate because of weakness and a lack of manual dexterity.   But they were strong enough to work in a field all day and dexterity did not appear to be an issue either.  There had to be something else (could it be us?). 
The issue was lack of participation, but
 what was the real problem?


The problem, in fact, was that the business plan and everybody's expectations, especially ours, were unrealistic. The widows had originally proposed that they and their daughters would

  • first learn,
    • then sew,
      • and then sell for a profit.


The sell/profit step was too tempting considering other day-to-day pressures on the widows.  A few had told us they were "too busy", but we did not really listen to them nor anticipate the consequences.  We assumed that they were just a small minority.  


We and the widows were biting off more than we could chew.  We did not recognize their many other obligations that precluded devoting the valuable time to training or to sewing. They recognized that the "profit" could be had in another way.  And, we did not have a hands-on management plan in place to coordinate such a project and deal with daily issues and pressures.


The resolution - in 2010, after nearly three years, the ladies and the sewing center made a big transition under duress.  CLOUT Cares ceased funding of the center, its teachers, its security guards, or its materials.  We would no longer subsidize its operation.  


Today, the sewing center is one "teacher" who does the sewing using materials collectively purchased by the widows.  Mostly, the "teacher" makes school uniforms for local schools under contracts arranged by herself or the widows.  The center doesn't operate as a learning center as we had hoped, but it does survive in a new way that the widows can manage along, and it is making a real profit.  We all learned something.


Our advice to others like us:

  • Discard or discontinue support of programs that don't work, are completed, or can stand on their own.
  • Try new things and evaluate everything constantly - don't give up.
  • Put a time limit on all subsidies.
  • Discuss and accept failures as well as successes.
  • Look for and deal with the cause, don't just try to "solve the problem."
  • Learn from your mistakes!
  • Do what you must to break the cycle of dependency.

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