Mirrepe’s Humble Entrepreneur
Maria Tadeu is not the kind of woman who stands out in a crowd. Seated among the seventy participants at a recent commercialization training, she listened attentively as the trainer, a representative of the P&S local partner organization OLIPA, demonstrated techniques to record information about yields and market prices. Several of the men asked questions or voiced opinions about the usefulness of the new recording system, but Maria did not speak up – even when the trainer explicitly asked if the women in the group had anything to add.
At first glance, the gender balance in the group was encouraging: 40 per cent of those who had gathered under the trees in the Mirrepe village center were female. The training was supposed to bring together the leadership committees of the 16 community associations that made up the larger forum, “A Luta Contra Pobreza” – The Fight Against Poverty, so the high percentage of women suggested that gender equality is penetrating the decision-making mechanisms of community associations. But on closer inspection, one could not help noticing that most of the women were seated – intentionally or unintentionally – on the outer rings of the circle, and that like Maria they mostly kept quiet during the training.
Maria might have gone completely unnoticed in the meeting, but her importance in the community was revealed early on when the trainer requested that the president of each association stand and introduce his or her group to the larger forum. One by one, over a dozen men rose from their mats on the ground to represent their associations. And then, quietly, Maria stood. “My name is Maria Tadeu and I am the president of the Associação Muentasana.” She paused for a moment, and then continued more softly, “We had 20 members, 15 women and 5 men, but one woman just died, so now we are 19.”
After the training, Maria opened up more and spoke about her life and her role in the Muentasana Association. She declined to give her age, possibly because of modesty but more likely because she does not know it. A lifelong resident of the small village of Mirrepe in the remote Moma District of northern Mozambique, Maria never went to school and can only speak only a few words of Portuguese, the country’s official language. With the help of a local P&S employee interpreting between Portuguese and Mokua, the local language, Maria shared her motives for participating in the morning’s training, starting her story with the creation of her association ten years ago.
In 2000, she explained, she and a few other women were growing frustrated with their inability to feed their children. Many of them were widows or had husbands who were ill or unable to provide for their families, and getting help from the government seemed to be out of the question. So they pooled their meager resources and built a bread oven, forming an association to bake and sell rolls in the village. “We were actually the first association in Mirrepe,” Maria proudly revealed. “The others that you saw this morning just followed our example.” Optimistically, they named their association muentasana, a Mokua word that means “things are going well.”
However, the entrepreneurs quickly discovered that there was no money to be made in the bread business. “In a city, it might be possible,” she conceded. But in Mirrepe, more than 50 km from the nearest urban center, the expense of obtaining flour and other necessary materials was too great, and they were unable to turn a profit.
Rather than throwing in the towel and disbanding the association, Maria and the other moms decided to try their hands at an even more ambitious project: raising goats. With the help of the Dutch SNV (this was several years before CARE and WWF began working in the area), they acquired several dozen animals and learned how to take care of them, breed them, and sell the kids and milk. Around the same time, they also started letting men join their association, although the leadership has remained firmly in the hands of the female founders.
Muentasana now has about 60 female goats and three billy goats for breeding. While this project has been successful enough that members can take home meager profits, several years ago they also began reinvesting a percentage of their earnings into other ventures in order to further diversify their sources of income. Maria named half a dozen different activities that her association now undertakes, including small-scale farming, construction of mud bricks, and cashew processing.
Despite her quiet nature at the morning training session, Maria and her association are highly involved with the community leadership. Last year, the Primeiras & Segundas Project helped the forum build a small community meeting space. Although technically owned collectively by the entire forum of 16 associations, Muentasana is the association primarily responsible for oversight and upkeep. They themselves use the space for their semi-monthly meetings. They have also become involved in seeking solutions for community problems, such as the shortage of potable water faced in Mirrepe. “There’s now only one functioning well for the entire zone, which means people have to wait in line a long time or drink unclean water,” Maria explained. “We tried to organize the community, tried to raise money, and now we’re in a process with the government, although the issue still has not been resolved.”
With ten years of experience as an entrepreneur and activist, Maria does not seem like someone who needs the commercialization training provided by the Primeiras & Segundas Project. She agreed that her association already has more experience than most of the other participants in the forum, but firmly asserted that there is always more to learn. “Our suffering has diminished over the past few years,” she explained, “but we are still very poor, and we have large families to look after.” In Maria’s case, she has 14 children depending on her: nine at home, four studying in Angoche, and one in the provincial capital of Nampula. Only six of the children are hers biologically; the rest are orphans she has taken in, despite the additional burden. “That’s just what we do here,” she said. “And that’s why we need to learn more and get advice from others, and why we need more different types of interventions – so we can earn more and save more and give our kids a better life.”