A women's cooperative saw its work almost reduced to ashes after years of work as the Ebola outbreak ravaged the West African country of Guinea, but the women would have the last say.
Djakagbe Kaba has spent decades working towards women empowerment. Despite the setbacks during the Ebola outbreak, she is determined to reposition women at the forefront of agricultural development and lead the way to better earning power.
The women cannot be independent if they do not have the means
It is Friday in Conakry and the streets are busy. Vendors are selling their wares as passers-by haggle over prices, afternoon prayers at the mosque have already begun.
Amidst the hustle and bustle, Djakagbe Kaba, head of the women's organisation AGACFEM (Association Guineenne pour L'Allegement des Charges Feminines), opens the boutique where the organisation sells locally-made products produced by the women they work with.
The shop is modest but Kaba is confident. She has spent the last 30 years working with women's groups before she co-founded the AGACFEM in 1995. With a focus on training and women's economic and political empowerment, AGACFEM has supported thousands of women living in the country's rural areas.
One of the organisation's early projects was a women's leadership programme after receiving funds from the Accra-based African Women's Development Fund (AWDF). Kaba and her team organised trainings for women to participate in local governance. By the end of the project seven women were elected as members of the municipal council.
But AGACFEM did not stop there. The programme extended to illiterate women, who were taught how to read and write and the importance of voting.
In recent times AGACFEM has pooled together a co-operative of 45 women's groups in the rural areas Kissidougou, Guéckédou and Kankan. The Coopérative des Femmes Rurales pour l'Agriculture, la Souveraineté Alimentaire et le Développement (COFRASAD) spent the last four years training women in 10 villages in organic agricultural production and value-added processing and are currently in the process of completing the finishing touches to two processing centres. But when the Ebola virus hit in 2014 everything changed.
Kaba and her colleagues were forced to re-strategise. AGACFEM received another grant from the AWDF, this time for the fight against Ebola. The organisation decided to team up with three other Guinean NGOs – Coalition des Organisations pour le Rayonnement de L'Economie Sociale Solidaire en Guinee (CORESS), Cooperative Badembere and Association des Jeunes Agriculteurs pour le Developpement Communautaire (AJADEG) – some of whom are members of COFRASAD working in the same region that also received grants from AWDF during the Ebola crisis to put their funds together to tackle the crisis head on.
Kaba decided to leave the capital, Conakry, and base herself in Kissidougou for three months to ensure all the programmes ran efficiently. While she headed the project planning and budget organising, roles were allocated to her partners to ensure that they maximised their efforts and networks as they reached to villages across the region.
"When it came to making orders for hand-washing kits, we placed one order together to keep costs down." Kaba points out that it was important to her that each organisation used its strengths. "For example," she says. "Badembere is an organisation that manufactures soap, so we thought let's put the money we have each been allocated to buy soap into Badembere to strengthen their capacities."
Kaba bought and bargained every item needed for the hand-washing kits, even down to the stickers on the bucket, to make sure the group got the best for their buck. After overseeing the manufacturing process, the kits would then go out to the villages with the women volunteers who were spreading the message about Ebola.
Though Kaba and her colleagues were successful in their efforts in distributing hand-washing kits across communities, raising hygiene awareness and communicating with people, the work they had been doing in agricultural production took a hit. Nothing was produced for a whole year, setting the whole project back.
"We had to stop production," says Fanta Konneh Condé, the secretary general of COFRASAD and one of Kaba's colleagues, as she overlooks one of the gardens in just outside Kissidougou. "We missed the harvest season."
Fast-forward to December 2015 and work has restarted. Condé and her colleague, Mariame Touré of Badembere take a stroll through the garden, stopping to talk to the women, as they remark at how far they all have come. With babies on their backs and farming tools in their hands, some of the women are – for the time being – cultivating carrots, lettuce and chives. Once again working to provide for their families. Under the initiative, they also produce rice, cereals and potatoes.
Back in Conakry at the boutique, Kaba is sure of the direction she wants the co-operative to go.
"We want to increase production," she declares, as she gestures towards the pots of shea butter and black soap on the shelves. "We would like to export these products."
COFRASAD is expanding rapidly having grown from a co-operative of four groups after its first year, to 45 groups today, four years later.
"The women cannot be independent if they do not have the means," Kaba says. "It is better to support a group of women, rather than just one."