The hum of hand-powered sewing machines buzz all day in Molly Dhan’s balcony-converted workshop located in the city of Cape Coast, Ghana, in West Africa. Business hasn’t always been good. Just two years earlier Molly, an experienced seamstress, struggled. She ran her tiny sewing business with one apprentice from a small, two-room flat. With too few customers in the town’s saturated market, it was nearly impossible for Molly to support herself.
Joining Global Mamas, a network of small, women-owned businesses assisted by the non-profit organization, Women in Progress, brought dramatic changes to her business and her financial situation. “Before joining Global Mamas I did not have a bank account,” Molly replies to my written query. “Now, I have more money and four workers. I am also training apprentices without charging them a fee…”
Molly’s income increased six-fold with the viable assistance Women In Progress provided: locating an outside market for her woman’s reversible dress; providing access to raw materials, and paying Molly for her products at the time of delivery. With the new income Molly moved into a two-bedroom flat, converted the small balcony across the corridor into her workshop, purchased two additional sewing machines, hired four full time employees and began training apprentices without charging fees. Today, she can even provide food for her busy staff.
That’s not the end of the story, either. The additional income allowed her to assume the day-to-day care and responsibility of her cousin’s 17-year old daughter, Emi, who is now receiving the higher quality education of Cape Coast schools versus those of her cousin’s town, and Molly is also able to provide support for her mother.
She has long term business goals, too, that include buying a knitting machine to expand her business. She also plans to one day own a large shop, but more immediately, she is excited to buy a refrigerator for her apartment.
Make no mistake. Molly’s achievements are the direct result of her own hard work, but the non-profit organization established by two college graduates who met while serving in the Peace Corps, provided just the kind of assistance necessary to help Molly turn her business and life circumstances around.
Renae Adam and Kristin Johnson (both with MBAs now) first met in 1992 while working in Ghana for the Peace Corps. Ten years later they founded Women in Progress, and set up Global Mamas, the brand name for the Ghanaian women’s products.
During her Peace Corps service, Johnson was assigned to work with the credit union association. Smaller towns and villages had women-based credit unions, she says, but Cape Coast, the city she lived in, did not. She helped establish the Progressive Women Credit Union, which continues to thrive today with more than 1,000 members.
“The women of Ghana are amazing,” Johnson says. More and more women are working outside the home. When they get home they still must cook a meal and coordinate the laundry. “There are no microwave TV dinners. They must cook everything from scratch, and do the laundry by hand,” she notes.
“Ghanaian women are known for being good financial managers,” Johnson adds. That is one reason the credit unions have been so successful. The repayment rate is above 90 percent – because the women take it so seriously.
It was these hardworking women that captured the heart of the young Peace Corps volunteer. “Seeing the things that I could do to help make a difference was just so meaningful because these women work so hard. It was great to do something that made their lives a little bit easier,” reflects Johnson.
Adam, who lives in Ghana and is the Executive Director of the organization, and Johnson, its International Trade Director in the States, had observed countless economic development programs that targeted women, but from their point of view and from the point of view of the women they served, these programs had little impact. Johnson explains that a group might want to help women business owners better manage their finances, so they would teach a class in accounting. When it was over, though, there was no one to provide post training support for the women to help implement the new ideas they had just been taught.
The whole mission of Women in Progress is to provide ongoing support. The organization is not interested in measuring how many women they train, but how many women are actually keeping records; whether the businesses are growing; and if the women are hiring more people. “For us, it’s all about increased income, new jobs and we feel, meaningful statistics showing improvement in their lives – children going to school, better medical care,” explains Johnson.
When they first began working with the women, the women all told them the same thing – they could not find markets for their products because the local market was either saturated or dying out, and their businesses were fading away. “What good does learning accounting do us if we don’t have anything to account for?” they asked.
So Adam and Johnson decided to search for markets in the United States. They started with six women business owners and a “little, tiny product line” to test in the U.S.
“From that moment, it had a life of its own,” laughs Johnson.
There are now approximately 75 business owners, and including their employees, apprentices and others, close to 300 women involved in creating products for Global Mamas, the name chosen by the women themselves.
Women in Progress continues to offer business training, but the focus is on new product development and quality control. Johnson adds that another distinguishing feature of Women in Progress is its long term commitment. “Once in the program they (the women) know it is ongoing…they are really building something they can count on. And it’s totally driven by them. We’re generating new revenues for them based on the work they’re doing. It’s not a handout. It’s not a grant from the government that will go away. It is completely being sustained by their effort – and that is really empowering.”
The products are selling very well; in fact the demand for Global Mamas’ products is greater than they can fulfill at this time. They are thrilled with the response and especially grateful to consumers in the U.S. who care where their products are made, an interest Johnson says she has seen grow over the four years Global Mamas has been in operation. “Even younger girls that order from us or call us to say how wonderful it was to be able to buy a shoulder bag from our website. Then actually go in there and read a little profile and see a little movie on Esther, and really know it’s from Esther and that’s really special as opposed to some nameless factory. And, also to see how, by buying that shoulder bag…the kind of improvements that you’re helping to make in someone’s life.”
Johnson believes the demand for Global Mamas products is high in part because of the quality control. It takes time, though, to inspect everything and rework things that need to be reworked, and that slows down the production process.
The challenge is that these are little businesses working in the best conditions they can create, and while they improve over time, they are not ideal. Johnson explains. “It’s not exactly like a bright factory that keeps out dust and dirt. It’s a wooden floor, wooden sides and a tin roof and of course, dust can get in and out.”
“We set the standard very high for Global Mamas’ quality…we won’t compromise that. We’d rather turn away orders and keep the quality high, than put out a lot more.”
“As much as I never, ever, ever wanted to be a salesperson, I find I’m very good at selling this product because I know the women so well. Our products are beautiful and the prices are right, but a big piece of it is the story behind it. I’ve lived it so I can convey it,” Johnson says with confidence.
Though they began the organization in 2002, it is only sometime later this year that Johnson will be employed full time. For years Johnson volunteered nights and weekends while holding down a full-time job. Two years ago she was brought on half time. There are also two part-time working moms who help with inspections, but Women in Progress thrives with the help of volunteers who do everything from assist with the website, help lay out the annual catalogue, and even volunteer time in Ghana.
Global Mamas received some outside assistance from the British High Commission (British Embassy), who provided initial funding, helped create the brand, the website and the first wholesale catalogue. Recently, Adam and Johnson decided to launch the model in the nearby town of Odumase-Krobo, a bead-making community. The British High Commission again willingly agreed to assist.
In 2007 they launched two new communities into the Global Mamas network and they have plans to introduce three more by the end of 2008. While they want to expand to other African countries, and work with as many women as possible, they also want to do so in a sustainable manner.
Johnson hopes that consumers will keep in mind where the products they buy come from. “They need to keep looking for fair trade products so that this business model can continue to grow, so people are paid a fair wage for what they do. It is up to the consumer to make the change.”
Below are brief profiles of a few of the women business owners in the Global Mamas organization. You can see their products, story, and communicate with them individually at the Global Mamas website: www.globalmamas.com
Meet the Global Mamas
Betty Cudjoe – Batiker
“Batikers put their heart and soul into their work,” says Betty Cato Cudjoe, who even as a child dreamed of owning her own business. Today, married and the mother of a one-year-old daughter, she is also the proud owner of Betty Wax Batiks. Betty is creative and takes pleasure in developing interesting and unusual batik designs. People like wearing batik because of the fabric’s own unique, handmade style, but, Betty advises, “Batik is a handmade product and there will be imperfections, even in a quality product.” Global Mamas not only improved her life, but even the quality of her work. In the local market she could sell anything. “But to produce for Global Mamas for shipments abroad, the quality has to be better,” says Betty. She imagines a pattern in her mind, and then visualizes the complimenting colors. The challenge comes in getting just the right mix to produce the color that matches her visualization. When the color is not right, instead of becoming frustrated, Betty painstakingly goes over the ingredients she used, and tries to determine if she added too much of one ingredient, or too little of another. She works at it until she arrives at a high quality color, and finished product.
Betty hopes to help more women in Cape Coast achieve financial independence by giving them jobs and teaching them how to batik. Now that she has realized her own childhood dream, she is focused on achieving the dream she has for her daughter, who she hopes will become a lawyer. Her affiliation with Global Mamas has enabled her to attract new customers, improve the quality of her products through quality control, buy the raw materials needed to increase production, hire two employees, open a bank account and save 450,000 cedis (about $50), and plan for a new business location. She is also able to support her sister’s two children.
Bessie Cramer – Seamstress
“I am always busy and I like to stay busy,” says Bessie “Adjowa” Cramer, who loves to sew because it allows her to be artistic and creative. Bessie was born and raised in Cape Coast. She learned to sew in 1989 and opened her own shop called “Besshack Enterprise.” After a few years, she was forced to close her shop because she lacked sufficient business in the already-saturated Cape Coast market. Determined to improve her situation, Bessie applied to the Global Mamas program. Bessie couldn’t be happier to have the opportunity to work with Global Mamas as she is now able to sew again and expand her business. As a member of Global Mamas, Bessie has reopened her workshop and resumed her sewing business. She has been able to tripled her income and pay off her debt. “The Global Mamas workshops have been very helpful to me,” says Bessie. “I have learned how to improve my business and am earning more money. I would like my customers to see pictures of me and my workers in the workshop and to know that Global Mamas is good to us.”
Stella Barnes – Weaver
Twenty-two-year-old Stella Barnes grew up in the village of Ajumako-Ampiah helping on the family farm. She learned entrepreneurial skills by helping her mother with petty trading. She dreamed of becoming a seamstress, and her family was able to support her apprenticeship for three years. Sewing, however, did not bring in much income. Global Mamas gave her the opportunity to weave rugs and other items from recycled batik fabric, and she is delighted. She has only been with Global Mamas for a few months. “I feel good about being associated with Global Mamas. They are fair and don’t cheat. I am paid by the quantity of my work and payment is always prompt. At first, I did not earn much, but now I am working continuously. I want my customers to be happy when they see my things, because of the fine quality. I want them to be happy and order more so I can continue to be a part of Global Mamas.”
Stella provides financial support for her family members and is already talking about providing a good education to her future children and building a family house. Stella’s passion about quality handiwork and motivation to excel in life makes her a good role model to the other women in the group. With the help of Global Mamas, Stella hopes to buy a mobile phone to help coordinate orders, and one day set up a big shop in Mankessin, the nearest town. It is her plan, too, to ensure her siblings have proper education, and to provide financial support for her mother.
Edna Kwame – Bead Maker
“I like to make beads because they make people happy,” says Edna Kwame, a 19-year- old bead maker who began learning the craft from her mother at five years of age. She left school at 15 to work for her mother full-time in Odumase-Krobo; then four years ago branched out on her own to specialize in her own designs for painted beads. “The local bead market is very small money,” explains Edna. Before joining Global Mamas she was often forced to sell to a wholesaler who frequently gave her the run-around and put off paying her. Sometimes she spent so much time and money trying to chase down the payment that she just gave up. She no longer has that problem. “Global Mamas buys a lot and pays on time,” says Edna.
Bead making is a family tradition for Edna’s family and she is continuing the legacy by taking on her brother and niece as apprentices. They work in the afternoons after school. With the help of Global Mamas, Edna has tripled her earnings while reducing her expenses. She pays for her brother and niece’s school fees, supports her mother and the family’s medical bills; rents a two-room apartment with her husband and new baby, and plans to build her own family home. “I like working with Global Mamas because they help you,” says Edna. “Since working with Global Mamas, I got married, had a baby, built a small house and sent my younger brother and sister to school. With income from Global Mamas, I was also able to rebuild my workshop that had been destroyed by fire.”
Author’s Note: This appeared in the March 2008 issue of Change Magazine.