“Watermelon” may seem like a funny name for a business. But Salome, Martha, and Anna have a good reason.
“Watermelons are resilient,” Anna explains. “It doesn’t matter if there is a drought or heavy rains, watermelons can thrive. We want our business to be like that.” And thus far, it has.
Watermelon group launched their business in the spring of 2017. They are engaged in a retail business, buying and selling “jaggery.” Jaggery is concentrated sugar cane juice, essentially a block of condensed raw sugar. In south western Kenya, where Anna, Martha, and Salome live, jaggery is used in animal feeds and eaten plain as a sweet.
Anna and her fellow business owners live in Lwala village in Migori County, Kenya. In Lwala, there is sugarcane growing everywhere.
“Sugar cane is a poverty crop,” says Tobias Ouma, the Village Enterprise Field Coordinator serving in Lwala. Demand for sugar is high, but the canes take two years to mature for harvest. The high demand incentivizes people to grow sugar cane in large quantities, often using land that was previously used to grow foods for consumption. Two years between harvests also means that accruing profits to use for school fees and cover household needs takes longer. Furthermore, sugar cane is often harvested and sold by the men in a household, meaning less money reinvested in household needs.
However, Anna, Salome, and Martha have found a way to use the sugar industry to their favor. Rather than cultivating sugar cane, they buy jaggery in bulk from a processor and sell it in small quantities in their village. They purchase 500 pieces at a time, for around 35 Kenyan shillings each (about 35 cents). Though the price fluctuates, they typically make a profit of about 1,000 Kenya shillings per week (about 10 dollars). They use these profits to pay school fees for their children, and have also purchased one goat for each group member.
Watermelon group is a perfect illustration of the value of investing in female entrepreneurs. “Women are committed,” says Salome. “We use what money we have in our home. And we are more trusting with each other than men, allowing our group businesses to thrive. In fact, though the three of us knew each other before starting our business, we are now very close friends.”
“Before starting our small business and joining our Village Enterprise savings group, my husband used to spend our sugar cane profits drinking in Rongo town. There would be hardly anything left to pay school fees or feed our children. I had a small plot where I would grow a little bit of maize to sell to try and do what I could for our home,” remembers Anna.
“When I first joined the program,” adds Martha, “my husband thought it was just another women’s group.” (Women’s merry-go-round savings groups are common throughout Kenya, however they can be unsustainable and rarely last more than a month or two). “But when he saw that I was using our profits to educate our children and buy goats he became convinced that this program is different.”
Anna, Salome, and Martha are just three of the 156,000 entrepreneurs that Village Enterprise has trained since 1987. Their life-transforming experience is extraordinary, but not one-of-a-kind. Recently released results from a third-party Randomized Controlled Trial, the golden standard of impact evaluation, found that the Village Enterprise program led to annual household increases in consumption of US$142.92, US$89.64 increase in household assets, and US$73.92 increase in productive cash flow per family.