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Thursday
Mar082012

Celebrating International Women's Day: Support for Female Entrepreneurs

Today in Dschang, the women from our entrepreneurial program will be proudly marching together, in celebration of International Women’s Day. I was excited to learn that the women had decided to march, because it exemplifies the spirit of mutual support and collective confidence building that are some of our program’s underlying objectives. Last week, I had the pleasure of visiting a number of the participants with Chymène, the class instructor, and saw firsthand the bond that has developed between the instructor and her students, and her pride at their success.  

Many of the participants in the course only had a minimal amount of formal education, and are unused to the formality of tests and homework. Chymène is patient with the women and carefully goes over each week’s work, ensuring that all the women understand each lesson. The section of the curriculum which is most difficult for many is accounting and Chymène was particularly proud to show me the women who now carefully record their daily income and expenses in their books.

When I asked the women what had been the most difficult aspect of the course, almost all agreed that the real challenge was not the class work, but putting that theoretical knowledge into practical use in their own businesses, and that they were grateful for the continual support and advice that Chymène provides. Chymène meets each woman at least once a month to go over their accounts and discuss any growing pains the business may be experiencing. Above, she is at the store of Justine Ndjanbong, watching as students come to purchase food on their way home from school.

So far 55 women have graduated from the class, and registration is under way for the next session. Of the women who have graduated, 16 received loans in September and 16 more are in the process of opening accounts. I hope that, as the program continues, these successful entrepreneurs will become mentors for young women in Dschang looking to start businesses, providing a vision of financial competence and independence, as well as guiding young women through the difficult first steps of launching an entreprise.

Members of Breaking Ground's Women's Entrepreneurial Program marched Thursday, March 8, in Dschang to celebrate International Women's Day.

Wednesday
Feb012012

Collaboration for long term success

Last week in Cameroon, Paul participated in the first ever Lebialem Platform on Conservation and Sustainable Development (LPCD). This meeting, which we sponsored with our partner EruDEF, brought together organizations working in the Lebialem Valley.  The goal of this cooperative platform is to open communication, share skills and encourage complementary approaches. This was the first step on a long road to collaborative action, but it exemplifies Breaking Ground’s emphasis on developing partnerships with local nonprofits to ensure the sustainability of our work.

Sustainability is a buzzword that has been overused in its promotion of new consumer goods. But when we at Breaking Ground discuss sustainability, we are generally referring to the ability of our work to endure. Sustainability, like empowerment, is central to our work.

We believe that sustainable projects grow organically over time and have community wide support. Sustainable projects use local materials and technology, and they involve working with communities to ensure that there is a management committee or maintenance plan.

We ensure sustainability by training Cameroonians such as Chymène, our Women's Entrepreneurial Program (WEP) instructor in Dschang. We also work side by side with organizations like GADD, which already manages the day-to-day administration of the WEP, so the program will ultimately run independently of our oversight. The WEP is designed so that, after three or four years, the loan aspect of the program will be financially independent, able to continue providing loans to female entrepreneurs without further investment from us.

Though environmental sustainability is not our primary focus, we partnered with EruDEF as we began working in the Lebialem Valley, in order to ensure that our agricultural programs are done responsibly and complement the work of organizations that are striving for conservation in the region. Likewise, EruDEF understands that if conservation comes at the price of local livelihoods, or is seen as being indifferent to the needs of the communities who live on the outskirts of the resource-rich forest, then their conservation efforts will not be supported by those communities and will not endure in the long term.

It is our collective challenge to improve the quality of life of the people of Folepi, Nkong, and the neighboring communities, while also protecting an area of unparalleled biodiversity. How is this possible? By supporting small-scale and diversified farming practices that use already cultivated land, by ensuring that the boundaries of new conservation areas take into account the existing fields and homes of community members, and by providing access to processing equipment which increases the value of existing crops.

The importance of viewing ecological conservation and economic development as complimentary goals, is the focus of Man & Nature, who provided the $10,000 grant to support our nurseries. It is with these goals in mind, that Breaking Ground sponsored last weeks LPCD meeting and will continue to foster open dialogue.

Having opened this post with a photo of collaboration at the administrative level, I want to close with a photo of women working together in Folepi, which exemplifies the spirit of cooperation that permeates all levels of our work and will ultimately ensure the long term effectiveness of our programs.

 

Monday
Jan022012

Turning hopes into goals

In February I will be traveling back to Cameroon to meet the latest grant recipients, visit the new nurseries and discuss the nuts and bolts of our programs with Paul and our partner organizations. My most important task, however, will be to listen.

The defining principle of Breaking Ground is that Cameroonians know best what they want and need and that it is not our place to come in with unilateral solutions. Much of our work, therefore, is to spend time with community members, earning their trust, learning about their struggles, and providing a forum for them to transform their hopes into goals.

Around the holiday season, those of us lucky enough to live in relative prosperity are often reminded that we take our creature comforts -- running water, electricity, and easy access to fairly affordable and nutrient rich food -- for granted and are asked to donate to those less fortunate. What we are less likely to be reminded of is that those of us who have been blessed with a strong education and a supportive community have also been given a sense of entitlement, a spirit of agency and a belief that if something is broken, we can probably fix it.

Empowerment is a buzz word, used so much in the non-profit landscape that we can stop hearing it.  However, the effects of listening and responding to an individual’s needs are real. As Haira, one of our Women's Entrepreneurial Program graduates put it, the class helped her learn her own value and the value of the work she does.

In Cameroon, we work with communities like Doumbouo and Foreke-Dschang that are already full of entrepreneurial zeal and have their plans drawn up. But we also work with communities that haven’t yet dared to give voice to their hopes, such as the villages of Folepi and Nkong where resources are too limited for villagers to save for their own medical expenses, let alone plan to improve their hospital. Here, our income generation programs will give the community the funds to invest in their hopes and the confidence to believe that together they can accomplish their goals.

Click here to watch a video made by our recent summer intern, Maddie Spagnola, that brings the WEP classes to life, and includes exerts of my meeting with Haira.

Monday
Nov142011

Our Goals for 2012

Without contributions from people like you, Breaking Ground would not be able to accomplish any of the work we do. Please consider making an investment in Breaking Ground and in the Cameroonian communities with whom we work, so that together we can make real, tangible progress. Should you chose to support Breaking Ground, here is what we hope to accomplish in 2012.

Our first priority is to follow through with the commitments and programs that are up and running:

WEP Dschang

We will fund the second year of the WEP in Dschang, moving the program closer toward our goal of independent operation. In 2011 this program was generously funded with the support of the Flanigan Foundation, which has pledged a further $5,000 toward the program in 2012. But this leaves $15,000 that we will need to raise.

 

Cocoa & Palm Nurseries

We will support the farmers of Nkong and Folepi as we develop a second year of palm and cocoa nurseries. A $10,000 grant from Man & Nature will cover much of the planting costs, but we will need to spend an additional $5,000 to ensure the farmers get the training and support they need to invest successfully.

 

 
Then there are the projects that we have been planning and researching, which we would love to see come to fruition in 2012:

WEP Southwest

The Women’s Entrepreneurial Program has been redesigned to fit the needs of the rural populations of the southwest. To run this program we would need to hire a second fulltime employee, in addition to paying for the community gardens that would be used for training, and providing small loans to selected participants. Total cost: $30,000.

 

Community Projects: Water Pump

We haven’t forgotten about community seed grants and are in the process of evaluating a water pump project in the village of Baleveng. Assuming that the community is sufficiently mobilized and that the project is deemed feasible by our team, I hope that we will break ground on this project in 2012. Total cost will be approximately $17,000.

 

None of our goals will be possible without the continued support of donors like you. As we move towards 2012, I hope you will choose to make a contribution. Every donation brings us one step closer to realizing these projects and effecting meaningful change in the lives of the Cameroonians with whom we work.

If you have any questions about how your donation will be used, please contact me: alex.moore@breaking-ground.org

On est ensemble (Together),

Alex Moore
Executive Director

Saturday
Nov052011

Q&A with Executive Director Alex Moore

Executive Director Alex Moore spoke recently to Breaking Ground’s new social media volunteer about her history with the organization and her goals for its coming years. After five years in operation, Breaking Ground has helped support the construction of several schools, a library, and bridge, in addition to establishing a soccer program for girls, an agricultural training program for coffee farmers, and a business class and grant program for women.

In October, Breaking Ground appointed Erin Rhoda to manage the  organization’ssocial media platforms. Erin is a reporter with the Morning Sentinel newspaper in Maine, studied English at Colby College, and has a master’s in creative writing from Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland. She has helped run an afterschool program for youth in Kissehman, Ghana, and distribute bed nets to rural villages in Sierra Leone. Contact her at erin.rhoda@breaking-ground.org with your ideas for spreading the word about Breaking Ground!

            Describe your first impressions of Cameroon. Set the stage.

It wasn’t until the end of my first week in Cameroon that I began to relax. It was my junior year at Wesleyan University in 2004, and Lindsay Clarke, Sarah Oxford, and I were spending four months in Cameroon to study with the School for International Training. We spent our first days living in a village called Fongo-Tongo, and I remember being overwhelmed by my new surroundings. I wondered why I had come.

At the end of the first week, community members gathered in the compound where we were staying, and we spent the evening dancing and eating a feast. That was the moment I let go. I thought, I can do this. A couple of nights later, Lindsay and I danced with a beautiful 3-year-old girl who wore her hair in big poofy pigtails. When I learned later she would be my host sister, I felt everything was falling into place. I knew I was going to have a great semester.

            What did you do on your school program in Cameroon?

We lived with host families our first month in Dschang, which is where Breaking Ground is now based. As part of our program, we visited local nonprofits and large-scale non-governmental organizations, learning about a wide array of development methods. We also completed month-long independent study projects. While Lindsay lived in the rainforest for her project, studying the effect of the departure of a logging company, I turned to art.

In the Cameroonian village of Idol, women traditionally plan the large murals that the community is famous for. But while a few women are in charge of the overall vision of the mural, they give individual community members squares of the painting to complete themselves. I replicated this form of community art in the city of Ngaoundéré, working with 28 people to paint squares that became one large piece.

Working with a wide array of community members later became an essential and basic part of Breaking Ground’s work, but at that time I had no inkling of what would grow from my introduction to Cameroon.

Those first months, I was struck by the rich orange-red color of the dirt. And as a student I made paintings using the bright varieties of dirt found in places like Idol. In the dry season, a pink, orange dust settles on everyone’s clothes. That’s the color we eventually chose to represent Breaking Ground. We also wanted our name to reference the idea of literally breaking into the dirt—doing the kind of hands-on work that requires everyone’s effort.

            You had to come back to the U.S. to finish college, so how were you able to return to Cameroon?

I came home to finish my senior year at Wesleyan and scheme up ways to return to Cameroon. Lindsay applied for and won the college’s Christopher Brodigan Award, which allowed her to travel to Doumbouo, in the west, to teach English. That’s where she helped contribute to one of the community’s goals: finishing the school’s construction.

I was lucky enough to sell some paintings, which enabled me to book a ticket to meet Lindsay. Stepping off the plane to join her in March 2006 was one of the happiest moments of my life. Since my previous time in Cameroon, I had graduated college, moved to New York City, taught art in afterschool programs and worked as a waitress. I was jumping outside of myself to get back to Cameroon. There is a distinct smell to the air in Cameroon, and I was strongly aware of it when I returned. It held many positive associations.

When I arrived in Doumbouo, the school was mostly finished and the teachers decided I should help paint two world maps on the school walls. Many of the children had never before seen a world map and their place within it. That was a satisfying time because I also taught them how to paint. I love the moment when people stop fearing artistic expression and not only know they can paint but enjoy it, too.

Our work in Doumbouo continued when we helped fund the construction of a library. We knew we were doing purposeful work by supporting projects in which local community members were already invested, but we didn’t think about it becoming the mission of a nonprofit. Sarah was the one to suggest that the work was larger than us.

            What did it take to develop the nonprofit in the U.S. and Cameroon?

The nonprofit formed in the fall of 2006 when Lindsay and Sarah organized our founding board, and our 501(c)3 paperwork was approved in 2007. The board has changed throughout the years. We now have six new board members, in addition to three of the original members—plus my work as executive director. We continue to grow, and I hope in several years we’ll be able to add staff, extend our support network and increase our number of projects in Cameroon.

For several years, Lindsay acted as the full-time director while holding down a full-time teaching job in Maine. While she balanced her responsibilities well, it was too much to ask. At that time, I acted as development director, while earning my master’s of fine arts at Claremont Graduate University in California. So we hired Paul Zangue in Cameroon to handle some of the work Lindsay had been doing, replace the need for American volunteers on the ground, and provide more direction from within Cameroon.

We first met Paul in 2008 when he volunteered to manage our bridge construction project, connecting Litieu and Melah. One of his skills is his ability to handle a wide variety of tasks. One day you may find him speaking to a National Director of bank about microcredit lending and the next day he’ll be digging in the dirt at one of our nurseries.

The board officially hired him as program manager in Cameroon in August 2010. I travel to Cameroon several times a year, but Paul is our presence there. He negotiates when we partner with an organization, keeps track of expenses, plans our programs, and meets people from various government offices. We’ve been working on officially becoming a nonprofit in Cameroon for about a year.

            How do you determine what projects to fund?

We have several ways of identifying our next projects. In addition to maintaining contacts in Cameroon, Peace Corps volunteers often approach us with projects, and word about Breaking Ground has spread quickly. People usually contact us when they learn there’s an American organization willing to support them.

But we only invest in projects that have sprung organically from communities and their self-identified needs. These are community-led projects. As outsiders, we have no authority telling people what they need and want. They already know what they need and want. We support communities that may not have all the resources to finish their essential school or library or bridge. We also support women through our Women’s Entrepreneurial Program, which has taught business skills to more than 180 women and financed several dozen business endeavors.

            What keeps you going back?

What keeps me going back to Cameroon is the heart of it all. There’s a joy and purpose behind all this work, even when it’s difficult. The place and people of Cameroon are now part of my personal history. They have transformed me. I love the energy of the people we work with and the results of our joint efforts. I also enjoy Cameroon on a basic level. I always feel welcome; I love the pace of life, the food, and people’s attitudes.

            Why should people donate to a cause they will probably never directly benefit from?

We’re all connected whether it’s obvious to us or not, and, therefore, part of being an aware citizen is taking responsibility for what happens around the world. Why should we care? It just seems like common sense and basic justice. Everybody on this planet should have the same access to education, food and healthcare. I didn’t choose where I was born and the privileges I was given. I was lucky. I have more than I even realize I’m able to give, and others do, too. All around the world, we have the ability to make a huge impact on others’ lives.

 

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