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Xavier Magazine | October 24, 2014

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The Circle of Life: Women and Business in Africa

The Circle of Life: Women and Business in Africa
By France Griggs Sloat

Josephine Lando began making dresses in high school. It was a hobby at first, but soon her friends began asking her to make them dresses, too. By the time she finished boarding school and returned to her home in Rongai, Kenya, she was making more than dresses on demand. She was making money. It wasn’t a lot, but it whet her appetite for business.

Lando already knew something about business. Her mother had a small business making chapati, the traditional bread in Kenya. She used to get up early to help her mother prepare the bread so she could sell it to office workers who took it with their tea. Later, Lando realized her mother was paying more for the flour and other supplies for her bread but was reluctant to raise her own prices.

She saw how hard it was to make money with a small business. She wanted to learn not just how to do it right, but also how to help other women learn how to succeed with their small businesses. But to do that would require education. And that wouldn’t be easy.

Enter the Zawadi Africa Education Fund, a scholarship program that sends bright, disadvantaged Kenyan women to college. Lando applied to several colleges and picked Xavier. As an international undergraduate business student majoring in accounting, everything was going well. She was on target to graduate in December 2014, and she was chosen to be a Brueggeman Fellow, a prestigious honor that would allow her to study the empowerment of women business owners.

But that’s when things started to turn. Already supplementing her Xavier scholarship with loans and a work-study job, she found herself struggling even more when aid from a family friend dried up. Suddenly, her enrollment and Brueggeman Fellowship were in jeopardy.

That’s when things started to turn again. As a resident assistant in the Commons Apartments, she often saw University President Michael J. Graham, S.J., when he passed her office on his way to his apartment. One day last spring he stopped in and asked what she was working on. She told him of her Brueggeman project and her financial troubles. Graham suggested she contact Susan Mboya, a Kenyan businesswoman at Procter and Gamble who founded the scholarship program that sent Lando to Xavier.

Now with Coca-Cola, Mboya heads up a program that works to empower 5 million women entrepreneurs in developing countries by 2020 with training, finances and networking. Called 5by20, the program dovetails neatly with Lando’s goal of helping women with their businesses.

Graham emailed her, and Mboya became so interested in Lando’s project that, in April she awarded her an internship with the 5by20 program in Nairobi, about 20 miles north of Rongai, her home town. At the same time, Lando learned she won the annual Antonio Johnson Scholarship Award at Xavier, which provides full tuition for her senior year.

Lando went back home to Kenya for her 10-week summer internship where she gathered data about women entrepreneurs, studied their businesses and taught them the basics of accounting, bookkeeping and business planning. For her project, she created a handbook of business practices to help women manage their small businesses.

At first, she complained about the long ride between Nairobi and Rongai—the traffic congestion, the hours on the bus, the crowded roads. Soon she reveled in the trip because the road is lined with women selling everything—water, fruit, chapatti, even dresses.

“Seeing this motivates me to create something that will be beneficial to them,” she says. “When I see a woman sitting by the road or in the market selling fruits, I see her taking her children to school with the money she gets. I see smart children growing up healthy, with a good education and learning the value of investing back into their communities. I see the cycle continuing.”

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