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Back to the Future

A Journey to 1981 Trickle Up

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By Bill Abrams

 

Recently I had the unexpected opportunity to travel back to Trickle Up’s earliest days. I participated in a panel discussion in Washington and, afterwards, a woman resplendent in an African print dress and headscarf, introduced herself as Coumba Marenah. She explained that she had received the support of Trickle Up for some of her community development women's groups in The Gambia, a small country in West Africa, in the 1980’s – starting two years after Trickle Up began  and later became a champion of our approach in several African countries.

 

With a population of 1.9 million, The Gambia is almost entirely surrounded by Senegal and is one of the poorest countries in the African region. Coumba, who now lives in Detroit, headed the Government Community Development Women’s Program from 1976 to 1984 and found Trickle Up through an American civil rights organization.

 

“With Trickle Up, we helped women become more entrepreneurial,” Coumba told me. Peanuts were the major cash crop in The Gambia, and Coumba was looking for a way to help women generate more profits from their harvests. While women often came to the local market to sell their peanuts and horticultural produce, they were accustomed to selling just enough to cover immediate needs. Trickle Up helped them see the value of staying longer at the market, in order to sell more and go beyond subsistence income, as well as how to improve their sales techniques.

 

“We helped them learn how to generate more value for their products,” Coumba said, “and we helped them learn to diversify.” A typical second product, in addition to peanuts, was selling small bags of drinking water. “We helped teach women to understand all the parts of business.”

 

Based upon her success with women in her country and her experience with Trickle Up in her home country, Coumba received a grant from the International Labor Organization, a UN agency, to bring the Trickle Up approach to Ghana, Ethiopia and Kenya. “I introduced the concept of ‘value added’ to whatever was done." In Ethiopia, for example, she introduced a Ghanaian expert in advanced pottery to a group of women who learned the art and expanded their pottery businesses.

Coumba Marenah-resizedagain_circle

 

People naturally have to think about consumption and immediate needs. Trickle Up was about investing and planning for the future. They learned that, if you have to spend all of your income right away, you will be able to plan for the future. We empowered women not to be dependent.

 

 - Coumba Marenah is a community organizer and early chamption of Trickle Up's work with women in Africa.

"People naturally have to think about consumption and immediate needs. Trickle Up was about investing and planning for the future. They learned that, if you have to spend all of your income right away, you will be able to plan for the future. We empowered women not to be dependent."

 

 - Coumba Marenah is a community organizer and early chamption of Trickle Up's work with women in Africa.

In addition to helping women learn how to achieve success at a micro and subsistence level, she helped them develop savings habits. Based on the cooperative thrift and credit model that was popular in the Gambia in the 70’s, as well as benefitting from Coumba’s experience as a community organizer, women gained access to credit for business expansion and family needs. Trickle Up savings groups also were important sources of peer solidarity. “Women were able to learn from each other,” she recalled. “Community and cohesiveness are key, especially when you have a face a crisis.”
 

“We taught women to work together,” Coumba said. “It is a tradition in our culture, but we helped them work together in business. We taught them to be business-minded, to have aims and objectives that previously we did not formalize. We taught them to invest and to expect a return.”
 

“People naturally have to think about consumption and immediate needs,” she added. “Trickle Up was about investing and planning for the future. They learned that, if you have to spend all of your income right away, you will be able to plan for the future. We empowered women not to be dependent.”

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In the 37 years since Coumba began bringing the concept of Trickle Up to women in The Gambia and other African nations, a lot has changed about our methodology. Today we give larger seed capital grants to help women start or expand a business. We provide more formalized business training and mentoring, and we have developed more effective means of helping women organize and manage their savings groups. We help them connect to institutions in their communities – opening bank accounts and participating in village governance – so that their voices can be heard and their role in the economy recognized.
 
What has not changed over all those years, however, is our fundamental mission – to help women living in conditions of extreme poverty and vulnerability gain new skills and confidence, access to training and seed capital, and greater connection to each other and their communities. Our single-minded focus has been a driver of our longevity.

 

My conversation with Coumba reminded me just how powerful Trickle Up has been in the lives of hundreds of thousands of families over the years and how time-tested our program approach is. Trickle Up can be a catalyst for success, but the true heroines of the Trickle Up story are strong women leaders like Coumba and the thousands and thousands of women who have invested their time and dedication, with our help, to building better futures for their families.

 


Bill Abrams is Trickle Up's President and is based in New York, New York.