WISE: Empowering women and girls in sustainable enterprise in Lake Victoria
"I envision a region where women and girls from the marginalised areas of Lake Victoria have safe spaces and the support that they need to build, lead and win."
Carol Odera, founder of Women in Sustainable Enterprises (WISE)
Carol Odera founded Women in Sustainable Enterprises (WISE) after observing just how often women were left out of community decision-making in the Lake Victoria region. She saw how the activities agreed in local community project meetings were not geared towards helping women to sustain themselves and their families, and instead they were working long hours in unsafe conditions to fulfil their domestic responsibilities. With many relying on fishing to bring in money, but lake fish stocks dwindling, Carol also recognised that in key growth sectors such as eco-tourism, ICT and sustainable agriculture, women were massively under-represented. In this, she saw an opportunity to offer growth, inclusion and financial sustainability for women in the community.
WISE works to empower women and girls in and around the Lake Victoria region to upskill and establish sustainable businesses of their own. WISE equips them with the key leadership and digital skills they need to be successful in business, while also working to promote positive sexual health education and gender equality through a number of workshops and training programmes. The focus of WISE is on integrating women into local community structures, finding and creating roles that support the development of the area as a whole, while empowering women and girls to see themselves as entrepreneurial leaders in their own right.
QCT funding will help Carol develop a women-led eco-tourism enterprise on the beaches of Lake Victoria, as well as additional capital to invest in solar kiosks in the fishing Islands. These solar kiosks will be equipped with solar lamps run and managed by local women, who will then rent out or sell to the night fishermen. QCT will also work with WISE to provide advice and guidance on organisational areas including safeguarding and financial management.
Continue reading to learn more about WISE and hear from Carol herself as she talks about starting out, her proudest moments and shares her top tips for young leaders working to drive positive change.
WISE works towards SDG 5. Gender Equality.
A lack of opportunity for women in the Lake Victoria region of Kenya means that they are often forced to work long hours and in unsafe conditions to fulfil domestic responsibilities. Lake Victoria is underutilised in terms of potential resources the region offers for ecotourism and agricultural enterprises.
Through a combination of both practical business skills and softer leadership learning, WISE empowers women in the region to enter into the enterprise space, set up their own businesses and financially support themselves and their families as entrepreneurs in their own right.
To date, WISE has impacted over 1,000 households, whilst working directly with 50 women to increase their income and savings. WISE has also trained 30 traders on communications, marketing and networking skills, such as using Facebook for Business, and creating email accounts to help them drive sales online.
"Working with QCT means a lot to me; QCT found me stuck on the runway and now this support will lift me up to take off to where we need to be as an organisation. It will ensure that good and proper internal and external systems are in place, which will go a long way in ensuring sustainability."
Carol Odera, founder of WISE
Getting to know Carol Odera
Tell us a bit about yourself.
I am a woman born and raised in Kisumu, Kenya. My educational background is in Business Administration with a focus on Human Resource and Strategic Management and I have approximately 10 years’ experience working with local communities in and around the Lake Victoria area.
Growing up, my mum sold fish to sustain our family. As the fish industry started to decline in Kisumu, I witnessed her and other women in the same business suffer. Through my volunteer work around the Lake, I interacted with many women fishmongers just like my mum and kept seeing similar patterns occurring. I therefore conceptualized WISE, knowing that I wanted to do something which focused not only on helping women address the challenges they faced in their community, but that also helped secure their livelihoods. Through my work, I have become an alumnus of the Mandela Washington Fellowship programme, and the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI), undertaken the Business & Entrepreneurship track at Rutgers - the state university of New Jersey – and was also recognized among the 100 most inspiring young leaders in Africa by Positive Youths Africa (PYA) in 2017.
Why did you decide to work in this area?
I was born and grew up on the shores of Lake Victoria, in Kisumu. The communities around Lake Victoria mainly depend on fishing as the main economic source of livelihoods. It is women who form the majority of fishmongers, acquiring the fish from local fishermen for resale to middlemen, or frying them for direct sale to households and local hotels. However, as fish stocks have continued to decline in the lake sexual health related illnesses are on the increase, as women turn to desperate measures in order to obtain stock from local men.
This common practice is characterized by a lack of local alternative livelihood case studies and examples for women to learn from and aspire to. Thus, WISE was born out of the need to address this problem, helping women to stay safe, diversify their livelihood sources for sustainability, and reduce overdependence on fish.
What were your first steps to get the project off the ground?
My volunteer experience with local non-profits exposed me to these realities and allowed me to fully understand the challenges that women around the Lake faced daily. So, in 2014, a fellowship opportunity for young women addressing social challenges in their community presented itself and I applied. I was accepted onto the programme and graduated after a year long training as the first cohort alumni of Akili DaDa Fellowship programme. I was also awarded a seed grant of $1,000 USD.
This grant enabled me to pilot WISE, formerly referred to as; Women in Energy Enterprise. Most of the local households in the Lake Victoria region are not connected to electricity, so people rely on traditional energy sources for cooking and lighting, which are detrimental to both the environment and respiratory health. Seeing an opportunity to provide alternative income to women while also serving a need in the community, this pilot programme focused on providing solar lamps to a group of 30 women, which could then be rented to night fishermen. The programme also included basic bookkeeping training to allow them to keep track of profit. During this time, I also used these local meetings and training sessions to discover more about the issues women were facing beyond energy and lighting sources, using this as a platform to inform how to scale my organisation in the future.
In 2016, I rebranded to Women in Sustainable Enterprises (WISE), focused on promoting alternative enterprises that would help women around the lake generate income while contributing towards the conservation of the surrounding wetland and mainstreaming other enablers for their success such as ICT literacy, health education and leadership skills.
What challenges have you faced along the way, and how did you overcome them?
I have faced several challenges, but key ones are as follows. Firstly, engaging with male dominated local leadership structures and households who couldn’t (or wouldn’t) believe in my vision and goals at the start. Men would not allow their women to take part in any outside roles beyond domestic work and the traditional selling of fish.
Secondly, a lack of financial resources and infrastructural support to carry out activities as consistently as I would wish. It has been embarrassing to gather women for one activity and disappear for months before coming back again to gather everyone and start all over again…it creates a big disconnect.
And thirdly, being alone in the journey for a long time. As a founder, you try to do everything as the vision bearer - most people don’t understand the work and why it’s worth engaging in a job that doesn’t pay upfront. I’ve managed to improve the lack of belief in my work, by consistently meeting with local women groups for short sessions, either to create awareness about a particular health topic or teaching basic business skills. When our first group of women conducted the solar lamp rental business successfully and came home with lamps and with some money saved, their men started to understand why my work was important - this was a major turnaround to the situation.
For financial and infrastructural support, I have always survived through local partnerships and networks. Whenever we have an activity, we work from co-shared spaces who host us for certain periods of time depending on our agreement and ability to pay some rental fees. Through partnerships, I also worked (and still work) with volunteers from local colleges and technical institutions who are often engaged as interns as they learn on the job. Most importantly, the use of social media spaces that require minimal resources and considerably increase our visibility have been a great way to raise awareness about our work.
What has been your proudest moment with this work?
My best moments are when women beneficiaries chant and dance in jubilation for having been impacted by our work. Sometimes it’s just when they honestly testify about having learnt something they never knew before. I love it when I walk around the community and the women recognize me by mine and my organization’s name and are always eager to find out what is coming next.
What is the most important thing you’ve learnt?
That there is value in authentically knowing and understanding why you do what you do. Your simple ‘why‘ or motivation will determine whether people will believe in your idea and follow you or not.
What are your future goals for WISE?
I envision a region where women and girls from the marginalised areas of Lake Victoria have safe spaces and the support that they need to build, lead and win. We want to do this by creating more and enhancing our existing WISE hubs, providing the spaces and interventions needed for them to thrive.
Why do you think it’s important for young people to be equal partners in driving change in the world?
Young people now are the future of a community and nation of tomorrow. We must be involved as equal players at all levels of decision-making and planning that affects this future. Moreover, we are the majority of the population, especially in Africa, with high energy levels, talent and capabilities that need to be harnessed for future good. That is why at WISE, we also work with teenage and adolescent girls through leadership skills training.
What are your top 3 tips for young people who have a great idea, but are wondering how to get started?
Be bold, consistent and patient: it takes boldness to go against traditional norms and start something great, it requires consistency and being present in the moment to maintain and build trust, and last but not least it takes patience to break through.
What does working with QCT mean to you?
Working with QCT means a lot to me; QCT found me stuck on the runway and now this support will lift me up to take off to where we need to be as an organization. It will ensure that good and proper internal and external systems are in place, which will go a long way in ensuring sustainability.
I dreamed of having an independent office space/centre to seamlessly facilitate our work with women and girls, and this has been made possible by QCT. Now many more women and girls in my community will be able to comfortably access training, linkages, tools and the support they need to succeed.
Article pubished: May 2020
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