Roadside Beads

Meredith Saggers is an ICRW program associate who works primarily in economic development and women’s property rights.

Maasai Women Create Their Own Market

My favorite part of traveling is seeing the impact of ICRW’s work first hand. Sometimes, the determination of the women we serve is profoundly impressive. This was the case on my recent trip to Kenya.

I traveled to Ilbissil, about 60 miles southwest of Nairobi, to oversee a survey with members of Maasai women’s groups. The groups typically form to start various income-generating activities, such as bee keeping, to supplement their volatile family income. For the past 18 months, the groups were trained on beadwork production and marketing from a Nairobi nongovernmental organization. The goal is to help them earn money from their craft. The survey will measure the effect of the project on the groups and individual members.   

As we approached Ilbissil, the paved roads of Nairobi turned into one-lane dirt paths. Our car bumped up and down as it traversed visible rocks and potholes. We finally came to a stop at a busy market area, where villagers displayed their fruits and vegetables on a cloth sheet on the ground. A lucky few sold their goods on stands made out of tree branches.

The ladies from 11 women’s groups were waiting for us in front of a mud structure with several arched entrances. I didn’t remember it from the last time I visited, and with good reason. The members of the women’s groups had built the structure six months ago.  After their marketing training, they jointly decided they needed a venue to display their crafts to villagers and tourists. They chose a visible location next to the market on the village’s main road, and requested the land from their local area councilor. The women then collected branches, mud and other local resources and fashioned the structure themselves. It has 11 stalls, one for each group. Their colorful creations are pre-priced so that when something sells, the proceeds go directly to the woman who made it.

To me, the stall represented the ambition, hard work and camaraderie of the women. It also showed me that aid doesn’t make people complacent. It inspires. These women in Ilbissil used what they learned from the trainings and ran with it, taking their beadwork venture beyond the expectations of our project. Their initiative proved to me what ICRW’s research has shown all along – that when given a few resources, women in some of the poorest nations have the power to change their own lives. The Maasai bead workers are just one example, in one small corner of the world.

Maasai women create their own market.

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