September 10, 2012
SELIBE-PHIKWE, BOTSWANA – Just a few yards off the road to Bobonong, a village in Botswana’s Central district, Kewagamang Talampe lives at the Mokgalwana cattle post.
A strong, beautiful African hut – thatched with new grass and made of walls decorated with colorful soil – adorns her yard. She keeps her yard well-swept, with no pebbles at all. Two kraals that house her cows and goats stand nearby.
“Kibi! Kibi! Kibi!” she says, shooing the chickens away in Setswana – the local language – from her bowl of porridge, which she eats under a tree in her yard.
Talampe is the mother of five children. Instead of focusing on building her dream house in the village, she says she has lived for many years at the cattle post in order to meet her family’s daily needs. Hunger has been a constant reality.
She says her husband left her for another woman and now is too old to work. She says she must especially rely on herself these days since her children are grown up and have their own families to take care of.
“It hurts me so much to have children who cannot support me as their mother,” she says. “If I don’t work hard each day, my life will be miserable because, after all, I need to bath[e], eat and cloth[e] myself.”
Desperate to seek an alternate means of survival, Talampe says she has discovered a breakthrough. For years she has been collecting and selling firewood to travelers and others who pass by on the tarred road. She says nature’s abundant wood has enabled her to survive.
Her customers range from the villagers of Bobonong and Sefophe to those who head to Selibe-Phikwe, a mining town also in the Central district. She says that people who host parties are also good customers throughout the year. They like buying from her because she cuts only mophane wood, which produces nice coal and a pleasant smell.
She says she obtained a license that allows her to sell firewood from the local Department of Forestry and Range Resources in Selibe-Phikwe under the Ministry of Environment, Wildlife and Tourism. She says that she doesn’t cut the wood herself. Instead, she employs boys to assist her, and sometimes her husband helps when he has time.
She says there are some dark days when a day ends without any sales. But she says that overall, this business has helped her and her family to survive.
“Am grateful to God for allowing me to identify this business,” she says. “It has sustained my family over the past years.”
With poverty and hunger a constant reality here, women in rural Botswana have turned to entrepreneurship, seeking goods to sell in local markets from nature’s treasures. They say there are some challenges when it comes to safety, storage, transportation of goods and pending legislation that may restrict their collection activities in local forests. Other women say the economy has made it hard to live off the land. To encourage the women, the government has been recognizing them for their achievements, organizing empowerment programs and helping them to overcome the challenges they face in the business.
More than 30 percent of citizens here live below the international poverty line of $1.25 USD a day, according to UNICEF. But if some change are made, it is possible for Botswana to eradicate extreme hunger and poverty – goal one of the Millennium Development Goals, a U.N. initiative that countries worldwide have pledged to achieve by 2015, according to the MDG Monitor.
Onalenna Kereemang, 53, hails from Segakwaneng cattle post in the Central district. She is a married woman with seven children. Her husband works, but they no longer live together.
She says life hasn’t been easy. Her children dropped out of school at a young age. Today, they are grown up and have jobs. But they earn little wages, so she struggles to earn money to give them.
Today, she rents a room in Selibe-Phikwe, which she shares with her youngest child. Like many other people in Botswana, they depend mostly on agriculture.
Kereemang says that life has been hard, but that despite all she has encountered, her children never went to bed without food. She is a hard worker, and she hardly becomes sick. She says she can make a living out of what nature offers – from agriculture to other entrepreneurial enterprises she has taken up, especially when the rains aren’t good for farming.
Kereemang collects mophane worms, which she packages into seven to eight 25-kilogram sacks. People here say the worms are a source of nutrition for themselves and their cattle.
She says she sells the mophane worms to South Africans, who buy them at a good price. Sometimes when she has extra worms, she sells them in town.
She boasts that with these profits, she bought a bicycle and a donkey cart, which help her to get around, especially at the cattle post.
She says that she also collects and sells wild berries, mowana fruits from the baobab tree and fruits from the morula tree, which she also uses to make African beer to sell as well. She says that morula fruits can be used for making jam too, and she hopes to learn its recipe soon so she can add jam to her offerings.
She says she also collects grass to sell to people to use as building materials. She says that there are two types of grass. One type of grass she can pick in the plains, and she sells it to people to thatch common houses.
The other type of grass is more durable, and people use it to thatch hotels and lodges. This grass earns more profit, but she says it grows a long distance away and requires a van for transportation. She says she sometimes rents a van or uses her donkey cart to collect this grass.
Finally, she also decorates boxes to sell. She collects boxes discarded by local businesses, molds them into different shapes and decorates them with paint. She says she is already doing well in the market with this latest project.
She says she has marketed herself well throughout the past years, so she has a lot of customers who buy her line of products. She is satisfied with her profits. Kereemang says she is also delighted that her business has helped her to network with other women, which enables them to share skills, ideas and new customers.
She says that as an uneducated woman, her business is a good way to earn a living since it’s unlikely that anyone else would hire her. Moreover, she says she likes collecting the items at her own pace and managing her enterprises as her own boss.
She says she has become a regular seller in this mining town, which has opened doors for her. The town council, which has been working to alleviate poverty here, recently recognized her for her hard work and has helped supply the paint for her latest venture.
But although she is passionate about earning a living from collecting what nature offers, she says that there are several challenges.
She says that there are snakes in the mountains where she gathers the common grass and leopards deep in the bush where they gather the expensive grass. She says that one day while they were picking the grass, a leopard kept watching them from a distance as if it were waiting to attack.
Kereemang says that women are also vulnerable to sexual attacks. She says that seeing a man in the bush indicates danger because there have been many reports of rape. She says she does not want to be raped in a country infested with HIV and AIDS.
Kereemang says that another health risk is illness, which could pose a serious threat to her business because she would be unable to collect and sell her goods.
But she says her main problem is finding a place to store her merchandise. She says that her landlord doesn’t appreciate her work because of the space it takes up. Therefore, Kereemang says that she wishes that one day she will earn enough money to move to the village, where she can work in her yard without anyone disturbing her.
She also says it’s hard to support herself and her children.
“If I depended only on my husband, I don’t know where I would be with my children,” she says, sobbing. “Just look at my hands. I do everything in the house. Even at the cattle post, am also laid with the responsibility to take care of our livestock.”
Kereemang says she is also worried because there are rumors that the Parliament of Botswana is working on a bill to regulate forest activities. She says the bill will help ensure that forests aren’t exploited, but that it will limit the freedom she and other women like her will have in their businesses.
Three pieces of environmental legislation have been merged into one – the Forest Act – and were set to be presented to Parliament during the 2010-2011 financial year, according to the 2010 budget speech by O.K. Matambo, minister of finance and development planning.
Still, Kereemang says that Botswana’s forests are abundant, and she is passionate about her work.
But not all women say that they can live off the land like Kereemang and Talampe.
Tshebeletso Tlapeng, 52, hails from Mmadinare, one of the villages near Selibe-Phikwe. She says that she is an herbalist, a profession that has been in her family for generations. But she says that no one can afford to buy the medicine she makes from plants, thanks to the recession.
Tlapeng leaves Mmadinare early in the morning to do her business in the center of Selibe-Phikwe’s main mall. She also goes out into the forest to collect the plants with the help of a group of boys. She says that she knows the business well and that, even in the harsh weather, she can still identify the plants.
“I know them,” she says. “I don’t have any problem even if season come and go.”
She says that she has been an herbalist for four years, and the business was doing well – until now. Sales have been poor since the recession, and she says that she doesn’t know what she will do if the economy doesn’t recover soon.
“This is what we live on,” she says. “My parents died while we were still [living] on this. If I don’t do this, I don’t even know where to go.”
She depends on what she earns daily to feed her family. She can afford to buy only mealie – finely ground maize – to make porridge since meat and vegetables are too expensive.
Her parents left her with a herd of cattle and a field to plough. But she says that, because the field is not fenced in, she can’t grow any crops because animals will destroy them. She says there are also many elephants, which eat and soil her plants. Her uncle ate all the cattle.
“I have no dog, fowl, nothing at all,” she says. “Poverty has driven me to still to selling these medicines, and if I don’t come to town to sell, my whole family is doomed. Am really struggling. I don’t know what to do. I’ve consulted the [Social Welfare] Office in my home village, [but] they listened not to my plea. My suffering is unbearable.”
On top of this, she says her one son, who was the family’s primary breadwinner, got into a car accident last year and still hasn’t fully recovered. Continuing to cry, she says that her other son is unemployed and can’t find a job.
Valencia Mogegeh, director of Women’s Affairs, a department under the Ministry of Labor and Home Affairs, says that the department conducts gender sensitization workshops and other programs to empower women nationwide.
“Botswana women are sensitized in the economic empowerment programs, so that they can generate income to feed their families even in the diversification of Botswana’s economy,” she says. “[These] programs also address poverty eradication, as this has been evidenced within the presentations we offer to [these] poverty-stricken women.”
She says they educate the women and collaborate with them on income-generation projects.
“Through formation of projects, we equip them with information,” she says. “Sometimes we allow them to come up with their own ideas so that we can work on them together to help enhance their skills.”
Mogegeh says that the women entrepreneurs are already making a difference. She says that women doing basketry, making pottery and decorating egg shells for women to wear as accessories are doing well in the market, which generates income for them.
She says their unique businesses attract mostly people who live in the towns and tourists who buy in bulk. Most local villagers can’t afford the women’s goods, so it is more profitable for women to sell their goods in the towns.
Transporting their goods can be challenging because items are fragile or perishable. But she says the government is working to help the women overcome these and other challenges in order to succeed in their entrepreneurial endeavors.