Saturday, 9 August 2008

Mauritius: tackling social exclusion on Rodrigues Island

In the 1980s Nobel laureate Amartya Sen challenged fellow economists by stating that poverty has important "non-economic" dimensions. He said, "No concept of poverty can be satisfactory if it does not take note of the disadvantages that arise from being excluded from shared opportunities enjoyed by others."

Today there is consensus within the development arena that poverty is multidimensional. "Development needs to focus on freedom in a holistic sense, not just freedom from misery, hunger, illiteracy, illness and poor housing, but also freedom from being disrespected, undervalued and from being denied choice, information and opportunity," says Eveline Herfkens, Executive Coordinator of the Millennium Development Goals Campaign.

The IFAD-funded Rural Diversification Programme has been reaching out to more than 15,000 poor smallholder farmers, artisanal fishers, microentrepreneurs and women in rural regions of Mauritius and the island of Rodrigues, where rural poverty is widespread. The programme has established a direct link between livelihoods and rights by creating opportunities for the most disadvantaged and socially excluded people to help them improve their living conditions.

Maryline Legoff, a single mother, lives on the island of Rodrigues, which is 640 kilometres from the island of Mauritius. Legoff engages in a number of agricultural and agro-processing activities. A born leader and entrepreneur, she strives to rise above poverty.

"I am an independent and free woman," she says. "I know that as a single mother, I need to stand on my own two feet."

Learning and earning

As part of its capacity-building programme, the Commission for Agriculture, Natural Resources Rehabilitation and Water Resources of Rodrigues organized a series of training courses. They include topics such as fruit and vegetable production, seed and seedling production, weed and pest control, use of pesticides, irrigation and water management, quality control and post-harvest techniques and livestock raising. "We are building local capacity and raising awareness of good farming practices," says Jean Thomas Genave, Departmental Head of the Commission. "Only by building our own capacity will we be able to bring about change and eradicate poverty."

Legoff attended the training courses and passed the certification test with good marks. After completing training she set up a nursery to produce strawberry seedlings and plants. She sells her seedlings for 75 rupees (Rps) from April until June and from October until December. "From July until November I sell the actual fruit. I sell 100 grams of strawberries for 300 Rps. Last year my strawberry plants yielded 20 kilograms of fruit," she says. "Today I am the association's chairperson and a trainer. So far I've trained 18 other women."

Promoting effective marketing

The IFAD-funded Rural Diversification Programme, in collaboration with the National Empowerment Foundation in Rodrigues, organized a training programme to introduce women to the concepts of business management and teach them the techniques of agro-processing and compliance with hygiene and sanitation standards. As a result of the training, most of the women who engage in agro-processing have created personalized labels for marketing their products.

Legoff is one of the women who has benefited from the training, and now she produces preserves and pickles under her own "Mary food" label.

Working in partnership with the National Empowerment Foundation, the community-driven component of the IFAD-supported programme co-funded a number of community centres that serve as meeting point for women. The centres are equipped with the implements that members of the women’s associations need for agro-processing and packaging activities. The centres also serve as shelters during storms and cyclones for people like Legoff whose dwellings are not solid.

Women's associations now produce and package a wide range of pickles, preserves and honey. The challenge that they face is to expand marketing of their products from Rodrigues to Mauritius.

Legoff soon realized that in Rodrigues she was just one of many women selling the same products in the local market. Her entrepreneurial instincts told her that to make a good income she had to export her products. She identified Mauritius as a potentially viable market.

"I started asking how I could get my products to the main market," she says. "I found out that once a year a big supermarket in Mauritius sponsors a regional fair promoting local products and culture.… I got together with other women and we decided on a range of products to take to the fair".

"We agreed on the inventory, did some calculations in terms of what we had to buy and how long it would take us to make the products. We then made our price list," says Legoff. The next step was to find a way to get their goods to the main island.

"The best way to get our products to Mauritius was by boat," says Legoff. "I paid 2,450 Rps for a round trip ticket and 12,000 Rps to rent stalls at the supermarket for a week."

The women contributed both in kind and in cash. They each contributed 1,000 Rps and they also cooked Rodrigan lunches to sell to the people who visited the stands. On the first day they took in 4,000 Rps.

For the fair, the women:

  • prepared and packaged 300 jars of preserves and pickles. They sold 200 jars of sweet and sour lemons for 50 Rps, and 100 jars of chutney and chilis for 75Rps each, for a total of 20,000 Rps
  • bought 11 kilograms of fish for 770 Rps and paid 1,000 Rps for drying and salting the fish. They then made 42 100-gram packages of fish, which they sold for 150 Rps per package. Their net gain was 4,530 Rps
  • bought 10 kilograms of fresh octopus for 700 Rps. The women dried and packaged the octopus into 15 100-gram packages and sold them for 75 Rps, making 425 Rps
    bought 10 Rodriguan artisanal straw hats made of Vacoas for 500 Rps and sold them for 750 Rps

Before returning from Mauritius the women spent 50 Rps for perfume that they resold on Rodrigues for 90 Rps. In all, their net gain was about 26,000 Rps.

The Mauritius expedition taught the women that to overcome competition and to raise their profit margin, each woman should specialize in one product, rather than producing several.

Building a better future

Legoff continually takes on new challenges and broadens her horizons. She has begun to plant and sell flowers. "I want to learn how to make flower arrangements, so that I can sell not only flowers but also flower arrangements," she says.

"My dream is to have a truck so I can transport my products easily. I am working hard to build a better house for my son and myself," says Legoff. Her own determination and the support of the programme have enabled Legoff, a single mother, to overcome social and economic obstacles and seize opportunities to make her way out of poverty.

With the support of the IFAD-funded Rural Diversification Programme, women like Legoff and other poor rural people are learning how to become successful entrepreneurs. Their new skills empower them to share in the opportunities from which they were previously excluded.

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