Helen Usiri: Leading Women Everywhere She Goes

When Helen Usiri established Nronga Women’s Cooperative in 1987, the men in her community scoffed at the notion that she could become a successful entrepreneur, and they predicted...

When Helen Usiri established Nronga Women’s Cooperative in 1987, the men in her community scoffed at the notion that she could become a successful entrepreneur, and they predicted her business would collapse within six months. Yet, Helen knew better; and, 24 years later, she has silenced her skeptics with the cooperative’s success.

In Tanzania’s rural Arusha-Moshi region, women traditionally lack access to household assets, as cultural norms dictate men are responsible for crop farming and the income that it brings. Meanwhile, women are responsible for dairying. Understanding this paradigm, Land O’Lakes International Development has been focused on empowering female farmers to maximize their outputs and incomes since it began providing development assistance in the region in 1999. Under the USDA-funded Tanzania Dairy Development Program (TDDP) that began in early 2011, Land O’Lakes has been capitalizing on this decade of experience and relationships with women’s cooperatives like Nronga to improve commercial milk production and processing, so that women such as Helen can support themselves and enjoy an improved quality of life.

As a widow with four school-age children of her own, and three others left in her care by family members, Helen faced a daunting task as the family’s sole financial provider. Although she had six cows – three heifers and three female calves – she couldn’t afford to care for them all while supporting her seven children. And so she decided to do something unconventional: she began her own heifer pass-on scheme.

She decided to keep two of the cows and give the other four to women in her community. Each recipient agreed that when the cows began having calves, they would each keep one female and give any others who were born back to Helen. Meanwhile, Helen would raise and sell the male calves, but would give the females to other women in her community, so as to continue the virtuous circle. Her idea was a huge success. It not only provided other women in her community with a critical dairy asset, but it gave Helen a lasting income that enabled her to put all of her children through school. And her plans paid off, with all seven children ultimately completing secondary school, two of whom have already graduated from college, and another two currently enrolled in higher education.

But Helen recalls many instances where she faced gender-based discrimination along the way. Soon after she cofounded Nronga a quarter of a century ago, a donor presented the organization with a car to facilitate their milk deliveries. But, the men in the community openly mocked the donation; in their minds, women were incapable of managing a business without a man’s help, let alone a vehicle. But, Helen quietly proved them wrong. After two years, the cooperative was doing so well that they bought another car with their profits. Slowly, the men began to respect Helen and her colleagues, and were forced to admit the women were not only successfully running their business – but they were actually prospering. She said in reflection, “No matter what you are going through, I’ve learned to never give up.”

Although Nronga Women’s Cooperative was very successful, the women faced many stumbling blocks along the way. Without a cooling tank, their milk would often spoil, which would diminish Helen’s income and that of other cooperative members. Through USAID-funded Cooperative Development Program, in 2001, Land O’Lakes provided Nronga with a 1,300-liter cooling tank. Not only did this prevent their milk from spoiling, but it also allowed them to collect milk twice a day. They not only doubled their daily milk collections from 500 to 1,000 liters per day, but they are planning on opening their own processing plant in Bomang’ombe later this year.

With support from Land O’Lakes, Helen is slowly chipping away at entrenched gender constraints. Nronga’s members receive direct payments for the milk they sell, which is a huge step forward in a culture where men are responsible for household financial assets. As women are the primary caretakers of livestock in Tanzania, they spend huge amounts of time caring for their cows, from feeding and washing them, to milking them and delivering the milk for sale. Helen says that she and the other women in Nronga Women’s Cooperative have derived an incredible sense of self-worth and pride from earning an income from all of their labor.

Helen strongly believes in the power of the dairy value chain as a way to empower women, and she is particularly proud to know that she has encouraged and inspired other women in her own community to take control of their economic futures and rethink traditional gender roles. She stressed that women “…should be examples; we are not here to receive help, but to help others.”

But, she still has a lot she wants to accomplish – particularly completing her own education. Years back, Helen declined a full scholarship to attend any school of her choice, because she knew she needed to focus on earning money to care for her children. But now that her children are nearly done with their schooling, the 55-year-old is exploring how to pursue her own degree, while expanding her business and helping other women to take control of their futures.

Despite being told that she would never succeed in business 24 years ago, Helen knew she had a greater calling. “If there’s one thing I’ve learned from my experience,” said Helen, “it is that every woman should trust in herself; a woman is a leader wherever she is.”

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