Mauritanian women take economic independence into their own hands

Fellows 2017

By Jillian Kestler-D’Amours

October 05, 2017

Also published by The New Arab

A half-dozen men lug a silver-coloured vat towards the two-room building. It's a tight squeeze through the doorframe, and a few men are forced to let go to get the machine inside.

Finally, the heavy vessel is set down in the corner of a room painted a bright turquoise and filled with local women who quickly crowd around the contraption.

They take turns lifting the machine's cover and peering inside: soon, they will be using it every day to produce saleable milk from their herds.

And with this new pasteuriser, that milk will have a much longer shelf life than anyone in the village ever previously dreamed of.

"What isn't sold can be conserved for a few days. Before, that wasn't possible," said Aminata Moussa, president of the milk producers' group here in Awoynatt.

Fifteen women are part of the group: in groups of five, they each work two days a week, mixing fresh cow's milk with granular sugar, vanilla sugar and the essence of banana, among other ingredients.

They boil the mixture, let it ferment, and cool it in freezers. Then they pour it into small, plastic sachets that they sell individually to local students and families in the village, or at the market in the nearby town of Kaedi.

In this remote area of Mauritania, more than 400 kilometres from the capital, Nouakchott, on the West African country's southern border with Senegal, the milk project has enabled local women to become self-sufficient.

At the peak of the fertile season, the women can make and sell up to 22 litres of milk every day, Moussa said. During the low season, that number drops to 10 litres per day. "Before, there were many problems," she said, including the strict time constraints and large amounts of milk wasted if it wasn't immediately sold.

Food insecurity rampant

Just over 3.5 million people live in Mauritania, according to the national bureau of statistics. Women account for 51 percent of the population, and more than 1.7 million people live in rural communities.

It is one of the poorest countries in the world, and 23 percent of the population lives on less than $1.25 a day.

The government imports about 70 percent of its food, while 745,000 people are food insecure.

The United Nations' World Food Programme supports communities in six vulnerable parts of the country, including the Gorgol region, in southern Mauritania along the Senegal River, which is where the village of Awoynatt is located.

Despite the assistance, the Gorgol is considered the country's breadbasket: large swathes of agricultural land dot the landscape here and crops are fenced in on both sides of the main road leading to Kaedi.

But agriculture here largely depends on rainfall, and extended dry seasons and irregular precipitation patterns are becoming the norm. This year, a dry spell in July and through the first part of August meant that farmers had to re-seed their fields.

The situation is especially difficult for local communities during the lean season because of this lack of rain, which can last up to half the year.

"We found that the zones with the highest rate of food insecurity and the highest recurrence of climate shocks, notably, were in six regions," including the Gorgol, explained Jean-Noel Gentile, WFP's country director in Mauritania.

"Those are also the regions where you will find an important concentration of the population," Gentile said in an interview in his office in Nouakchott.

The Mauritanian government, meanwhile, says it is investing in women's economic participation, but concedes that men still dominate the job market while women occupy a so-called "informal" sector of artisanal jobs and small businesses.

Women seldom make economic decisions and they are more deeply affected by unemployment, the government found in its 2015 national gender strategy.

"Women keep only 27 percent of income from work, compared to 63 percent for men," it reported.

Improving quality of life

But things are slowly changing.

Mohamed Lemine El Houssein works with the Mauritanian branch of ACORD, a non-profit group that works on development and social justice issues across the African continent.

He said women had traditionally been barred from owning their own land in many parts of Mauritania, making it difficult for them to gain economic independence or make a living wage without family or spousal support.

Today, ACORD has helped women in at least a dozen villages in the Gorgol gain land ownership. The programme has helped women "not only become owners of lands, but to generate day-to-day revenue".

"These women are not just there to wait for a man to give them something… Some said they understand now that they are important to their households," El Houssein said.

Customs and mentalities are changing as a result of women working in agriculture, he added, and some men have even volunteered to give land to women-run cooperatives.

"The education of children is better, health is better… in villages where women are involved," El Houssein said.

"We can't leave 51 percent of the country's population [behind] because of traditions that say that men must do everything. That's over."

'Work together'

In Belinabe, a village about 10 minutes outside of Kaedi, women belong to an agricultural cooperative.

They grow tomatoes, peppers, haricots, beans, eggplant, and rice, and all 310 members of the cooperative work in nearby fields, some of which have been set up with help from ACORD.

"There are always at least some [types of vegetables] in the fields," said Djeinaba Gaye, the group's president, as she massaged fine grains of couscous through a strainer in her front yard.

The biggest challenge here is getting enough water to feed their crops. In August, the motor pump that provided water to the fields broke, and the women were collecting money to repair it.

Despite the setback, Gaye said the women need "more land to work".

"Before the cooperative, women worked individually, each on her own parcel of land," she said. "Since we came together, we work together."