To wrap up my first month as Executive Director of the Batonga Foundation, I travelled to Benin to see firsthand the work we are doing on the ground. I wanted to meet the incredible women who are working every day of the week to help girls reach economic independence and learn about their rights, as well as meet our incredible country team. I wanted to hear from the girls themselves about how our programs have changed their daily lives, their hopes, and their future prospects. And for half of the trip, I was lucky to be with Batonga’s Founder, the wonderful Angelique Kidjo herself. Little did I know I was about to experience one of the most incredible weeks of my life.
During this week, I visited four different communities where Batonga implements its SONAFA Leadership Clubs program, as well as its Professional Training one. Our SONAFA clubs are run by a network of 34 mentors and 42 assistant mentors, all local women leaders in their communities (Batonga formally employs them which makes all the difference: often women are asked to do this work for free and out of the kindness of their hearts). The mentors cater to three age groups (10 to 12; 13 to 15; and 15 and above), delivering our curriculum that covers everything from sexual and reproductive health and rights to financial literacy and business skills. Clubs also launch and run income-generating activities, serving as practical stepping stones into sustainable livelihoods for its members. Our Professional Training Centers offer trainings in the trades that the girls’ themselves choose, and that correspond to local demand. So far we have trained young women in tailoring, hair styling, solar panel maintenance, soap making and beading (it’s worth noting that while the first two are traditional economic activities for women, the last three are innovative and new trades for the communities we serve).
I had read about these programs in reports, but what I saw on the ground took my breath away. I saw remote and isolated rural communities with a generation of girls who are ready to take over and live meaningful, safe, and economically independent lives. I saw a network of women on the ground, our Batonga Mentors, who leave no girl behind, working overtime to negotiate with parents, support girls one-on-one, and refer them to health and other services as needed (as I write this, around 3.600 girls are enrolled in our clubs). I also saw the incredible business creativity and entrepreneurship of young women who, after having taking our lessons on financial literacy and business, create small thriving enterprises that benefit themselves and those around them. Overall, I saw the kind of development program that is locally owned (Batonga’s team in country is 100% Beninese), deeply rooted in the communities it serves (all our mentors are from the communities they serve), and adaptable to its clients needs (girls and young women tell us what they need to succeed, not the other way round).
I visited SONAFA Leadership Clubs in Tovigome and Hellou, about three hours north of Cotonou. In Tovigome, I witnessed the transmission of financial skills from our mentors to the girls. In one class I took part in, mentors were asking girls to list how parents and children spend money when they have it. The goal of the exercise was to discuss best spending practices while also showing that children can start saving and managing financial resources as well when they access them. This lesson is important, since all SONAFA clubs are equipped with seed funding that members are asked to manage together. Batonga not only develops the girls’ financial literacy skills, it also invests in collective decision-making and strengthening girls’ capacity to operate in a network of solidarity. In Hellou, Angelique and I were presented with a small play that girls aged 10 to 12 had created themselves. The play portrayed a young woman who knows a trade and is able to get work and respect in her community. Girls 13 to 15 also took the stage to present a play about sexual harassment and violence and how to counter it. Seeing these messages and knowledge owned and passed on by these girls was simply wonderful, a testament to the impact of our model and the hard work of our team.
We also visited several businesses and training centers. In Savalou, our center is housed in a small home donated by the community. Inside, four sewing machines and two work tables used by 25 girls in training. The center is an extension of our clubs: a safe place where these girls can talk, share, and plan their futures. This is also where a group of young women have been getting together to learn beading techniques. In January 2019, Batonga bought them bead supplies and hired a trainer. Less than a year later, they have mastered the art of making necklaces, earrings, keychains, and even handbags. They sell to their community, but have also been approached by people in the capital, Cotonou. Their eyes light up as they show us their products. I am amazed at how good their work is, and can see the incredible pride in their eyes. This was their idea, and with a little help and support, it has turned into a small entreprise with incredible potential.
One the last day of our trip, I accompany Angelique to Lotcho, one of the most remote villages we serve. In Lotcho, on top of the SONAFA Leadership clubs, Batonga has installed a solar panel that powers a fridge installed in one of the mentor’s home. The fridge has enabled a group of women to start a business selling cold drinks and ice. They are the only ones to sell this kind of product in the villages that surround them. This same solar panel also brought the first electric light to the village. This trip also led me to meet Delphine, a twenty two year old woman who learned how to make soap from Batonga’s professional training program two years ago. Since the training, Delphine has launched a successful soap business that she runs from her home. The house is spotless when we enter, her tools arranged on a table she designed herself. Delphine chose to label her soaps “Peace soaps”, marking both sides of the soap bar with these words. Delphine is a beautiful example of what girls living in such remote areas can achieve when supported and invested in. She has yet to marry, and laughs off the idea of having children anytime soon. For her, economic independence and stability are her goals. Not only has she already reached them, she is also employing other Batonga girls to sell her soap in the region, providing them with stable employment.
As I watch Delphine show us how she makes her soap, I see the possibilities. Anyone visiting Lotcho would have a hard time imagining economic activity that goes beyond agriculture. Yet these communities hold incredible assets: their girls and young women. Around 70% of the girls Batonga supports have never benefited from a development program. But when they are reached, and given the tools they need to thrive, basic economic and social progress happens.Their lives change, and they change the lives of their communities. As Delphine mixes ingredients, the village chief stands proud in the corner. He has been incredibly supportive of Batonga’s work, understanding the importance of it (Batonga works closely with local leaders, parents, and communities to explain the benefits of investing in girls, keeping them safe, and collectively helping them reach their potential). He, like other local leaders, recognizes the social and economic capital that a young woman like Delphine can contribute to her community, and that isn’t linked to her reproductive capacities. That right there, is the prerequisite for lasting change.
The truth is, we invest in each girl knowing that once she finds the self-confidence to spread her wings and plan her future, she will take others along with her for the ride. The power of the collective is at the core of our model, and clearly an impactful engine for our success in these villages. Understanding our work and seeing our impact has been an incredible gift. As an organization, we are ready to go to the next step. This will include increased resources for our business and professional training program, but also increasing our efforts around family planning and working with boys and men on those very topics and opportunities.
I’m so very excited about what lies ahead. This week I have been humbled by the resilience, creativity, and incredible hard work the girls and young women Batonga serves demonstrate every day. And more importantly, I know I am part of something incredible — the Batonga family. Watch this space, because this is just the beginning!