She has a full life; her own consulting practice, a huge garden and a home in Chadds Ford shared with a hardworking husband, a daughter in medical school and a son in college, elderly parents in England, close friends and neighbors. She’s already helped create a non-profit, Power Up Gambia, through years of steady perseverance. Surely Carol Cunningham needs free time more than she needs to start another non-profit project?
Perhaps giving birth to Power Up Gambia with her daughter Kathryn Hall infected Cunningham with the power and delight of truly making a difference in people’s lives. While many of us wrote checks, and some of us did much more, Carol and Kathryn led Power Up Gambia from the beginning through the goal of providing a large hospital in The Gambia with solar power and beyond, as they are now powering outlying clinics in The Gambian countryside. Meanwhile Cunningham met an amazing woman who inspired her to start a new project, the Gambian Women’s Initiative.
During the many trips she’s made to Africa for Power Up Gambia to ensure that the solar panels were properly installed and maintained, Cunningham’s connections with Gambians deepened. A Gambian woman named Isatou Ceesay has particularly impressed her. Ceesay started the Njau Women’s Group, a cooperative of about 80 women that make and sell dried fruit, batik fabric, handbags made of plastic, and other products. “Isatou has empowered the women,” Cunningham says.
Now Cunningham wants to start the Gambian Women’s Initiative—sending Ceesay out to other villages in order to start more cooperatives. “It’s a Gambian helping Gambians,” Cunningham says.
Before Ceesay started her first cooperative in 1997, there were no women on the important Village Development Committee (VDC) in Njau. “They’re the ones you bring the cola nuts to; a sign that you want to form a relationship,” Cunningham says. “It’s led by the Iman, the head man or senior elder.” Now the women in the cooperative are seen as being influential enough to join the VDC. “They have a seat at the table,” says Cunningham.
Not only has the cooperative given these women power and income, it has taught them important planning skills.
“In the past, when August came, food ran out. The cooperative has taught these women to save. It also allows one woman to borrow from another,” Cunningham says. Woman are taught basic math so that they aren’t taken advantage of. “Each woman has a box and a folder. For each sale, she takes a portion to the collective, a portion to spend and a portion to the box to save,” Cunningham says.
With the first chunk of money to the collective fund, the women created a kitchen, allowing them to cater food. There is also a room for sewing and batik, a tie-dying room, solar food dryer and solar oven, and a garden. Given her interest in solar power, Cunningham is most excited about the solar drying operation. “They’re using renewable energy to create income. Mangos are everywhere, as well as bananas, coconut, papayas, tomato and ginger.”
Cunningham has already linked Ceesay up with women in villages where Power Up Gambia works, creating women’s cooperatives with solar ovens donated by First & Central Presbyterian Church in Wilmington as well as other local women. While the dried fruits and vegetables are sold locally, both Ceesay and Cunningham are looking for more markets. “Isatou is an entrepreneur,” Cunningham says. “She found places to market her goods in the capital—mainly visited by expats and tourists.”
As well as being entrepreneurial, Ceesay is very well organized. She has refined the cooperative structure and organized the women with schedules and systems to keep it running smoothly. “She’s a very hard worker,” Cunningham says. “She makes things happen. She’s extroverted and highly respected, and she’s hard with the guys. She knows what she wants.”
Currently the married mother of a 12-year-old, Ceesay is working for an NGO that doesn’t fully use her considerable skills. Cunningham wants to start The Gambian Women’s Initiative in order to hire Ceesay to set up women’s cooperatives in villages all through The Gambia. “By hiring her it would help a tremendous number of people in The Gambia,” Cunningham says. “This is the best use of funds I can think of.”
To rephrase the proverb, “Give a woman a fish and you feed her for a day. Teach a woman to fish and you feed her and her family for a lifetime.”