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Friday, 2nd July 2021

Community for Opportunity: the importance of women’s Cooperatives in southeast Madagascar

By Polly Hedley with Paula Amour

The Cooperative model is integral to SEED’s Women’s Livelihood projects, Stitch Sainte Luce and Project Mahampy, enhancing the social and economic participation of women in Sainte Luce. Established back in 2012, the Stitch Sainte Luce Cooperative developed embroidery as a women’s livelihood activity to capitalise on the region’s tourist market. More recently, the Mahampy Weavers’ Cooperative, formed in November 2019 and consisting of 166 members, fostered an effective support mechanism for women to increase the income received through mahampy reed weaving, a traditional livelihood activity. This year’s International Day of Cooperatives is celebrating the resilience of Cooperatives during the pandemic with  ‘rebuild better together’ this year’s theme. In this week’s blog, we speak with Project Coordinator Paula Amour who has worked with the Stitch Sainte Luce Cooperative for over nine years and the Mahampy Weavers’ Cooperative for two. Paula shares her thoughts as to why the Cooperatives are so important for the women involved and how, despite the challenges of the past year, the women have shown that they are stronger as a collective.

Paula Amour
Paula Amour

Salama Paula! How long have you worked with the women from the Mahampy Weavers’ Cooperative and Stitch Sainte Luce? 

For Stitch I have been working with them for nine years now. I have had a lot of fun helping the women in Stitch. I’m happy to work with them to share my knowledge and then together we can achieve more. I first worked with the project as a translator, then as a project assistant and now a Coordinator. 

For the Mahampy Cooperative, we have only recently started the women's Cooperative and we are facing a hard time at the moment. We were just building the Mahampy association before Covid-19 came and stopped project activities. Even though Covid has made it very difficult for the Cooperatives recently, I'm really happy to work with the women. They are keen to earn more income and that's why I love to work with them, to help the women become independent. 

How many women are involved with Stitch? 

There are now over 100 women involved with Stitch and they are from three hamlets in Sainte Luce- Manafiafy, Ampanasatomboky, Ambandrika. 

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Embroiderer Cleire holding up a cushion cover in the Stitch studio

What kind of products does the Stitch Cooperative make? 

Stitch Sainte Luce make handmade embroidered products using recycled fabric and special DMC [premium cotton] threads which make them unique. The Cooperative has a President and a Vice President elected by all the embroiderers. They sell their products at their studio in Sainte Luce, in Fort Dauphin and in Tana [Antananarivo, Madagascar’s capital]. The women's embroidery cooperative also has an online shop. They create their own designs based on Madagascar’s flora and fauna and biodiversity. 

What have been some of Stitch’s main achievements over the past five years? How did Stitch become independent? 

The women have achieved so much over the past few years because everyday they have been learning new things. For example, bookkeeping skills when most of the women didn’t know how to write before. They have also learnt to count using the calculator and use the sewing machine for the first time. Some women did not know how to use a needle and over the years they have shared knowledge together and are all happy to teach each other.

SEED were working for nine years with Stitch and then after that they became independent. I can’t believe they are now independent because I remember the time when we were talking about it and they were really worried. Now they can sell the products without me and I’m really proud of them. They run the Cooperative themselves and buy their own fabric and threads. 

What have some of the difficulties been with the Cooperative?

It was difficult at first to teach the women how to work with each other. When they were first brought together, we needed to convince them to work with one another. In Malagasy there is a proverb, when we are together we are like a rock but when we are not we are like sand, meaning together we can face more things than if we were one. We taught them that it is easier to face things together when there are difficulties. For example, Covid-19 has made it harder for the women but the women have been stronger facing it together.

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Paula, pictured front, and the Stitch women celebrating expansion in 2016

Why is the Stitch Cooperative important to the women involved?

The women's Cooperative is so important because it is the women’s livelihood. Before the women were mahampy weavers but Stitch is an opportunity for the women to earn more money. It is really important income for them to support their family, especially for single mothers and for women to help their husbands because working on the sea is really hard. The women are able to send their children to school which is a great opportunity. Before this was a dream and then this came true which is why it is so important.

When we are together we are like a rock but when we are not we are like sand

Malagasy Proverb

Unlike Stitch, the Mahampy Weavers Cooperative was established to increase the income received through an existing women’s livelihood, mahampy reed weaving. Mahampy is a local reed found in wetlands across Sainte Luce. Sometimes the women may have to walk for over six hours to collect the reeds. On their return, the women dry out the reeds before weaving can begin. A single mat can often take 2-3 days to make and yet, despite the intensity of the work, will often sell for comparatively little. 

Mahampy products have a much greater regional market than those made by Stitch Sainte Luce; mahampy mats, in particular, are widely used throughout Anosy. Prior to the establishment of the Cooperative, the women sold their products as individuals and, with little negotiation power, were vulnerable to prices set by buyers in a supplier-rich market. The Cooperative enables the women to control the price of mahampy across Sainte Luce and as a result, increase their income.

What products do the Mahampy Cooperative make? How does the Cooperative work?

Most women weave mats, some weave baskets and some can weave hats as well.The Mahampy Cooperative is divided into five sub-cooperatives and there is a President and Vice President for each sub-cooperative.

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Women weaving mahampy mats in the Weavers’ Workshop 

What have been some of the main achievements for the Mahampy Cooperative and what are some of their future goals? 

The building of the workshop has been a major achievement for the Cooperative. The MHM project [which taught the women how to make reusable menstrual hygiene pads] has also made women’s sanitation easier. A future goal for the Cooperative would be to have the market back again and for the women to sell more mats and baskets. 

What have been the main difficulties for both Cooperatives during Covid? 

Without tourists around Sainte Luce, Stitch have had to stop their activities because there is no one to buy the products. With Covid-19 and lockdown in the region it makes things really hard because resellers have not been coming to Sainte Luce and so the Mahampy women have also not been able to sell their products. 

Additionally, the outbreak of the coronavirus in April 2020 coincided with Stitch Sainte Luce’s first year of independence. With travel restrictions preventing tourists from entering Madagascar, the market for Stitch’s products and thus the women’s income disappeared almost overnight. As a result of the drought, extreme food shortages and rising food prices, the women have had to depend on the Cooperative’s savings to support their families. Whilst Stitch will continue to operate independently once the tourist market resumes, SEED is seeking funding to kickstart the Cooperative over the coming months, providing the women with threads and materials to begin sewing new products. 

How does the Cooperative model work? Why is it important?

All the decisions come from all the members, the President is only a representative of the Cooperative. Everyone is the same and can express ideas of how to run the Cooperative. The women also all work together, for example [for Mahampy] they collect the reeds together, make the product and sell together; they can achieve it together. They are like a family and if people have difficulties they help each other, talk to each other and resolve problems. 

Why do you think Cooperatives are important, especially for women in Madagascar? 

They are really important for women in Madagascar to help their family. Even though the women may have a husband to look after them or as a single mum, being part of a Cooperative is a really big opportunity for women to improve their income. It is not easy for women in Madagascar but when the tourists come back to the area we need to catch that opportunity. If you are part of the Cooperative it is easier for people to see you and help you than to be on your own. 

Thank you Paula and Happy International Day of Cooperatives!