Our Blog

Welcome to the Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre!

December 17, 2021

The venerable women's program moves into the renovated commercial space in the Dodson

It has long been a gathering place – for many years a pub and then a conference centre. Now, the 3,000-sq.-ft. commercial space in the Dodson is moving forward as a drop-in space for women. Following an extensive renovation, the Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre will now offer its clients storage, use of computers, a TV lounge, showers, washrooms, laundry, and meals in a community kitchen. The space also includes offices and a clothing and shoe centre. 

The Dodson space will be open from noon to 10 pm, extending the hours of the DEWC drop-in at 302 Columbia Street. Among the services provided by the women’s centre are counselling, advocacy, cultural programming, housing outreach, emergency shelter, skills development, meals, and Indigenous women’s projects. The women’s centre serves more than 500 women every day. 

The COVID-19 pandemic drastically increased the need for the DEWC services as safe spaces were closed down and more women were forced outside. Many women who access the centre’s services have experienced trauma, abuse, poverty and/or homelessness. In the Downtown Eastside, half of women surveyed named the DEWC as the place where they feel safest. 

Anhart is proud to welcome the DEWC to the Dodson!

Blessing Ceremony

May 25, 2021

The only word that I have or that I could translate in our language, is that it’s going to become a medicine house.

 

Just before site preparation began for construction of a six-storey affordable housing building at 162 Main St., Wisdom Elder Shane Pointe of the Musqueam People hosted a Blessing Ceremony. Here he explains the context and purpose:

In the chant I’m asking our collective ancestors to be here, and I’m letting this area, this land know that it’s going to change into something else. The only word that I have or that I could translate in our language, is that it’s going to become a medicine house. A place for our relatives who are poor. So this is going to be a place for them. 

Also I’m asking the historical, way-back ancestors — there were five villages around this Inlet — so I’m letting them know that this is going to change and become like I said earlier, a medicine house.

I know that more than likely, the people who are going to live here are from around the world, but also our relatives from back east, that’s why I used the tobacco, and that’s not cigarette smoke, that’s tobacco.

When I put the medicine down—red ochre, salish and tobacco—I’m asking this land to protect and watch over what’s going to happen. It’s going to change, so I’m asking ancestors here to watch and protect, not only the ground, but the gentlemen, the ladies who are actually going to live here, to keep them safe, to keep their minds in a good place.

 

Wisdom Elder Shane Pointe used a rattle in his ceremony that he carved from a whale’s tooth

Breaking ground!

April 8, 2021

Site works begin for Main Village, 69 units of affordable rental housing

Anhart Community Housing Society is happy to announce that site preparation has begun at 162 Main Street in Vancouver. The project has been in the works since the spring of 2018, when Anhart purchased the property and began applying for financing and a development permit from the City of Vancouver. 

Main Village

Main Village is scheduled for completion in fall 2022. It is a six-storey building with 69 microsuites and ground-floor commercial space. Sixty per cent of the units will be social housing and rented at affordable rates, including 33% having the deepest affordability for people at risk to homelessness. The rent levels are based on the tenants’ household income, and the highest level is 10% below market rates. 

The tenants will include people with disabilities, people working entry to mid-level jobs, new Canadians, and seniors. All of the tenants will meet income guidelines, have positive housing history references, and express a desire to contribute to the community. 

Community building

The building is designed to promote a communal environment, with a large amenity space and a roof-top garden open to all tenants. Rather than employ a resident caretaker, Anhart’s housing model includes a tenant leadership team that fosters a sense of ownership, peer support and community watch. 

Main Village was designed by architect Sandra Moore, partner at award-winning firm Birmingham & Wood Architects and Planners. Vancouver-based Etro Construction is the general contractor.

Partners

Anhart develops affordable housing through private/public collaboratives with involvement of impact investors, municipalities and senior levels of government. Anhart is grateful for the support of financing partners including Vancity Community Foundation and Vancity Savings and Credit Union.

Anhart Community Housing Society is a Vancouver-based charity that builds communities through developing, owning and operating affordable housing. Throughout its history, Anhart’s work has been generously supported by a small group of philanthropists. With their support, Anhart has invested $2.5 million in the $19.2 million project. Anhart has incorporated a Limited Partnership Agreement that will give a modest return to investors who are committed to social impact. 

Affordable housing development

Anhart Community Housing Society began an ambitious plan in the fall of 2017 to buy properties for new affordable housing, including a vacant lot at 162 Main St. The charity created subsidiaries, including Anhart Homes, Anhart Construction and Anhart Tenant Services to develop, build and operate new housing while it continued to focus on operating The Dodson at 25 E Hastings St. and supporting people and communities of greatest need. 

The first project completed was The Ryder, 40 units of affordable housing in Hope BC, in March 2020. This project was the first modular build to receive financing from Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation’s Rental Construction Financing Initiative. Anhart owns additional properties in Hope and Merritt that are currently under development. 

Members of the media: for more information contact marcie.good@anhart.ca

‘This is our shop’

April 1, 2021

With mentorship and a microloan, a group of women in a Kampala neighbourhood grew their business during the COVID pandemic.

photos by Esther Mbabazi

text by Marcie Good

In the twilight at the open door of the clothing boutique, Pamella Nakanyi removed a dress from a mannequin, carefully folded it up and placed it on one of the shelves inside. She chose a stretchy floral number and deftly tugged it over the model. She shooed away a toddler who was reaching inside the sudsy mopping bucket, and moved on to reclothe the next model. 

The little girl is the daughter of Juliet Mutonyi, who told me how she, Pamella and 12 of their friends started this shop. Many of them were single mothers, and they needed an income. “We had nothing to do,” she said, and she seemed to be telling me that the women banded together because they needed a purpose. 

Juliet Mutonyi started up the Kitale Women’s Association with a group of her friends

The shop is in a small house on a hillside in a neighbourhood of Kampala, Uganda. I visited in March 2020 with Sustainable Villages leader Simon Nambafu. At the time, the Kitale Women’s Association had been operating their business for about a year. 

It started through a connection: Juliet was a neighbour of Simon. He encouraged her and her friends to come up with a business idea. They wanted to sell clothing, and they started out by taking second-hand items from the street markets directly to neighbourhoods, knocking on doors and introducing themselves. Then they began sourcing out new clothing from suppliers. Their customers would give them orders for specific items they had seen somewhere, and Juliet and her friends would search it out in the markets or at their agencies. When they had reliable income, they rented a shop. Then they had another idea — they all needed basic groceries like sugar, oil and flour so they opened a kiosk selling those items and employed a young orphan girl. 

All along they relied on Simon’s business advice and his encouragement. But at the time of my visit, they had done everything with no grant or loan. They were learning from the bottom-up. 

Over the next year, they weathered the storms of COVID. They lost income and had to close their shop. But with a $300 start-up grant from Sustainable Villages, they bought a sewing machine and focused more on the designs created and sewn from African fabrics by their own members—items with bigger margins. Through the lockdown they continued selling to their customer base. By the end of 2020, they had opened a new shop and created a new source of revenue, becoming agents for a mobile phone company. Most people in Uganda do their banking on their phone, and they can visit the shop to deposit cash on their account or withdraw cash. For the women of Kitale, the banking business is a reliable source of income and it also represents an important move into a male-dominated industry. 

Back in March 2020, Juliet told me how the women had found strength together. 

“As a group you bring in many new skills, many new ideas, and you share the work a lot,” she said. “The profits become less in terms of sharing because you are many, but you don’t become stressed to do everything by yourself. Where one fails, another one adds on, complements the other.” 

In early 2021 the Kitale Women’s Association was chosen to receive a $2,500 loan from Sustainable Villages, and they will use this to buy at least one more specialized sewing machine and expand further. 

Since they started the business, their lives have significantly changed. With steady income, they were able to improve their families’ food security, nutrition and hygiene. Some of them have moved to better homes, even bought small properties. They have new status as business owners, and can apply for loans from banks. 

The women have become an example to others, who also want to join. “Possibly they can encourage them to form their own groups and do something different,” Simon explains, “because everybody is seeing that they have made progress.”

To support women entrepreneurs in Uganda, Tanzania, DRC or Burundi, visit us here.

The Dodson

An open letter to tenants from Representative Executive Director Gordon “Keith” Wiebe

December 12, 2021

Dodson Tenants,

On behalf of the entire staff and executive of the Anhart Community Housing Society, I want to apologize for problems we have been having with the elevator, heat, hot water, electricity, and safety issues in the building. These issues have reduced the quality of your life and for that we are truly sorry.

Here is what we are doing to try to improve each of these issues.

Elevator 

The elevator should now be fixed. We recently spent $40,000 to further modernize the elevator. We had it modernized for a cost of $130,000 when we purchased the Dodson in 2004, but technology has improved since then and an upgrade was needed. Plus, there is extreme wear and tear on the elevator. Please don’t hold the door open and please keep the floor tracks clear of dirt on every floor.

Heat

The boiler was replaced for $35,000 when we purchased the Dodson in 2004. It is a steam boiler, but it is not on the City of Vancouver steam system. Our boiler makes its own steam. The pipes and radiators are in bad condition and also this year the boiler has been giving us major problems. We have DMS Plumbing and Heating, one of the best (and most expensive) companies in Vancouver trying to fix the problem as soon as possible.

The City of Vancouver Standards of Maintenance By-Law requires that your room be at least 72 degrees F or 22 degrees C, measured 5 feet (1.52 meters) from the floor. Please ask in the office for a thermometer so you can measure and report your room temperature. Also, please call 311 and report cold temperatures to the City of Vancouver if Anhart can’t resolve the problem of your cold room. The City of Vancouver will send an inspector to your room. Colder temperatures are coming soon, and you need to be warm. Hopefully the boiler will be fixed in the next few days. 

Please also know I lived in the Dodson myself for three full years when we bought the building and many times off and on since then. I am 100% convinced that the best way to keep you comfortable is to have the heat come on from 6:30 am to 9:00 am and then again from 6:00 pm to 9:30 pm. There is only one thermostat for the whole building and boilers in SROs are either on or off. The rooms can be unbearably hot if the boiler is on constantly and it causes the pipes and radiators to be further compromised.

Hot Water 

The hot water boiler was recently not functioning for a few days. This is a small boiler that sits next to the large heating boiler. Anhart has replaced this small boiler twice in the last 20 years. It does not need replacing now as it is still new, it just needs more servicing. You may have no hot water for a few hours this week as this small boiler is serviced.

Electricity

The power was out in half of the building this weekend. The reason was because we have had no heat and many tenants are using electric heaters. The extra power requirements caused one of the two 200-amp fuses to blow. The very large 200-amp fuse, about the size of your hand, has now been replaced. Yes, you heard me correctly. The whole building is being serviced by a 200-amp panel. The Dodson needs more power. So far in the past two years we have spent $250,000 to try to get 600-amp service into the building and more power into your rooms. We have electrical service now coming into the Dodson underground and we built a new electrical room in the basement. We put large 600-amp service transformers in the basement and took that extra power up to all the floors and installed new subpanels. Then we ran conduit just outside each of your rooms. When this is finished you will have lots more power in your room and electric baseboard heat. You will control your own heat and manage your own small electrical panel which will be located in your room.  Anhart has to find another $100,000 to finish this work. We are trying. We want you to have a small kitchen in your room and if we get baseboard heat in your room, we won’t need the boiler.

Safety Issues

What concerns the Anhart team even more than the issues noted above is safety. Because Anhart receives no support from BC Housing or the City of Vancouver, it is not possible to have 24-hour staff. In the evenings and overnight people are getting into the building and are causing harm. Anhart is working with the Vancouver Police Department and the Residential Tenancy Branch to reduce these issues, but it is very difficult to remove the few tenants who are allowing visitors to cause harm. Please report safety issues to the Dodson staff and Vancouver Police Department. Also, please know you can call or email the Dodson executive by emailing info@anhart.ca or calling 604.529.6259. Our staff will hear your message within one business day. 

Community-based Staffing

Since 2004 at the Dodson Anhart has used a bottom-up, community-based model for staffing. The good of this model is that it gives tenants and DTES community members an opportunity to find employment and it means staff have a much better understanding of the needs of the other tenants. On the downside, this is tiring work and it puts community staff in harm’s way to organized crime and to the stress of all the medical and social needs of the community.

Instead of canceling Anhart’s community-based staffing model, we would like to invite more tenants to sign up to be staff members. We can’t guarantee you will get work hours, but if you are asked to work you will be paid according to BC Employment Standards protocols, and you will be paid automatically every two weeks through our Payworks service. 

All tenants are invited to apply for work assignments. I believe that together we can keep our building, clean, well repaired, and safe. We will still be using some outside staff for building and tenants needs that cannot be provided for by community staffing.

Long Term Plan

The Dodson currently has been given a shelf life of 30 years by engineers. We have a new roof, new windows and we are starting to replace all the plumbing pipes. We have a total of 10 drain stacks in the building running from the basement to the roof, and we are replacing each one and the associated water feeds at a cost of $15,000 each. We have replaced two stacks so far without displacing tenants. 

I believe we can increase the shelf life of the Dodson so that can reach its 200th anniversary on 2115. The Dodson turned 100 in 2015. It was built in 1915. To make it to 2115 we need to finish the plumbing and electrical work and do some work in the basement under the sidewalk and do some small upgrades to brickwork. Compared to many other SROs in Vancouver, the Dodson is in very good condition.

There are forces that want to gentrification the Dodson or tear it down and build micro suites. Many people don’t know that congregate housing promotes family-like living if it is operated properly. Our goal is to keep rents low and quality of life high at the Dodson. Right now, we are not getting any help from government or private donors or investors. However, the $3,000,000 that was spent on the Dodson so far all came from private donors, primarily Lise and David Ash, Anita and Hart Molthagen, and Helga and Ralf Schmidtke (actually we did get $150,000 from CMHC for the new windows, and $100,000 for the electrical room, they matched us dollar for dollar). We are very grateful to these generous families for what they did for you and many people in Africa through Anhart. Anhart is named after Hart and Anita Molthagen (ANita + HART). For those that are confused, we used to be called Community Builders Group (CBG), but my oldest daughter, Julie Roberts, is now leading that organization. CBG has many shelters, supportive housing centres and affordable housing buildings in Vancouver sponsored by the City of Vancouver and BC Housing.

Vancity Credit Union is now reluctant to provide further funding and we had to sell our new building at 162 Main to the City of Vancouver because CMHC stopped our financing. The reason finances are responding to Anhart in this restrictive manner is because we have had too many financial losses at the Dodson. The Dodson has low rents and high expenses. So, the Dodson is a battleground of sorts and so far, Anhart is refusing to give in. It is a matter of principle to Anhart. Canadians should be able to look after themselves. 

Please know the Vancity Community Foundation is doing everything they can to help us and to explain our position to the Vancity Credit Union. Orson Welles said, “The absence of restrictions is the enemy of art.” Maybe all these restrictions will awaken collective creativity in us all and we will be united in our pathway to peaceful living and wellness. 

Despite Anhart’s bravado, if the City of Vancouver, or BC Housing, or another nonprofit housing provider, had more resources and could help you in a better way, we would have a vote at the Dodson and ask what you wanted us to do. The Anhart board is made up of normal working people without any excess money, so we need help to keep going. We now have the Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre in the newly renovated commercial space on the main floor and we need to do a better job of looking after them as well, and we will surely need help for that huge responsibility. 

If we could get everyone’s cell number and email address, we would use Survey Monkey to get everyone’s opinion on what to do. If nothing else, we can be democratic. That power can’t be taken from us. 

Cheers,

Gordon “Keith” Wiebe

Representative Executive Director

Anhart Community Housing Society

Caregivers Collective

August 10, 2020

A community group near the Ugandan town of Iganga looks to fulfill its social mission through agriculture

As Noah Isanga speaks to the 20 people seated in a circle in the community hall, only the child squirming in his mother’s lap makes a murmur. These people have waited all day for this meeting, and they have much work waiting at home. Their outfits—bright floral printed shirts and ruffled dresses—show their respect for this occasion and they sit motionless, listening to his message. 

Noah is sitting beside Simon Nambafu, their guest, and explaining how Simon came to be involved. “Our idea was to support the orphans,” he says. “At first we said, ‘what can you contribute, what can I contribute’ and so we came together and said, ‘let’s start a small garden, let’s start a piggery, let’s start this and that.’ And that’s when I reached out to Simon. I said ‘there’s a problem,’ and he said ‘ok ok ok. How are you going to do this?’”

The original idea he’s talking about was four years ago, although Women Alliance and Children Affairs (WAACHA) goes back further than that. He and the board of WAACHA, which includes his wife Susan and his daughter Susan, wanted to help this group, each of whom is carrying an enormous responsibility of caring for orphan children. WAACHA found ways to help the caregivers, holding workshops on parenting strategies, providing neighbourhood watch for the children, providing psycho-social counselling for the children, distributing food, and connecting HIV positive children to health service providers. But they wanted to start farming, in order to help these foster parents in a long-term, sustainable way, and that’s why Noah called Simon. 

The two of them speak with a warm familiarity, and when Simon introduces himself to the group he jokes that “I was brought up in his hands, so I know this home and this place.” In fact they met in 2006, at a nearby university in Jinja where Simon was working in administration and Noah was a professor. Simon learned about WAACHA and helped them with their computer questions. After he moved away, he kept coming back to visit Noah and his family. 

Now, Simon is explaining Anhart’s Sustainable Villages, speaking in English as Noah translates simultaneously into Lusoga, a local tribal dialect. They have the same way of shaping their phrases with their hands, and their words of encouragement overlap and blend like voices in a fugue. 

“We work in mainly three areas,” says Simon. “We call it PIF (pay it forward) — small business, education and health. Because we know that with good health, with good education, with incomes then they can become sustainable and be independent. 

“So what do we do? At first we worked with individuals, but then we discovered with individuals we are not becoming accountable and responsible. So that’s why we said we’re going to work with CBOs. If you want to work with us, you must be registered as a CBO, you have a bank account, and then from there you sign an agreement with us. And then you write a request for funds. This business idea needs to be reviewed, that all of you as a group will benefit. Because our method of management is called bottom-up, not top-down. We don’t make rules for you. It’s you guys. You say this is what we’re going to do, this is how we’re going to grow, and this is how we become sustainable.

“Then after some time you have improved economically, then we call it Pay it Forward. When we give you the funds, you work with it, make profit with it, you don’t need to bring it back to us. But we help you identify another CBO, then you pay it to them.”

At this moment the room breaks into applause. Noah invites them to ask questions, and they all pick up on the key points that Simon has discussed, like how should WAACHA’s projects become sustainable? Another asks what Canadians do for orphans, and they shake their heads in disapproval when I answer that many children are raised in the government’s foster care system. 

Noah translates for one woman who begins by thanking Simon for his visit. “She’s saying that we have been so poor, you can have a plan but you have no capital, that has been our challenge. We may have constructed the barn but no livestock, no chicken,” Noah explains. “We are happy when you come in with small loans we can build up ourselves. And that is a very encouraging gesture. So now that you have come we are happy because we are able to solve those problems. We are ready to work with you together.” 

The group has a stoic determination that doesn’t lift after the meeting ends and they head off in various directions. But in the weeks to come, they have milestones to celebrate. Two hundred chicks are brought to the farm. All the caregivers help weed the maize, beans and peanuts, and together they wait for the harvest. 

‘A very nice harvest’

With a pay-forward loan, a group of neighbours in rural Uganda buy chickens, plant crops and plan to buy their own field

At first glance the field is a neatly tilled stretch of soil, surrounded by a wall of sugarcane stalks and bathed in golden afternoon light. But be careful, Noah Isanga warns me as I step into a furrow. Sure enough, just four days after planting, small green sprouts are beginning to appear. 

It is a hopeful start for a group of people waiting for small miracles. Their CBO, called Women Alliance and Children Affairs (WAACHA) received a $2,500 grant in February 2020 and used it to buy 200 chickens and rent this field, which they have planted with maize, beans and peanuts. Another three-acre field a short drive away is used to grow onions and maize. The group, which includes several members of Noah’s family and 15 neighbours who are each caring for orphan children, all helped to prepare, fertilize and plant the fields.

Susan Iganga, secretary of WAACHA and Noah’s daughter, explains to me that they will give each family a portion of food from the harvest, but most will be sold and the profits saved to buy land for the group within a year or two. “We’re expecting a very nice harvest here,” she says, “but we decided for now we are not going to get money, because if we divide it up it will be over.” 

The tall thick stalks of sugarcane surrounding this field seem like a barrier, and indeed they are: most land in this area is owned by larger companies that sell the perennial crop to big sugar processors. The industry is a double-edged sword here; a factory in the nearby city of Jinja is the biggest local employer, but the dominance of the crop has minimized local food production and made small farm ownership very difficult. 

Noah Isanga talks to Simon Nambafu in front of the chicken coop.

Simon Nambafu has known Noah Isanga for a long time, and has offered the group advice and encouragement on their business activities. Some time ago he helped them buy 15 chickens; last year he visited them and found they had grown the flock to 150. They also recently replaced a team of oxen with a tractor, paying for it from their own funds. Simon saw their potential and recommended them for a pay-forward loan. They plan to buy a different, fast-growing breed of chickens that will be ready for market in two months rather than the usual four.  

While this group has been operating social and business initiatives for many years, they have struggled to find a consistent and sustainable revenue model. Simon is happy with their recent progress but he wants them to encourage members to grow their own enterprises instead of acting as one big group. “They have good leadership and good accountability,” he says. “It’s a group I’m looking at as being able to produce other CBOs in the area based on their model because Noah has a very good network.”

Update

In August 2020, WAACHA celebrated a successful harvest. See pictures below!

Free trades

July 14, 2020

A vocational school in Northern Uganda built by Anhart partner Simon Nambafu equips young people with skills and a set of tools upon graduation

Photography by Esther Mbabazi

Students at Soroti Youth Skills Centre were sent home during Uganda’s coronavirus lockdown, but the instructors in carpentry and metal fabrication continued to produce windows, doors and furniture for customers. Students are selected based on their financial need, and receive free vocational and business training and counselling. With new classrooms in the works, Soroti is slowly building up to 50 students. “What we fight for every day is to make sure we touch the community,” says general manager Vicent Musamali. “If the person has a skill, the life of that person will improve.” 

The Soroti Youth Skills Centre also operates as a business, selling furniture and metal works such as gates and window frames.

Anhart supports Soroti through its partnership with Simon Nambafu, who leads business and community development in the Sustainable Villages program. He worked with a Swiss organization that provided funding and volunteer instructors to build the school, which opened in 2017. Several graduates who set up their own metal fabricating business have been supported with Anhart’s start-up grants. 

Simon has been in contact with a group of South Sudanese refugees that live near the city of Arua in northwest Uganda. He plans to build a vocational school in this settlement offering tailoring, metal fabrication and cooking. This project will be considered for future funding.

The Ryder

July 13, 2020

A 40-unit building in Hope BC is the beginning of a larger plan for affordable housing across Canada

Landscaping, paving and a picnic table were among the last touches to be completed at The Ryder, Anhart’s 40-unit affordable rental building at 1270 Ryder Street in Hope.

Tenants started moving into the building in March 2020, and it is currently full. Anhart thanks our partners, which included Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC), Vancity Community Foundation, Ralf and Helga Schmidtke, and Hart and Anita Molthagen.

Throughout the tenanting process, which began in December 2019, Anhart heard from people about their difficulty finding affordable housing in Hope, where CMHC had recently measured a zero per cent vacancy rate. Anhart is talking to several municipalities about building affordable housing in small urban centres across Canada. Many towns are struggling with the same factors facing Hope: a shortage of purpose-built rental housing and recent sales of homes with former rental units.

Anhart is currently working on a plan to develop projects for affordable home ownership in Hope BC.

‘Where one fails, another one adds on’

May 28, 2020

A group of women builds a clothing enterprise in Kampala by sharing their skills and their resources

In the twilight at the open door of the clothing boutique, Pamella Nakanyi removes a dress from a mannequin, carefully folds it up and places it on one of the shelves inside. She chooses a stretchy floral number and deftly tugs it over the model. She shoes away a toddler who is reaching inside the sudsy bucket she just used to mop the floor, and moves on to reclothe the next model. 

The little girl is the daughter of Juliet Mutonyi, who is telling me how she, Pamella and 18 of their friends started this shop about a year and a half ago. Many of them were single mothers, and they needed an income. “We had nothing to do,” she tells me, and she seems to be saying that the women banded together because they needed a purpose. 

The shop is in a small house on a hillside in a neighbourhood of Kampala. Juliet knew Simon Nambafu, who is now translating her Luganda for me because she insists she can’t speak English. Simon, who mentors entrepreneurs through Anhart’s Sustainable Villages program, encouraged the group of women to come up with a business idea. Most clothing available at street markets in Uganda is second-hand, so they wanted to sell new clothes. They found several suppliers and started out by taking fashions directly to neighbourhoods, knocking on doors and introducing themselves. Their customers would give them orders for specific items they had seen somewhere, and Juliet and her friends would search it out in the markets or at their agencies. 

As their business grew they were able to rent this space for a permanent shop. They received a $300 start-up grant from Anhart last year and were able to buy a cell phone. As they expand, they want to focus more on the African tie-dyed fabrics they carry from a local maker and on clothing designed and made by members of the group. These items have higher margins. About half of them have sewing skills, but their production is limited because they only have one sewing machine, which they bought with their early profits. They want to buy at least one more, and a specialized serger for finishing seams. 

“As a group you bring in many new skills, many new ideas, and you share the work a lot,” she says, explaining how they have grown faster as a group. “The profits become less in terms of sharing because you are many, but you don’t become stressed to do everything by yourself. Where one fails, another one adds on, complements the other.” 

The group also started up another initiative, a grocery kiosk carrying basic items that they all needed—soap, sugar, oil. “These families, they are the ones that become the customers,” Simon explains. “Instead of their money sitting still, it’s ploughed back into that. And they have created employment for one teenage orphan girl who has no mom or dad. She is working in the store.” 

The women have become an example to others, who also want to join. “Possibly they can encourage them to form their own groups and do something different,” Simon explains, “because everybody is seeing that they have made progress.” 

He steps out of the store to take a call, and Juliet switches to near-perfect English. We had dropped into the shop on short notice because our travel plans had changed due to the coronavirus threat, and she tells me she was sorry they hadn’t known earlier about my visit. All 20 of the women would have been here, she says. Next time we will all be here. We will cook for you, a traditional bamboo dish, and do African dancing. Next time, she keeps saying. Next time. 

Sustainable Villages provides small-business grants to community-based organizations like Kitala Women’s Association in East Africa. To support small business, maternity clinics and schools, visit here.