A DUTY TO IMPROVE LIFE
She belongs to the class of the fighters. A seller of fruit and vegetable from childhood, she never attended school. But neither her age, nor illiteracy stopped her from following the path of her predecessors in organizing her sisters of the commerce sector. Her objective: Organize the women, who are the major producers and sellers of supplies and food in all the markets in Côte d'Ivoire.
“Everyone in this country knows me as Irié Lou Irié Colette from Gohitafla,” starts the leader of an 1,800 strong agricultural union that spans 19 regions of Côte d’Ivoire. The 54-year-old woman sitting in front of me looks much younger, with the smile she offers me softening her face. I am impressed by the beauty and simplicity around her. Samples of maize, rice and beans cover the table, a representation of products sold in the farmers’ area of the market.
Irié Colette started her journey in 1983, after learning from one woman who inspired and taught her the basics of agricultural work for many years. She then created her own market of food supply in Treichville, where today stands the Culture Palace in Abidjan. Her work was to buy from farmers and sell to people in her market. This experience confronted her with two major problems:
“Most of the time, women would come to me and ask for money to feed their families. It was very difficult to see them in such a desperate situation,” explains Irié Colette. The second problem was the farmers’ refusal to sell to women, as they believed the women would not be able to repay them. “That is where my inspiration came to organize the sector.”
According to ActionAid, an international anti-poverty agency, each day over one billion people go hungry, most of whom are women. Women worldwide are routinely denied the right to own or inherit land, even though they are responsible for 60-80 percent of food production in the developing world; furthermore, IFAD’s Factsheet on Women reports that less than 2 percent of land in the world is owned by women and rural women in Africa receive less than 10 percent of the credit available. Women’s almost nonexistent access to land and control of resources to feed their families must be addressed worldwide before moving forward with the fight against hunger.
Facing the women’s needs and the farmers’ fear of losing profit led Irié Colette to start an agricultural union: CODIPRAL. “Instead of giving them money, what I don’t have all the time, I asked those women to come and sell in the market the goods I was ordering from the farmers. I was solving two problems,” explains Irié Colette. “I was giving a net to women to fish themselves and helping the farmers sell their products without any loss.”
This achievement did not satisfy her, though. In her market, she was not able to sell all the products from the different regions of her country. She then started developing the idea of promoting her country’s staple foods with constant availability and ended at the implementation of a rice factory in Tiassalé. From the day the factory was inaugurated on 13 September 2010, 2.5t of rice has been produced per hour.
“We have in all regions, the appropriate soil for rice cultivation and secondly, we import a lot of rice in Côte d’Ivoire. It is just the right thing to think of making it available from here,” exclaims Irié Colette. The factory brings an obligation to rice farmers to organize themselves and change their traditional methods to modern and innovative methods to provide good quality rice. “We need to learn and become professional because in five to 10 years, we want to export our rice. And it demands a lot.”
Irié Colette’s statement pushed me to ask her how she intends to achieve this goal with the post-electoral crisis we are facing. (As I write, the African delegation—led by presidents from Sierra Leone, Cape Verde and Benin—was leaving my country without having convinced our president, Laurent Gbagbo, to step down and allow Alassane Ouattara to step into the presidency as ordered by the international community. We fear our country may be plunged into another draining civil war.) Nonetheless, Irié Colette smiles and the brightness in her eyes gives me the answer before she opens her mouth.
“My only strength and weapon is the love I have for all these women and for the country. I never attended school to use strategies and rudiments in this work, but if I do not work I have nothing left on this earth,” she says. “Without love you cannot achieve and succeed in any dream or vision.” And her vision for the federation today is to be a means of development for food supply in Côte d’Ivoire.
“By development I mean producing in quantity and quality all kind of food we have in this country, not only to produce, but to be able to make all our production available the whole year and also sell them at affordable prices.”
Selling food at reasonable prices and freedom for women to go to the market without fear are issues heightened in times of political conflict. “Women are very sensitive because any time there is something like what we are facing today, it takes their children, brothers and sisters, parents and husband’s lives, if they are not taken for targets themselves. And all this affects their ability to work,” explains Irié Colette.
The country will not move forward without food. So if women are not going to the market, if they cannot go to the farms, we will not only lose what has been built, but we will be walking toward famine, especially now that many nations have cut off or threatened to cut off their relations with Cote d’Ivoire if Gbagbo does not step down.
“I would like to challenge you to use your arms, legs and brain, literate and illiterate women: Our duty is to think and find out what we can do to improve life. After finding that, we have to pass it on to other women, help and advise them,” says Irié Colette. Today, regarding all that is happening in our country, she has one piece of advice: “In all countries, women should seek peace, advocate for peace, fight for peace. Peace is essential.”
This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future, which is providing rigorous web 2.0 and new media training for 30 emerging women leaders. We are speaking out for social change from some of the most unheard regions of the world.