Blandine is transforming the image of the most marginalized women in extreme poverty through economic empowerment, education and improved health. She is starting with one of the least respected groups of women – traditional beer producers – and is making them a model example of successful, educated, environmentally conscious and socially aware women through a portfolio of innovations.
The New Idea
Blandine is changing the public’s perception of socially excluded women by first profoundly improving the lives of these women. She is enabling women to pull themselves out of poverty, to improve their health and to exert a greater influence on family decisions—such as whether or not to force their young daughters to marry. At the core of her approach is educating women on a range of subjects, including social and environmental issues, so that they can change their own actions and prompt others to change as well. Blandine is beginning with women who produce dolo, a traditional beer-like beverage, because they are the least respected due to their profession. These dolo producers are often the subjects of malicious gossip because of their association with alcohol and male strangers.
Blandine enables the dolo makers to become successful, respected business women by increasing access to literacy courses, by disseminating cost-saving methods of dolo production and advising on the importance of paying taxes. Blandine educates women on health issues such as hygiene, HIV prevention and family planning. She hosts conversations about the consequences of forcing daughters to marry at a young age, and guides women on how to lead discussions with their husbands and families to prevent early marriage. Blandine couples this education with action and resources to enable women to improve their business, health and the environment.
While this education is targeted at dolo makers, women of all professions are invited to learn, thus educating all women and solidifying the dolo producers as role models supporting other women. Repositioning the dolo producers as leaders is one way that Blandine is revaluing the dolo profession and changing public perception of the producers. Additionally, she increases awareness of the dolo producers’ new role in protecting the environment, improving health and leading others to address social issues in their community. She is spreading this message with a combination of high profile media appearances, engagement with political and administrative authorities and a series of fairs that integrate beer producers with other professions and create a forum to dispel myths. Blandine is first beginning with the most difficult case and improving the lives of the most marginalized women. By making them role models for other women, Blandine is changing perceptions of all women and demonstrating that the image of women of any profession can be improved.
Burkina Faso is a country afflicted by extreme poverty where the majority of the population lives below the poverty line. Women are generally poorer and more vulnerable to economic shocks. Because they lack access to economic gain and higher levels of income, women are particularly at risk to plummet deeper into poverty when faced with even a small economic hurdle, such as a sick child or unpredictable price fluctuations. Further limiting their opportunities, only 22% of women are literate, compared with 37% of men. Socially, women’s roles are rigidly defined and confined to the home; common social practices such as forced marriage, large families and lack of family planning restrict women’s upward mobility.
Lack of reliable access to financial services further complicates women’s ability to grow profitable businesses and improve their economic situation. While microcredit exists in some areas, it is generally ill-planned or intentionally exploitative, only offering women loans at high interest rates and for very short periods of time, preventing them from developing a robust business because they are required to repay the loan quickly. Through these microcredit schemes, women rarely benefit from their hard work, often only earning enough to pay back the loan and interest.
Many of the socially acceptable professions with low barriers to entry perpetuate conditions in which women live day to day on the margins. Women with few resources who want to earn an amount that allows them to support their families in a substantial way, such as by sending their children to school or preparing healthier meals, find few roles left to them. The production of dolo offers a lucrative, but ostracizing, option. Dolo is very deeply embedded in the social fabric of many ethnic groups across Burkina Faso and West Africa. This beverage is mandatory at cultural events such as weddings, baptisms and funerals and is the daily beverage of choice in many regions. Production of this drink is clearly defined as a woman’s role. It is estimated that 15% of the women in Burkina Faso are involved in the organization and preparation of this drink, including over 5,000 women in the capital alone. Despite the cultural value placed on the consumption of this traditional beer, production of dolo is highly stigmatized. Society negatively perceives these women who produce and serve dolo because this industry requires them to expand beyond their predefined social roles and the realm of the home. Successful beer producers must be highly visible in order to draw in new customers and deal with larger sums of money, serve alcohol, and interact regularly with men—including men from outside the community. These women are victims of deep seated prejudices and are often subjects of harmful rumors, such as that they are “soul eaters” or negative forces on society. Many of the women who choose this profession are widows or have unemployed husbands.
While dolo is strongly engrained in many cultures, traditional methods of preparing beer over wood fires are incredibly harmful to women’s health and the environment. Prolonged exposure to high levels of heavy smoke results in blindness and other eye problems, cardiovascular disease and increased blood pressure. A successful dolo producer will use about seven tons of wood per month. Because of the enormous amount of wood required to cook the beverage, traditional beer production is one of the leading causes of deforestation in the region. It is estimated that half of the wood destined for Ouagadougou is used for the production of dolo.
A successful dolo producer herself, in 1974 Blandine joined a small informal network of dolo producers composed mainly of older women and widows. She formalized this group and launched the Association des Dolotières de Kadiogo (Association of Traditional Beer Producers of Kadiogo). Recognizing the strength of linking individual beer producers, Blandine is the engine of growth for this organization, attracting members of various ages and expanding its geographic reach. By 2012, she had grown the organization’s membership to over 1000 women from across the province whom are organized into 19 subgroups representing all neighborhoods of Ouagadougou and six nearby villages.
Over time Blandine has increased the educational activities incorporated into her work and in 2007 launched the first annual “Day of the Dolo Producers” festival to educate and link women of varied professions and develop relationships with the public and important national actors from all sectors. These three day festivals celebrate the contributions of dolo producers and increase education and action around specific issues that deeply affect the lives of dolo producers and society at large, such as hygiene, forced marriage, HIV, taxation, reducing environmental impact. These festivals are also open to the public and create opportunities for people to see beer producers in a positive light and engage with these women as individuals rather than a member of a stigmatized group. Realizing the importance of building momentum and goodwill before tackling prejudices directly, Blandine waited until 2012 to focus the Day of the Dolo Producers Festival on revaluing the profession of beer producers.
Furthermore, Blandine is transforming the dolo industry itself. Traditional methods of producing and serving this beverage are unhygienic, environmentally destructive and harmful to the producers’ health. Blandine introduced a hygienic alternative which stores beer in a closed container to prevent contamination from flies, dirt and other substances and dispenses the beverage directly to the cup. Furthermore, Blandine educates dolo producers on the importance of protecting the environment and avoiding deforestation. She conceiv¬¬¬ed of a gas burning stove for dolo production that provides financial and health incentives to avoid wood burning stoves. Once installed, preparing dolo with the gas stove reduces fuel costs by 60% and saves 84 tons of wood annually per producer, thus making it profitable for women to protect the environment. Furthermore, the new stove eliminates health problems associated with beer production and contributes to a more sanitary production system.
To increase access to gas stoves and position beer producers as healthy protectors of the environment, Blandine is building strategic partnerships with the private sector, the government and banks. In 2009 Blandine began approaching international and national gas companies with her idea for a gas beer stove. They created a model and by 2010 Blandine and eight other women were using the gas stoves, saving 672 tons of wood annually. Blandine convinced the national gas company to sponsor trainings and marketing of the new production method. She is building a relationship with the Ministry of the Environment to validate the positive environmental impact of the new stove. To enable widespread access, Blandine is creating an ecosystem of financial services to support women in building their savings and credit worthiness. For example, Blandine leads high impact savings groups where a large group of women contribute a fixed amount of money each month which is then divided between four women; the next month, everyone contributes the same amount and four different women receive the funds. Additionally, she built a relationship with the local bank to enable beer producers to take out loans to improve their facilities and demonstrate that they will repay loans, thus increasing their eligibility to borrow more in the future.
Blandine understood that to change public opinion she needed a strong media campaign and relationships with prominent figures. Blandine is a public role model of a successful business woman who is empowering other women, improving society and protecting the environment. She is demonstrating that even the most marginalized, outcast woman can lead society. In 2002 she was showcased on national television as one of the most important female leaders fighting to improve society. In 2006 an entire episode on television featured her and her journey to build her business and improve the lives of women. To gain buy-in and increase publicity for her work, Blandine engages with prominent, highly followed leaders, including the Mayor of Ouagadougou and the First Lady of Burkina Faso.
To achieve national impact, Blandine is focusing on two critical approaches. She will enhance strategic relationships with the government, media, private sector and a portfolio of financial partners in order to improve women’s economic position, environmental impact and social status. To spread this impact and empower the most marginalized women around the country, Blandine intends to build a national federation of dolo producers. To enable herself to focus on expansion, Blandine has built a strong leadership committee in the Association of Traditional Beer Producers of Kadiogo composed of 16 women who are taking responsibility for growing local membership and providing direct support to beer producers in the province.
At a young age Blandine realized that her village school’s model of rote learning and memorization didn’t promote creative problem solving or accept anyone who strayed from the norm. After sixth grade, she left school to learn about business through a hands-on apprenticeship with her mother, a dolo producer. Later, when living on the outskirts of Ouagadougou, Blandine found that her husband couldn’t provide for her and their two children. Blandine wanted to launch her own dolo business, but her husband refused, suggesting instead that she sell peanuts, a more acceptable women’s profession. Despite continued resistance from her husband, Blandine eventually convinced him to allow her to first sell, and then produce dolo. Starting with two benches and one clay pot of beer, Blandine created a thriving beer business and surpassed her husband’s meager income. She creatively sought out opportunities to expand her business, such as by partnering with an exceptional singer who entertained her customers. One day the singer was invited to perform on national radio and he sang about her delicious beer, enticing hordes of customers to her business.
As Blandine’s financial success and public image increased, so did her husband’s jealousy and the prejudice of neighbors and in-laws. After the early death of her husband, she was the subject of malicious gossip and was rejected by many. Due to her combination of intimate knowledge of the beer industry and personal exclusion, Blandine was determined to improve the lives of marginalized women, beginning with beer producers.
She is the founder of one of the most successful dolo businesses in Burkina Faso. In addition, she is the President of the Association of Restaurants that Sell Game Meat which ensures that restaurants selling game meat, often dolo bars, only purchase wild meat that was hunted legally within the appropriate season and not endangered species. Blandine first joined this association to increase her exposure to the citizen sector and apply her new knowledge to improve the Association of Traditional Beer Producers. Blandine is viewed as a national role model for women and has received many honors, awards, and public acknowledgements for her work to improve the lives of women.