Photo caption: In Senegal, American educator Viola Vaughn has launched 10,000 Girls, an education project in which young women produce herbal teas, batik fabrics and dolls which are exported to the United States. (Drew Hinshaw/GlobalPost)
KAOLACK, Senegal — The history behind how Viola Vaughn’s baking class became an intercontinental export business reads like a fairy tale.
A decade ago, in this sand-swept trading town, a 9-year-old student, 47th in her class of 48, was near to flunking out of Senegal’s school system forever.
She sought tutoring from an American grandmother living nearby — who just so happened to have a doctorate in education from Columbia Teacher’s College and who was homeschooling her grandkids in Kaolack.
The tutoring went so well that the preteen pupil returned with 20 eager girlfriends and they hatched a plan to raise money to buy their own school supplies – to purchase a piece of their education.
“They said, ‘On American TV, we’ve seen American girls selling cookies,'” Vaughn recounted. “So they asked me: ‘Will you teach us to make cookies?’”
Vaughn’s girl-led door-to-door cookie delivery service is now a 100-acre agrobusiness, run by yesterday’s grade school dropouts, and it ships organic hibiscus tea across oceans.
The pastry service — since disbanded, following an unfulfillable surplus of orders — has transformed into a handicraft business that produces and exports a wide variety of batik items to art fairs in the United States.
The company enlists new employees from a bulging waiting list of unlettered young women including handicapped women looking for employment.
The booming business has earned the young women the respect and attention of their society.
“It’s taken this whole group of girls that I did not know existed, and turned them into paid, productive citizens,” Vaughn said.
When women’s development advocates speak about hinterlands where women’s education and entrepreneurial opportunities are discouraged to the detriment of the country’s development, Senegal’s agrarian Kaolack region is precisely one such case.
For every 60,000 girls who enter primary school in the region, only 4,500 make it to middle school, according to a study by Vaughn. Just 15 of those females graduate from university.
Women are routinely discouraged or even banned from buying land, Vaughn added.
Which is why Mame Thioro Sadji, a university graduate and accountant for the program says Senegal suffers “a shortfall of women in the entrepreneurial level.”
“We here know well this mentality that says woman must stay at home, mind their infants, or if she does leave the house, it should be to work in someone else’s house as a domestic,” she said.
“Our program is to change that mentality, to show that women are well and wonderfully capable of managing their own affairs,” she added.
In Vaughn’s program, women apprentice for $10 a month, learning sewing, agriculture, baking or batik printing.
Recruits undergo business training and take lectures on leadership or micro-loan management.
Many learn English. Some reap the privilege of traveling to distant Dakar, or even America where they promote their wares.
“At first they didn’t even realize they were doing international commerce, they were just filling out customs forms at the port and shipping orders,” Vaughn said. “But that’s what they’re doing.”
Nor did the tea makers realize they were producing organic leaves.
“We just couldn’t afford the chemicals,” Vaughn explained.
Now business is thriving: An American importer has asked the company to increase tea production twelvefold.
Their tablecloths, breadbaskets, dolls, and quilts patched together from batik prints are selling in festivals across the United States.
The women send 49 percent of their profits back into Vaughn’s private tutoring service, now a school of 3,838 girls with a name that highlights its aim: 10,000 Girls.
“This is so important to the development of this country,” the program’s HR Director Theiese Gustavie Diop said. “Women, too, must contribute to our development for us to advance.”