Building a Better Design: Women's Artisan Cooperatives

Building a Better Design: Women's Artisan Cooperatives

Organization type: 
nonprofit/ngo/citizen sector
$250,000 - $500,000
Project Summary
Elevator Pitch

Concise Summary: Help us pitch this solution! Provide an explanation within 3-4 short sentences.

Bringing simple technology - rulers, knives, gridded cutting boards - and modern designs to nomadic women artisans moved them from selling their handcrafted goods for paltry sums to local merchants to being able to access, through RAIN, western markets and prices. They gain independence, widen their world and donate 50% of their earnings to support their local schools, earning community respect.

About You
Rain for the Sahel and Sahara
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Section 1: About You
First Name


Last Name



, NH

Section 2: About Your Organization
Is your initiative connected to an established organization?


Organization Name

Rain for the Sahel and Sahara

Organization Phone


Organization Address

PO BOX 545, Newmarket, NH 03857

Organization Country
How long has this organization been operating?

More than 5 years

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Your idea
Country your work focuses on
What makes your idea unique?

Learning to measure, to make a 90-degree angle, to follow a pattern, are simple technologies that make a great difference in producing craft goods for the marketplace. RAIN works with 2 women's cooperatives: an 80-member group of Tuareg leather crafters and 15-member group of Wodaabe embroiderers. We have improved the quality of their work and learned to integrate their traditional designs and artistry with modern styles. They have better quality control and are learning about pricing and marketing. And they are learning the power of savings. We have combined increasing livelihoods with learning the value of saving and how those incremental contributions add up to improve the lives of their children and their communities.
Our unique idea is to bring the few who have learned to earn through technology to the point of sharing with the community. We have multiplied the benefit -- 80 Tuareg women are actively supporting 110 children who attend their community's school. Educating children in turn benefits their families -- the general rule is to multiply the number of direct assistance by 5. By giving tools and information to 80 women we have benefited their families, the children in their school, and the children's families. These women came to us seeking help to make more money from their artisanal skills. We've done that, while also creating a savings program through which they're learning the benefits of saving while assisting their communities. We are instilling the ethics of community action; they are learning the power of group action and self-sufficiency. When we first met with these women they believed that they were too poor to help their school. Now, each time their goods are sold they are paid 50% of the profit; the other 50% is put into a school fund. They are giving significant material advantages to their schools. They are gaining self-esteem, confidence, status in their communities and knowledge of how to organize and save for the good of all

Do you have a patent for this idea?

Tell us about the social impact of your innovation. Please include both numbers and stories as evidence of this impact

Nomadic families in Niger earn less than $200 per year. Since 2007, RAIN's two artisan cooperatives have earned over $8,000 for their schools, which are attended by 250 students. They have purchased uniforms, medical care, shoes, mattresses and blankets, as well as paying salaries of school personnel not on the government payroll. The women themselves have earned varying amounts of money -- in the large Tuareg leather co-op the women pay the artisans who actually made the goods sold a higher portion of profits than the others. Those who are co-op members but not skilled artisans -- they may garden, grind grain or take part in other cooperative activities -- share in a smaller percentage of profits. The Wodaabe cooperative includes talented embroiderers only and all profits are shared equally. All the women have earned enough to contribute much-needed food to their families. The Wodaabe cooperative has operated for 2 years. This January the women spent over $800 to support their school -- they purchased medicines, paid salaries of a teacher and cook, and purchased books. The Tuareg women's leather cooperative this year spent $1,000 on food aid and scholarships.
The program is reinvigorating traditional crafts. Without profitable markets, younger women were not learning skills.
Save for a few younger women who have attended primary school, all the members of both cooperatives are illiterate. They had never used a ruler, known how to center a design or make a 90-degree angle. Many have never left their home regions, gone to market, taken part in commercial life. RAIN offers literacy classes in Tifinagh and French. The women go shopping for materials with RAIN, are learning the how to judge their costs to produce goods and calculate profits. They are astonished to see how their school savings funds grow and allow them to provide substantial assistance to their schools. Tarbane, a member of the Tuareg cooperative, came by bus from her home in the Agadez region to Niamey, Niger's capital. It took her two days. There she met Halima and Djumare, Wodaabe embroiderers. Tarbane had never seen Niamey and had never met a Wodaabe person -- though these nomads share tradition, nomadic lifestyles and live in neighboring, sometimes overlapping areas. When introduced she proudly wrote her name in the sand. The technology of a bus ride may not seem significant but bringing women together is empowering. Technology for the rural people of Niger -- who live without electricity or cars, whose days are often filled with walking miles to pull water from a well for their families and animals, who pound millet for daily meals -- can be as simple as a ruler or a bus or learning the value of money and is life changing.

Problem: Describe the primary problem(s) that your innovation is addressing

1.Women in nomadic societies are in charge of home and children but have little political or economic power.
2. Fewer than 10% have attended school. Neither the Tuareg nor Wodaabe women can speak the national language, French. The majority of Tuareg women in our program do not speak Hausa, the most widespread language in Niger, used in almost all commerce. The RAIN program is bringing them out of isolation. 3. None of the women have been fairly treated in the marketplace. Nigerien merchants and foreign organizations and business people alike have paid them low 'local' prices for goods that are sold for far more in the United States or Europe. They now receive all the profits of their labors.
4. The women had only rudimentary tools and worked outdoors with children, dust and dirt interfering with their work. They are improving their skills with the help of simple tools and guidance from expert artisans. RAIN provides working space.
5. The women have not been treated as respected artisans, but laborers. We told a group of Wodaabe women we would teach them to measure and to draw the designs they would embroider. They had never done this. A man would draw the design, they would then embroider it. No one wanted to learn to measure or draw until I said: "My goal is for you to be independent, to make goods and earn money without having to wait for someone else to draw the design or measure for you. Many hands went up:'yes, we'll learn.'
Summary: Through honing their skills, having access to markets, interacting with those outside their villages, RAIN artisans are gaining knowledge and independence, they are earning money for their families' health and well-being, they are providing substantial support to the schools their children and their communties' children attend. Djumare said: 'our husbands don't understand the importance of health and education for our children.' These mothers do; they are proud to be helping their communities.

Actions: Describe the steps that you are taking to make your innovation a success. What might prevent that success?

RAIN continually provides training. We are teaching artisans the importance of making well-designed and beautifully executed products. The growth of their school accounts and ability to support schools motivates them greatly. They are often shy; we make sure that their communities understand and acknowledge their contributions and support their efforts. We offer literacy classes for their general well-being and to enable the women to become more accomplished in producing and marketing their products. We constantly work toward knowledge, skill and independence.

Niger has suffered political insecurity making work for the Tuareg women very difficult; their production the last two years was very reduced. The insurrection in their region is over but travel is still difficult. Niger is subject to political and food security that can hinder production.
Our second challenge comes from local merchants. We are seen as hindering their ability to buy crafts cheaply for resale. One local men's group in particular has attempted to dissuade the leather workers. Local chiefs and community members help by putting social pressure on the men to stop. The Wodaabe women were recently approached by a foreign merchant who offered to buy their goods but insisted they must have exclusive access. The women refused, they had been poorly treated by this person in the past. We are confident that the fair treatment and payment offered by RAIN, knowing that they receive all profits from their labors and the reward of supporting schools will serve to attract many more to RAIN's cooperative programs.

Results: Describe the expected results of these actions over the next three years. Please address each year separately, if possible

Year 1. Members of the Tuareg cooperative are now returning to their homes in regions that were closed for two years due to political insecurity. We will work with them to rejuvenate their school and artisan activities. The Wodaabe women are developing a line of embroidered goods and learning to reliably produce specific products to enable us to broaden our markets and online sales. Our cooperatives are well-known in the Agadez region. To meet the demands we have from women seeking to earn, RAIN has recently initiated enterprise programs with other women volunteers, most notably the women who serve as mentors to schoolgirls. We have recently increased this program from five to thirteen schools and seek to introduce it throughout rural Niger. In 2010 we started our first enterprise to support the mentors of Arlit and generate funds to buy materials for the traditional skills classes they offer to schoolgirls each week. This pilot enterprise is a herding program known in Tamasheq (the Tuareg language) as Temoko -- a start up herd is given, then people share the offspring to create herds for others, who in turn give offspring, and so it continues.
Year 2. As the women gains skills and literacy they will take on more of the design, quality control and marketing of their products. We seek to hire a Niger woman to work with the cooperatives on a full-time basis and develop markets within West Africa. RAIN will start new cooperatives -- artisanal and other -- to generate livelihodods for women and support for schools. As a result of these actions we expect sales and profits to increase significantly -- thereby increasing the support the women offer their schools, providing long-term stable bases of annual support.
Year 3. We expect the artisans' cooperatives to gain independence, though RAIN will continue to provide access to U.S. markets for a longer time. We plan to significantly increase the number of cooperatives and organize like cooperative businesses into countywide groups to bring women of different regions and peoples together for sharing, learning and empowerment.

How many people will your project serve annually?


What is the average monthly household income in your target community, in US Dollars?

Less than $50

Does your innovation seek to have an impact on public policy?


If your innovation seeks to impact public policy, how?

Niger is the recipient of much foreign aid. We seek to see our enterprise model of generating funds advocated by the government, redirecting some aid from large donors to this domain.

What stage is your project in?

Operating for 1‐5 years

Does your organization have a board of directors or an advisory board?


Does your organization have a non monetary partnerships with NGOs?


Does your organization have a non monetary partnerships with businesses?


Does your organization have a non monetary partnerships with government?


Please tell us more about how partnerships could be critical to the success of your innovation

We have partnered with the government of Niger in offering education programs. In the U.S., partnerships with businesses include boutiques where the cooperative products are sold, as well as various online marketplaces. Our Fair Trade partners have been the most helpful, selling our products with reasonable markups to allow the women in Niger to receive US retail prices for their goods.

We would like to learn more about how your initiative is financially supported. Please explain your business plan/revenue model

We are just completing our strategic plan. The women's cooperative initiatives require upfront funding for training, materials and workshop space. Once the cooperatives are established, the funds generated for sales pay for materials. We continue to invest some funds in training and product design. These modest investments are funded through grants (we have received funds from Aid to Artisans) and private donations.

The Story
What was the defining moment that led you to this innovation?

RAIN began with a mission to improve education for nomadic children in Niger. We began in a village called Gougaram, in the Agadez region that is home to many of Niger's Tuareg people. Gougaram parents' first priority was to install a garden for their children. RAIN worked with them to accomplish this goal -- parents, schoolchildren, teachers all came to work with RAIN staff and some Board members to install the region's first drip-irrigated garden. Men and women helped the gardener, women came to the garden a few days a week to harvest vegetables and cook them for lunch for Gougaram's 110 students.
One day a woman named Akadaka approached me and said: "We women are happy to help our school, but we need help, too. Can you help our cooperative?" I hesitated, we were small and needed to stay focused. Our mission was to support education, not women's cooperatives. Some time later I talked to Akadaka again and posed a question: "If we help the cooperative, will the women share their earnings with the school?" Her response was an enthusiastic "Yes!". Many meetings, two visits by an American leather artisan, design sessions, successes and failures followed. The women's artisan's cooperative is now known throughout Agadez, the women have learned and earned, and are proud to support their school.

Tell us about the person—the social innovator—behind this idea.

Bess Palmisciano is a lawyer who has worked in private practice in New Hampshire and also served as in-house counsel at Signal Capital Corporation, Wentworth Capital Corporation and FleetBoston Financial Corporation. Before becoming an attorney she had a career as a college administrator.
In January 2000 Bess took a brief vacation from FleetBoston and visited friends in Niger, West Africa. With her husband and friends, who were diplomats living in the capital city of Niamey, she traveled north to the Air Massif and desert areas. The Air Massif and Sahara Desert are home to the Tuareg – nomads who are part of the Berber people who live in North and West Africa. Bess and her friends hired Tuareg guide, Moussa Haidara, who was born into a nomadic family and educated at a state-run boarding school for the children of nomads. He now brings tourists to the desert. Bess noticed that he also brought clothing and food for the children, whom he treated with great tenderness. He was well-liked and respected by the people in the region. He told Bess of the plight of his people, who live in such remote areas that little assistance reaches them. Bess, and her husband John, told Moussa they would like to help. He did not forget this offer. He showed them the school he had attended, now in terrible repair. Bess returned to the states and asked some friends to help rebuild the school. She returned to Niger to talk to nomadic people about their needs, hopes, desires and motivation. She searched for organizations that might expand their services to include the remote nomads of Niger. Finding none, she decided to create a nonprofit organization. Over the next year, Rain for the Sahel and Sahara, Inc. (RAIN) was born.

How did you first hear about Changemakers?

Friend or family member

If through another source, please provide the information
Does your project address any of the following barriers to women’s technology access and use?

Women’s time poverty, Social norms, Economic or institutional constraints.

If you checked any of the boxes above, please explain how.

Women's time poverty. RAIN works with women and their husbands to ensure the women have time to work -- usually for periods of a week to ten days -- away from their family and chores. Men are coming to understand that they should help their wives to earn livelihoods. Many are proud of the women's contributions to their families and communities.
Social norms. It is not easy for traditional women to leave their homes and travel to a training or work session. As in making time, we've learned it's important to include men in discussions of the cooperative and its work. Women themselves must be encouraged to progress -- beginning with small steps like measuring and drawing which they feel are in the men's domain.
Economic or institutional constraints. Nomadic women are among the poorest in the country with the worst living standards in the world. (UNDP 2009) To buy tools or travel to markets is impossible for most. Income generation is key to their access to the means to earn more. A simple leg up is not to be found in Niger. Institutional constraints affect literacy. Many in Niger, even school teachers and directors, believe either that women, as future mothers, do not need education or that women are simply not smart and can't learn. Seeing the accomplishments of women in enterprise, their success in literacy classes helps to dispel these myths. Better yet, the women themselves, who all to often discount their own intelligence and ability, gain confidence and the desire to learn.

Does your project involve women in one or more of the following stages of the technology lifecycle? Identification of the problem the technology will solve:

Market research, Technology introduction, Technology training, Creation and maintenance of market linkages for women's economic outputs, Assessment and evaluation.

If you checked any of the boxes above, please explain how you will ensure women’s involvement in each relevant phase of the technology lifecycle.

RAIN starts with raw skills the women artisans already possess and builds on them. For example, the Wodaabe women have an embroidering tradition centuries old. RAIN brought research of designs for Western markets, and co-designed with the women themes and motifs that incorporate both. RAIN trains the women in designing from patterns, measurement, design consistency, and new forms of applying their embroidery, from T-Shirts, to pillowcases, to home decor. RAIN also provides the technology and training to employ these new techniques, with rulers, drafting tablets, compasses, and more. In addition, the women learn math through self management of profit bookkeeping and distribution, product pricing, concepts of market value, and even basic math. RAIN also assists in the women accessing their local markets in addition to U.S. markets, thereby developing business savvy and direct sales skills. A committee is appointed in each cooperative to develop and enforce quality control guidelines for each product. In the U.S. RAIN utilizes the internet to market and sell the items, through online world marketplace networks. Our latest development is the addition of a retail designer who will provide a full evaluation of our current designs and apply her knowledge towards keeping them fresh, unique and relevant.

If women are a focus of your project, how did this focus evolve?

The project focused on women from its conception..

Which type of women will your project reach directly?

Rural, Low income.

In what ways does your project team/leadership involve women?

It is led by a woman/women., The core project team includes women., The core project team includes women from developing countries..

Has your organization formed any new partnerships in response to this challenge? If so, with what type/s of organization/s?


Has your project leadership had prior experience with the following?

Working with women, Working with technologies, Working to increase women's economic empowerment through technology, Working on innovation.