Sonia Paiva of eSwatini - What would you be willing to give up to help others follow their dreams?
Imagine you were a woman in rural Africa, waking at dawn to take care of your family, spend the day labouring in the fields, or walking miles to fetch wood and water for your home. Imagine you did all these unimaginable sacrifices day in, day out without ever being recognised or acknowledged. Now, imagine a woman, who lived a completely different life, educated, head of a corporation, who decided to give up a job many who kill for to dedicate all her energy and every waking hour to better the lives of the under-privileged women of her country?
Today, I am inspired by Sonia Paiva of the Kingdom of eSwatini, formerly known as Swaziland. Sonia was the head of Carson Motors in Manzini, in eSwatini, when one day, to the astonishment of her entourage, she decided to resign from her high-paid job and sell all her shares. She hadn’t lot her mind nor was she about to take a sabbatical to tour the world and try to find herself. None of that.
Though she had achieved what many can only dream of – to become an executive in a country and a field dominated by men – she had realised that her life would not be complete if she only thought of herself and how far she could go in her career. All her life, Sonia was conscious that most women in her country would never be able to have a complete education and could not even dream of having any life outside of taking care of their families, and that from a young age.
When she left the car company, she was determined to find a way help rural women rise above their circumstances and become autonomous so they could take care of themselves while providing for their families. Because of the ravages of AIDS in the austral African kingdom, many Swazi households were headed by women, who found themselves not only raising their own kids but also taking care of other family members, including the elderly and orphans.
But Sonia didn’t want to just handover aid to these women. The reason she sold her shares was so she could invest in a venture that would focus on creating meaningful employment for women. With that idea in mind, Sonia co-founded in 1991 a social enterprise called Eswatini Kitchen. The main objective was to create employment for disadvantaged women, provide a market for small local farmers and rural families who harvested wild fruit. The profit generated was to be destined to fund various community activities in Manzini.
Eswatini started with only 5 women working in a small kitchen. The first couple years were tough, they weren’t making any profits, but they hanged on and things started turning around. With the help of a friend from Australia, who had volunteered at eSwatini Kitchen when it was just starting, the company secured their first important international order from Down Under. Another order followed, this time coming from England.
The rest was history as I like to say! Eswatini hired new staff, all women, and was able to start funding social programs in the community as they had originally intended.
In 1996, a partnership was built with a FairTrade organisation, which allow the swazi social enterprise to broaden its client base. By 1998, the company was emplying 15 women, and 25 years later, Eswatini kitchen is a an internationally recognised brand exporting an large array of local products to 15 international destinations including Europe, USA, Australia and Japan, and employing 30 employees, including 27 women and offering a fair and sustainable income for over 300 people in Swaziland.
“We export most of our products. Honey, jams, sauces, pickles, marmalades and other products from Swaziland, 100% natural. No coloring or preservatives.”
During their first 15 years, all their proceeds were devoted to the Manzini Youth Care initiatives, a non-profit supporting more than 2000 marginalized children and young people in the country, but Sonia had another lifelong dream she wanted to see through.
In 2007, she launched an annual competition, the Woman Farmer of the Year Competition, and a year later, in 2008, Sonia created the Woman Farmer Foundation (WFF), an NGO whose mandate is to identify, recognize and develop a corps of "Model" women and youth farmers across Swaziland who will inspire and capacitate their communities to mitigate the effects of rural poverty.
“We develop women from subsistence farming to intermediate farming and to commercial level of farming. Our main concerns are gender equality, agriculture and food security, and water and sanitation.”
Since the inception of WFF, the former corporate executive turned restless and tireless warrior for the cause of the African rural woman, knocked at every single door she came across, literally, and garnered support from the business community, government, donors and even the international community. The competition and the foundation have benefited more than 2000 women in just 10 years!
“I explored the world of opportunities and I managed to identify at least two; a business opportunity through agriculture and the opportunity to make a difference in the life of rural women through agricultural enterprises. With these opportunities in mind, I was determined to share the concept through a competition to all women in Swaziland, the first time back in 2007. My desire was to see women grow economically with a sustainable source of income leading to improved livelihoods coupled with enhanced household food security. I held on to the statement, "If you know money, you know business" . All women know money, and therefore I pushed aside all the obstacles illiteracy might have and I started entrepreneurship training in 2008 and I have observed women growing ever since.”
“To see rural women being liberated from poverty and starvation and stepping into the zone of social and economic sustainability.”
We can only wish you the best!
Right your Legacy, Sonia Paiva! Right your Legacies, rural women of eSwatini and of Africa!