One World Women: Working Together Across Borders
One World Women is an international, peer-to-peer training initiative, aimed at promoting business growth for ambitious female entrepreneurs in Western Africa. With the launch of the new website imminent, One World Women hopes to expand its reach, matching western businesswomen with aspiring enterprises in The Gambia and beyond. I caught up with the charity’s founder, Cath Harris, to discuss the past, present and future of this inspiring project.
How One World Women Was Born
Before founding One World Women (OWW), Cath worked freelance consulting on marketing and business development for small companies. Amongst a varied career of rich experiences (“including designing and planning overseas expeditions for ex-military types in Sub Saharan Africa”) Cath sought a product that she could truly believe in. "I’ve felt for a number of years now that one has a duty to truly believe in the product or service that you’re selling, else you run the risk of becoming manipulative or hypocritical. Marketing works best when it’s based on human connection and I don’t think you can have that without 100% honesty and transparency.”
This project is born out of a personal need, as much as a global one. Just three years ago, Cath was running a small creative agency when she realised “I needed to have purpose, I needed to be able to look after my mental health and I needed to be able to have the flexibility to travel.” A chance encounter (and a lot of hard work since) has seen Cath and her business partner make “each of those three things […] a reality”. Whilst travelling with a friend, Cath “had the fortune of taking a cookery class with Ida Cham of Yabouy cookery school. We chatted about what the economy was like in The Gambia, and what life was like for women.” And the rest was history.
Ida Cham uses the profits from her own business, alongside micro-loans, to help local women set up their own enterprises. Cath explains how “it just really struck a chord with me that the work Ida does outside of her day-to-day job is extremely empowering for local women. It moved me so much that I wanted to find a way that I could help her using my business skills, experience and connections.”
Spurred on by Ida’s enthusiasm, tireless work ethic and her favourite phrase, “anything is possible”, Ida and Cath set their sights on international expansion. “We split the workload by country, so I source and look after the women that come from the UK, EU and USA and she sources the women in The Gambia.”
How the Volunteer Programme Works
Each business mentor is asked to make a long-term commitment to the programme, designing a consultancy plan before setting to work in the field. “The experienced team co-create a program that is rolled out over a week in-country. Then there's a level of support [for three months] afterwards too, which is via WhatsApp or Skype. But to be honest, most of the women will continue with these relationships for many years to come! It’s a true friendship that comes out of the programme!”
Orchestrating these fulfilling exchanges is no mean feat. Cath tells me that many of the business essentials which we take for granted are relatively inaccessible: “WiFi and electricity across The Gambia are built on a knife edge; the whole system might go completely down [at any point]”. As such, One World Women rely on small smartphone screens and paper recreations of Excel spreadsheets! “You have to think creatively about how to get things done. It's not as convenient as we’re used to and it's certainly a different a quality in terms of technology.” Whatsapp and email reign supreme “but obviously their connection speeds are quite a lot slower”.
Despite any technological difficulties, it seems that One World Women attracts a team of driven businesswomen. When selecting deserving recipients for the support scheme, Cath explains that they “have strict guidelines and processes for making sure we’re taking the right people onto the programme”. Then, when it comes to finding the perfect mentor match, it helps that their marketing is what Cath calls “heart-led”: “the messages that we’re sending and the people receiving them are on the same wavelength, so to speak!”
There seems to be no shortage of willing volunteers. “The response that I've had to the project so far is phenomenal. There are so many amazing people who donate their time volunteering to build this community.” It’s truly heartwarming to hear about the Girls Support Girls movement that Cath and Ida are spreading. “The women who are interested in getting involved, like [Cath], are looking for fulfilment and a way of using their skills and experience to give-back.”.
We’re often taught that time is money, so I’m sure it must take an unparalleled level of commitment to convince high-flying businesswomen to give up their time to help women on the other side of the world. But, Cath assures me, "it isn't difficult to convince people! I just explain the concept and most of the time people say, ‘Oh, my God, that's amazing!’”.
It seems like the strength of the One World Women initiative lies in its free-flowing community spirit: “With anything like this it takes a village to get it off the ground and we’ve had to learn things which span multiple cultures and countries.” In this giving environment, participants can’t help but benefit themselves from a two-way learning experience. “Most of the experienced women who come with us end up having to use or develop their communication skills, presentation skills and creative problem solving. It is incredibly humbling to work with the women in The Gambia, they are exceptionally welcoming to the individuals who partner with them. And in some cases, they are welcomed as a family member into the fold for dinners and celebrations.”
It’s easy to get carried away with the fantastic achievements of One World Women and their volunteers, and risk overlooking the situation that they are striving to remedy. Cath explains the long-term vision for their NGO: “The situation across Africa is quite substantial at the moment - the predictions say that by 2050, 60% of the population will be under the age of 25. [Therefore] the African Union is asking its inhabitants to create economic opportunities to be able to support its people.” One World Women has focused its efforts in countries where young people often go abroad for university and don’t come back, as there are no employment opportunities waiting for them. “We're at a stage now where adults have a responsibility to create opportunities for future generations.”
Cath talks me through one OWW success story in particular. “Sarah and Marie were just an amazing partnership. Both of them are young mums with very different lifestyles. Although they both work extremely hard during the week, it was just wonderful seeing both their relationship develop and Marie's business and confidence skills.” Together they developed a business plan for Marie to reach a new audience from her educational bookstore. As most of the available children’s books are written in Nigerian, not English, Sarah has shipped donated supplies from the UK to be sold in Marie’s shop. The profit from those books then helps to fund a new campaign aimed at finding sponsors for local children. Sponsoring a child provides them with a backpack, school books for the whole year, all the stationery they might need, a lunch box, and so on. This new business plan sees Marie make profit for herself and her family, whilst encouraging another charitable venture for local residents.
Cath praises One World Women for giving her purpose: “I feel like every day I get up and I'm empowered to do something which isn't just for me, it's for all the brilliant women in the world who want to get ahead and be ambitious. I feel like I do it for them, which is my motivation.” Her journey so far has seen her and Ida invited to meeting the Vice President of The Gambia. But, above individual moments of glory, Cath enthuses about the everyday running of One World Women: “Every time I speak with someone about the project and they say ‘wow, that’s such a great idea’ it just reassures me that I’m on the right path - that always makes me feel super-proud!"
Plans for the Future
Inspired by Cath’s stories and the journey of the charity so far, I can’t help but enquire about the ultimate ambition for OWW. Cath and Ida have big plans for growth: "I’d love to have programmes running in five continents within 10 years. [I hope] One World Women will be the go-to ‘pay-it-forward’ initiative and a right of passage for working women around the globe.”
Admittedly, OWW are still at a relatively early stage in their mission to change the world. What’s more, cultural differences may hold up this full-steam-ahead mission: Cath laughs, “they have a saying in The Gambia ‘Gambian time’, which basically means it will happen at some point!”
In the meantime, Cath assures me “the new website is launching in April (all going well) and we have a great campaign to launch this with along with lots of competitions! We’re in the process of developing collaborative programmes with brilliant global businesses who have sustainability high on their agendas - they’re working with us to develop new social impact projects. We’re also going to be setting up a charity arm soon to work alongside the social enterprise - this will mean we can have more permanent presence in Africa, employ local people to run workshops and networking events around the year.”
How to get involved!
Getting involved with One World Women requires little more than time and the willingness to share business experience. “Most of the women come away feeling incredibly humbled, and extremely lucky to have met their partner. It's an absolute privilege for us to be able to go and spend time with these women and learn from them.”
Volunteers can even get involved from afar. Cath explains how, whilst most of the women they work with have access to mobile phones and 4G signal, “if anyone has a working laptop that they would like to donate, we can take it over to Africa” to enable entrepreneurs to achieve much more.
In the meantime, be sure to follow this international girl gang across social media and look out for their upcoming website!