Burkina’s Women Shape Progress
Ouagadougou, April 2008
by Brenda Gael McSweeney and Scholastique Kompaoré
Something positive is afoot in villages of West Africa that the rest of the
world should know about. The timing is perfect, coming just as UNESCO
has chosen „gender equality‟ and „Africa‟ as its two global priorities. Burkina
Faso‟s development actors are investing strongly in women and girls,
building on the path-breaking work begun years ago by UNESCO and the
Burkina Government, with the support of the UN Development Programme.
“The Platform saved us,” exclaims Marie Nikièma, from Poa in the Center-
West of the Sahelian country of Burkina Faso. “Before, we spent a crazy amount of time hulling then grinding grain, both exhausting tasks, and
crushing shea butter nuts which took two days with all the interruptions.”
That was before the
arrival in early 2007 of
the Multi Functional
Platform in her village -
a simple diesel engine
made in India with units
the villagers selected,
like a shea and peanut
butter press, grain huller
or flour mill. The
Platform is only the
physical part of a
are a system of pre-
consultations, the naming of a women‟s management committee by the women themselves, and follow-up visits by non-governmental technicians.
Far away from Burkina in North America and Europe, development policy
debates are dotted with important yet abstract concepts such as poverty
eradication, sustainable development and democratic governance. “Afro-
optimism” has recently been added to the international development
vocabulary to reflect the continent‟s robust growth rate and dwindling number of conflicts. The last few months we witnessed these concepts
being translated into action at the grassroots level throughout Burkina.
“Since the Platform came, we can leave off our grain at dawn for
processing, then tend to other tasks, like making soumbala (a spice cake
for cooking) or growing and marketing vegetables,” the women declare.
“We now have money to send our girls to school – and our husbands prefer millet pancakes from flour finely ground by the Platform‟s mill.”
We watched the Women‟s Management
Committee members measure grain,
negotiate prices, mill the flour and collect
and record cash earnings. Their bank
account serves as collateral for loans,
permitting expansion of their rural
In Poa‟s neighboring village of Songpelcé, we
were asked to photograph the villagers
crowding alongside a small indigenous plant
called Jatropha, growing right at the door of
the Platform‟s shelter. Soon the countryside
will be covered with acres of this plant, to
serve as bio-fuel. With the sky-rocketing
price of gasoline, it is fortuitous that this bio-
fuel can go straight into the Multi Functional Platforms without any engine
“We take turns doing everything” explained
a woman from Gomoré village near the
town of Fada N‟Gourma in the east of Burkina. The Platforms‟ motors in 119 of
120 installations countrywide are humming.
They start typically early in the morning or
in the evening at the choice of the women.
Disputes have only stopped down activities
in one village. Other cases of conflict have
been resolved. Most women‟s committees
volunteer their time to manage the Platform.
However, in one case the women were
paying themselves too much to balance the
books. Heated negotiations ended that, and
led to broadened participation and
involvement of more neighborhoods – “democracy” and “transparency” in action at the local level.
Time and again, we witnessed the ingenuity of these women. In one village
we watched as a Platform support piece fell clanging onto the cement floor
from a running engine. Yet minutes later, the female millers had solved
the immediate problem with a rope.
The rural women – and men – are highly enthusiastic about advances the
Platform brings to their communities. They give it a strong approval rating
in independent evaluations. “This is the work of the UNESCO pilot project
for women and girls that we‟re
pursuing,” declared a beaming
Benoit Ouba, President of Tin Tua,
Organization (NGO) in charge of
the Platform initiative in the
eastern part of the country. Other
Non-Governmental activists also
plan to stay the course. “No more
project cemeteries,” says Louis
Ouédraogo who heads the NGO
catalyzing the Multi Functional
Platform action in the centre-west
of the country.
The Government of Burkina Faso and several others in West Africa intend
to scale up the Platform approach in partnership with their main donor the
United Nations Development Programme. Presently a regional project is
carrying the idea across Africa, for which UNDP‟s Regional Bureau for Africa
just mobilized 19 million dollars from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
From village to village around Burkina the bright eyes and deep laughter of
the women vividly personify the benefits of investing in women and girls.
We too are placing our bets on success.
Brenda Gael McSweeney began a decades-long international development career in
Ouagadougou. She is Visiting Faculty at Boston University’s Women’s Studies Program,
and at Brandeis University is Resident Scholar of the Women’s Studies Research Center
and teaches at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management. Scholastique
Kompaoré was National Coordinator of the Burkina Faso (then Upper Volta) pilot project
for Equal Access of Women and Girls to Education. She is the President of the Burkina
arm of the World March of Women.