Francoise Chevalier, a long-time IBM France employee, always wanted to volunteer, but when her children were young and she was working full-time, it was difficult to find enough free time to give to others. “As soon as my children left home to build their own lives,” explained Francoise, “it became obvious I had plenty of energy and love to share with people who needed help.”
When her husband became the mayor of their city in 2001, she traveled with him to a village in Burkina Faso, a country in west Africa intertwined with her own home town in France. During this trip she was overwhelmed with emotion to discover people so poor and made herself a promise to give a little time every day to people who needed so much. On that first trip, she met a group of women who made necklaces with recycled plastic and they asked her to help them sell the necklaces. That was something she could definitely help with. She worked with professional jewelers to learn how to teach the women new jewelry making techniques when she travels to the village in Africa. She goes at least once ever year to work with the women to help them become more and more autonomous. Since 2004, she’s been back to Burkina Faso 13 times.
In 2009, she helped the African women create their own association, Zemes Taaba (which means “together”), to formalize their activity in Burkina Faso – a big step for them. They sell their products in hotels and craft centers in the country’s capital city of Ouagadougou.
Two years later, Francoise created an association in France called Couleur Baobab – to officially support the work of the African women. It provides about $2,000 a year for the village. The women are now able to provide credit to other women to allow them to buy seeds, and the women pay back the loan once the crop is complete. The sale of the jewelry made of recycled products helps the environment and the creative project allows 10 families in the village to have a better life. The women can send their children to school, have money for healthcare and purchase rice when the crop is poor like this year, due to lack of rain.
Francoise now has a new project in mind – to create an e-commerce web site for the African women to sell their creations outside their own country. “I will need education to create this site with the women,” she explained, “but I’ve explored the Website Startup and Website Visioning activity kits created by IBM and they are going to be helpful to us as we start the e-commerce implementation.”
The coaching and teaming with others is very interesting and rewarding for Francoise. “Our activities will be successful when all the women are completely autonomous,” said Francoise, “and they are well on the way.” In 2011, for the first time, the women in Africa earned as much in France as they did in their own country of Burkina Faso.