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Tsigie Haile – Leading the way for women’s economic empowerment in Ethiopia

May 5, 2015

Tsigie speaks with her staff at the offices of Women in Self Employment (WISE) in Ethiopia

Tsigie Haile has devoted her life to helping poor women and girls in Ethiopia. As founder and executive director of Women in Self Employment (WISE), Ms. Haile works closely with Coady Institute. WISE is our Ethiopian partner (along with Ghana and Zambia) in the five-year ‘Women’s Leadership for Economic Empowerment and Food Security’ project, funded by the Government of Canada.
Her influence has not gone unnoticed. She was recently nominated for the U.S. Secretary of State’s International Women of Courage award. In 2012, she received the Excellence Award from the Association of Women in Business in Ethiopia.
Ms. Haile is in Antigonish taking the Certificate in Building Assets and Agency for Citizen-Led Development. She sat down for a conversation with Richard Perry.
Why don’t we start with taking us back to the early days of WISE – the Organization for Women in Self Employment.

It was in 1996 that this idea of setting up an organization to assist women in need came to my mind. That year I was working as the human resource development manager of ActionAidEthiopia, and I had the privilege of going to India to learn from the experiences of the Self Employed Women’s Association. At that time my supervisor was an Indian and had a very good knowledge of SEWA, so that opportunity was given to me.
Before I went, I shared my idea of working with poor women in the informal sector, so he suggested that I go there. I gathered some useful ideas, and on coming back I applied to the government to set up a local non-governmental organization to work with women. It took quite some time to get legalized, because until that was done we could not operate in Ethiopia.
I got the licence at the end of August 1997. Then immediately, with ActionAid providing needed funds at the initial stage, I rented a small house and employed some staff members. We were seven in total, including the guards. Then we prepared what was necessary to get started. So we took off in January of 1998.
Your website says your capacity building has reached more than 23,000 women and girls throughout the country?

It’s about 30,000 at this time. We started in 1998 with 471 women and girls in three districts. Now we operate in 56 districts and have reached over 30,000.
Do you ever sit back and go ‘Wow…look what’s happened here?’
Yeah, but I don’t say ‘wow’ because of the magnitude of the services that are needed by the women and their poverty level. I think we should work much more than that. Then when I see the organization, that inspired me, SEWA, they have over a million members.
Can you talk about the kind of training that you offer women?
We started in 1998 with a course on basic business skills and leadership skills - training for the elected women of the savings and credit cooperatives. We use savings and credit cooperatives as a form of organizing the women. But now, we’re building upon what the women and girls need to transform their lives in order to achieve holistic change. So we have included other subjects. Now we have four categories of training.
One is the business, or entrepreneurship skills. That has a number of courses; the first one is called Basic Business Skills. Women, after they take this, can be eligible for a loan from their cooperative. The second one is called Enterprise Management I and II, so we have three levels of business skills training. And then we also provide the women with short training on creative thinking, and also vocational training in certain areas like basic computers, sewing, baking, and housekeeping, etc.
The second one is health education. We realized, after operating for about two years, that health was a very important issue, because when the women fall sick they don’t have an income. So we started health education by providing training in basic health, sanitation, food nutrition, HIV/AIDS, and reproductive health. We also have first aid training.
The third area is leadership and management. Our courses include training in leadership skills for women, especially for those that are elected, and savings and credit management training for the group leaders. And we also include cooperative law, because we have cooperatives in the proclamation and the elected leaders should know about it.
And the fourth area is called self-development and it has two courses. One is life skills, and that training provides the women with the knowledge and skills in building self-confidence. And training in how to access information important for their lives, like legal information, health information, business information, etc.
The other courses are what we call home and results-based literacy and numeracy. We have a quarter of our target members who are not literate, who do not read and write. So we provide access to literacy programs. It has evolved into a home-based program. So student children who are at home or go to school are situated to train their mothers, their illiterate mothers. And if the mothers pass the tests that the organization administers, the children get paid. So there is good incentive for both. Those who do not have children can use neighbours.
For a couple of years now you’ve been involved with Coady Institute through the Empower project. Some of the training you have now is folded into that relationship, right?
Right. Especially the basic business skills and life skills training have been incorporated into the project. Actually the Empower program is not something that is separate from what we do. It is integrated in what we do. And that is why we find it a very suitable fit for our broader program.
And it matches the philosophy we have here about using our own assets for our own personal development and community development.

Tsigie taking the ABCD certificate in Antigonish

Right. We have done a lot of customizing, adaptation of some of the tools that Coady uses, like the asset-based development approach. In fact we have clearly indicated in our five-year strategic plan that we would be using the asset-based approach. We used to implement it, but we never called it that. Because women at first have to save before they are able to get the loans, so they get the assets first and then they access the loans.
But now we have made it clear that we are using the ABCD, and we have adopted the tools, such as the ‘leaky bucket’, in order to analyze the household incomes and expenditures. That’s very exciting for the women because they can see how they can improve the inflows and reduce the unnecessary outflows.
And the other thing is that they see they have a ‘full glass’ of water and it shows they have a lot of assets that they never thought of so they feel confident from the beginning. They say ‘I am not without anything. I have something’. You know, the universal economics does not include the values of the work that women do at home. This tool helps us to value these things. ‘I am good at cooking’, for example.
It can be quite an eye-opener when people go through the process for the first time.
Yes, ‘I am good at taking care of the sick’ or ‘I am good at bringing up children’ and so on. So they build upon this. First of all, that gives them confidence.
Our own Vicky Schreiber, when she was over in Ethiopia, was collecting stories from people who have gone through your programs. I have a wonderful testimonial I’d like to read for you. It’s from someone who works for the Melhek for Children and Elders Development Association. Here’s the quote: “Since the courses at WISE and with Coady, we stopped outside purchases and used savings to buy dairy cows and calves to begin our own production. Now we can supply milk and dairy products to our own schools and are selling surplus to a milk company.” It must be so fulfilling when you…

Yes, this is actually a partner of WISE who got the opportunity to take the Markets and Livelihoods course at WISE and also before that we trained her staff members in the Training of Trainers course we offered to staff of many partner organizations. Yes, she testifies that the women who have taken the basic business skills course and the life skills course are making tremendous changes in their lives. So that is very gratifying.
So what’s next for WISE as you look forward for the next couple of years?
WISE is building savings and credit cooperatives. That is the model that we use. Currently we have 64 of them in most parts of Addis Ababa. And we have a union, an umbrella or a network of these cooperatives. And we want to build upon this, to build the capacity of the union so that it becomes a centre of excellence for cooperative development, and also a very efficient and effective financial services provider.
And the second one is for WISE itself.  WISE is currently known for our work in women’s economic empowerment in the country. We are striving to become a real center of excellence, so when people come to look for experiences, practices that work well, they come to WISE. And we want to reach that stage, both in country as well as outside.
We currently work in collaboration with other countries in Africa with the support of the International Institute of Education based in the U.S., to build our capacity. So that’s what I see. We believe in education, in training, like Coady. We believe in the communities’ capabilities. So I think we would be a very good centre of knowledge and good practices.
Well it’s been wonderful having you on campus again. I hope you’ve had a warm welcome. I apologize for the snow!

In fact I enjoyed the snow, because we usually wouldn’t have a chance to see it! So we’ve had these two days.
Thank you very much.
Thank you.
For more information on WISE Ethiopia, visit http://www.wise.org.et
Link to Government of Canada funding announcement media release: http://www.stfx.ca/news/view/6606/
Link to Ottawa Citizen article ‘Three African women – One vision: http://ottawacitizen.com/opinion/three-african-women-one-vision