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A Social Enterprise

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Fabrics and linens at Prytania store help young women in Ghana

Photo: Broderick Webb

E. Aminata Brown was a corporate consultant. While living in Ghana, Brown realized her expertise in human capital development, or “enabling people to do their jobs better” as she says, could help lift struggling women out of poverty. She created BaBa Blankets, which imports and sells linens and fabrics created by a workshop of women in Ghana. In 2008 Brown moved back to the United States and settled in New Orleans.

“I was looking for a city,” Brown says, “that had elements of the lifestyle that I enjoyed living in Ghana.” She now operates her social enterprise from the BaBa Blankets and Crafts store in the Lower Garden District.

How did you end up living in Ghana?

I started traveling to West Africa when I was 19. It was a place that called to me. After I graduated from undergrad, I started consulting. Eventually I moved to Ghana and was doing freelance consulting work with small businesses. After doing that for a year, I yearned for something that was more hands on, more grassroots, more community development.

Who are the kaya ye?

It means carry girl, or porter girl. These are young girls and women who come from the rural, northern region, usually because they can’t afford to continue secondary school. In Ghana, secondary school is where the major fees kick in. They end up living in the Agbogbloshie market in Accra. At the time that I started BaBa Blankets 10 years ago, they were sleeping under open pavilions.

What are the long-term prospects for these girls?

They get caught. It feels like fast money for them. They’re getting paid through tips. They’re getting cash in their hands, but at the same time they’re getting charged for everything. There is a whole racket that’s set up around them. They’ve got to pay to use the bathroom, for every sip of water they take, for where they sleep at night. They’re also not developing any skills and they’re using their bodies in a damaging way.

How did you meet the kaya ye?

I was completely vegetarian at that time, and someone told me that at the Agbogbloshie market I could find vegetables cheaper. I went down there and had an encounter with this little girl who was working as a kaya yo. She really moved me. In the process of trying to help her, I discovered the rest of the community. She was just one among tens of thousands of girls in this market.

How did you come up with the idea of selling blankets created by these women?

I wanted to do something for them, but I didn’t know what. So I asked them, “If you could change one thing about your life, what would it be?” And every single girl and woman said she would learn to sew. I wasn’t expecting such a practical, humble dream. In Ghana, there is no such thing as on-the-job training. Usually you work for a couple of years for free as an apprentice or you pay for formal training. The idea of offering an enterprise that both provides free training and pays from day one was really new in that community.

How hands on is your role in BaBa Blankets’ workshop in Ghana?

I go over there twice a year for a month at a time. I work with the women on designs. I come with the eye for Western taste and palette. And they come with an understanding of what can be produced there and the current styles and techniques. We’re in constant communication over the Internet. It’s a close relationship.

What prompted you to also start a charity that funds secondary education for girls in Ghana?

I realized that the income generating component at that stage of their lives was not enough. You can really never make up for the fact of these women missed out on their education. So in 2007 I put together an educational program that we call our SISTA Scholar Program, for Stay-In-School Tuition Assistance.

Why not just create a charity to raise money for the kaya ye?

I considered it, but what inspired me was the tremendous entrepreneurial spirit of these women. I couldn’t imagine sitting down and telling a sad story, when the women had such a triumphant story to tell. There is a place for charity. Definitely where education is concerned it makes sense to me.

What’s on the horizon for BaBa Blankets?

We want to continue to grow our SISTA Scholar Program, because we see how critical it is. It seems like this unbreakable cycle of poverty exists in the northern region, but an education completely interrupts that and puts these women on a new track.

For information about BaBa Blankets, visit www.babablanket.com or stop by the store at 1330 Prytania St.

-Todd A. Price