Jesca sits proudly in her restaurant, a tiny little brick building at a crossroads outside her village in Uganda. She serves up her speciality, millet porridge with tamarind – hot, fruity and spicy. “It’s my mother’s recipe! The secret is not to add too much tamarind or it will get sour,” she says.
Jesca never went to school, and she got married when she was 20. From that day on she depended on her husband for everything.
If I wanted to buy even a bar of soap, all I could do was ask my husband.
If he said there wasn’t enough money, there was nothing I could do. I just had to keep quiet,” she says. Jesca’s usually happy face falls when she says this – as a dynamic woman, the helplessness she felt at never having her own money is clear.
So when Jesca heard about an ActionAid adult education group from a friend, she was instantly keen. “I thought, well, even If I only get an extra 1000 shillings (about $0.50) from this thing, it would be money of my own,” she says.
But through her own hard work and tenacity, Jesca ended up making a lot more than 1000 shillings. She was nominated by the group to receive a bag of groundnut seeds on loan, which she planted to get three more bags of groundnuts. And it soon turned out that Jesca had the soul of a true businesswoman.
She gave the seeds she owed back, kept one for re-planting, and then shelled the rest and set up a market stall down by the ferry crossing selling friend groundnuts and groundnut paste. It was a triumph, and all her groundnuts sold out in two months, giving her an incredible 300,000 shillings (about 125 dollars). “I just stared at all that money – more than I’d ever had in my hand in my life, and mine alone!” she says.
“I slapped 200,000 shillings into my husband’s hand and told him to go and pay the children’s school fees!” she says, throwing back her head and laughing in pure delight at the memory.
I felt so powerful!
she adds, miming ‘strongman’ arms, her happiness infectious.
But Jesca’s story doesn’t end there. Her next venture was to rise at 4am every morning and walk back to the river crossing, this time to cook and sell chapattis (flatbreads) using pots, flour and oil she’d bought with some of her groundnut earnings.
“People on the road laughed at me. They asked me, ‘Why aren’t you at home tending to your husband and your kids and planting your garden?’ But I didn’t care, I just ignored them,” she says, her face stubborn.
Small business owner
After eight months of selling chapattis, Jesca had 300,000 more shillings stuffed in a suitcase at home. Her next idea was the restaurant. “I made the bricks myself, with my children. I spent the rest of the chapatti money on labourers, cement and roofing materials. And when it was done, I just sat there and stared at it. I couldn’t believe it was mine!”
In less than a year from joining the ActionAid adult education group, Jesca went from literally never having had a shilling of her own, to looking at her own, bricks-and-mortar business, which she had started from nothing more than a borrowed bag of groundnut seeds.
But of course, the key to her success wasn’t only the groundnut seeds, or even just her own hard work and determination. The key was the moral support she gained from the other women in the group, and the belief that she was entitled to have an income of her own.
Jesca’s husband, a softly spoken man who works as a schoolteacher, adds, “I couldn’t believe she did all this. I think her next move should even be to become a politician!” His admiration is clear as he toasts his wife with one of the soft drinks she sells in the restaurant. In fact, Jesca’s plans are more modest. “I’m going to expand the restaurant to make it bigger, and any woman who wants to do something like this can come and borrow money from me!” she says, pride all over her beaming face.