Saturday, 2 February 2013

A Bit About My Research...

Greetings from Mwanza! 

I figured it was only appropriate that I spend at least one blog post bringing everyone up to speed on the awesome organizations that I am working with in Canada and Tanzania, and just what exactly my PhD research is all about! I will try my best not to bore anyone and to keep the jargon to a minimum...

My doctoral research examines, with the aim of enhancing, the gender impact of microfinance development programs in Mwanza, Tanzania. Many different models exist under the umbrella of “microfinance”, the most prominent being microcredit, microinsurance and microenterprise programming. Microcredit generally involves loaning poor individuals or groups of individuals small amounts of money or capital. Microinsurance is a financial arrangement to protect low-income people against specific perils in exchange for regular premium payments proportionate to the likelihood and cost of the risk involved. Microenterprise refers to the provision of loans, technical assistance and training to help poor individuals start or strengthen small business ventures. The African Probiotic Yogurt Network (APYN)- the organization I am working with in Mwanza- facilitates a community health microenterprise program throughout East Africa in Tanzania, Kenya and Rwanda. Its mission is, “to improve community health, especially for people living with HIV/AIDS (PLWA), while at the same time reducing poverty and advancing development through the economic empowerment of women and youth” ( To accomplish this, the APYN supports the establishment of community kitchens run by local women and youth (referred to hereafter as “kitchen members”) who produce immune-boosting probiotic yogurt and distribute it for free to registered PLWA in their community, as well as sell to the public to generate an income.

Numerous studies examining the health impact of the probiotic yogurt and the marketing of the yogurt as a consumer product in East Africa have each been conducted since 2008 and garnered significantly positive results. I have spent an extensive amount of time over the past year reviewing existing records and research on the APYN, speaking to the organization’s Executive Director and international partners about the program, and even visiting three of the probiotic kitchens during a brief trip to Tanzania in November. In keeping with its documented achievements as a community health program, from the outside the APYN also appears to have yielded remarkably positive impacts on community gender relations and women participants’ social and economic status. However, as of yet no study has been conducted to analyze the gender impacts of the program at the individual, household or community level. For the APYN- an organization whose mission statement explicitly includes “the economic empowerment of women”- the absence of research on this topic is marked, and provides a valuable entry point for examining the relationship between microfinance, women’s empowerment and poverty reduction. If, upon closer analysis, the APYN is in fact found to have positively impacted the social and economic status of women in its host communities, I want to know why, and if this model can be applied in a sustainable way to develop and improve other microfinance programs in Mwanza. In other words, the data generated from this case study will be used to ground my analysis of the types of conditions required in order to deliver effective microfinance programming in this region.

I am spending the next four months in Mwanza in order to research the gender impact that the APYN has had in its host communities. I am focusing specifically on the experiences and perceptions of the kitchen members, APYN staff, partners and local leaders regarding the impact that the program has had for the women involved in it, as well as their families and communities. My primary means of investigation will be to conduct interviews with kitchen members regarding the impact of the program in their lives and in their communities more broadly. The information provided from these interviews will be further supplemented with data collected through participant observation in the community; a written questionnaire filled out by all 59 kitchen members over the age of 18; and interviews with APYN staff, partners and local leaders.

Western Heads East (WHE) is the partner organization of the APYN housed at my university in London that facilitated my internship ( WHE also generously helped to fund my research by provided me with a CIDA Students For Development Grant. Officially, I will be working as a graduate student intern for WHE, tasked with administering a questionnaire on the challenges and achievements of the APYN’s kitchens in Mwanza and supporting APYN staff administratively. This internship assignment was developed in coordination with WHE’s Project Director, Bob Gough, and is intentionally geared towards serving both the needs of the APYN and feeding into the achievement of my own research goals. To the benefit of WHE and the APYN, the findings of my internship assignment will be used to improve the program where possible, to garner ideological and financial support for the project from international donors and the Tanzanian government, and to develop a series of best practices and lessons learned to be utilized in the development and improvement of APYN kitchens. As it pertains to my own dissertation research, knowledge of the various challenges and achievements of each probiotic yogurt kitchen will be useful for comprehending the social and political landscape of Mwanzan society, which make-up the APYN program environment. This will be important information to have when theorizing about the results of the program, and its potential for replication elsewhere.

As a feminist researcher working to affect direct and positive social change in the lives of women and other marginalized groups, my dual role as a graduate student researcher and an intern for WHE is both important and complex. On the one hand, conducting research on behalf of the APYN will allow me to give something tangible back to this organization, which has so generously offered up space and time to allow me to work with them, and whose mandate I strongly believe in. On the other hand, I am also aware that this dual role has the potential to create moments of tension, ethical dilemmas and unequal power dynamics that I will need to remain cognizant of throughout the process of designing, conducting and analyzing my research. For instance, my status as an intern for WHE, which is currently the APYN’s largest funding body, might make it difficult to garner honest answers from respondents who may fear being “cut off” from the project for expressing criticisms. Conversely, I have my own anxiety about presenting any negative findings or constructive criticism to the APYN and its partners, especially since WHE has provided me with this fully funded internship. And it doesn’t help that I have oodles of admiration and respect for everyone that I am working with! While foresight and a critical awareness of these issues will not alone resolve them, it will urge me to be constantly reflexive about my interactions with different individuals involved in the APYN program.

While a vast amount of research has been conducted in the South Asian context, microfinance research and impact assessment has been quite limited in the East African context, including Tanzania. Despite the growing number of microfinance programs being facilitated in Tanzania since the mid-1990s, evidence of the impact of women’s participation in such programs is sparse, and very few studies have compared different program strategies in any detail.

Aside from just this general lack of research, there are important reasons to evaluate the impact microfinance for women in the country. To begin, women in Tanzania are denied economic opportunities such as credit due to deep-rooted cultural barriers and existing social norms. For instance, many women lack collateral because customary law often overrides statutory law and leaves them without property ownership. And financial capital is not the only missing factor. Tanzanian women also lack time due to their extensive and strenuous household obligations. And they further lack decision-making power as how to spend their time and any income they generate independently. Rural women in particular lack access to loans and employment, due to the concentration of jobs and financial institutions- including microfinance organizations- in urban centers, and due to strict conditions for loan applicability. There is a special need therefore, to study the accessibility and impact of microfinance for Tanzanian women living in both urban and rural areas. The hope is that at the end of my study, I will be able to analyze the gender impact the APYN for kitchen members living in both such regions, as the program rather uniquely has operations in each. The study will also reveal the challenges and constraints that they encounter in implementing the yogurt program. Such findings will help to inform the work of local organizations processing similar objectives, and hopefully be used by other researchers as both an indication of the baseline reality in the city, and to make comparisons with other districts in Tanzania.

In addition to the need to for further research, one of the most consistent trends identified in the relatively limited literature on microfinance in Tanzania is the importance of a multi-dimensional approach to poverty alleviation, which was not well served by the previously dominant development model, structural adjustment. Calls have been made for a synergy across social and economic development sectors, and these are beginning to permeate policy-level discussions about the potential impact of synergistic models that aim to build human and financial capital concurrently. These models operate at the individual, household, and community levels, where financial, nongovernmental and sometimes state-institutions are involved. They utilize a combination strategy that does not wait to address one adverse condition at a time, but instead seeks to address the interrelated dimensions of poverty through an integrated and collaborative framework. The APYN represents such a model, as it seeks to improve community health and nutrition through the economic empowerment of women. Certainly, no income generating development program will ever on its own be enough to alleviate poverty or empower women in East Africa, Tanzania, or anywhere for that matter, as both are incredibly complex and systemic issues. Yet I believe that the APYN’s innovative, multi-dimensional approach to development may constitute a compelling strategy in the Tanzanian context. 

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