By Greg Warner
Snails, rabbits, bees, goats, beets, jewelry, hats, sandals.
Those are not items for sale at a flea market or exotic bazaar. They are the tools of the trade for Andy and Jutta Cowie, Cooperative Baptist Fellowship field personnel serving in Haiti.
The Cowies are in the business of building self-esteem and changing lives by helping Haitian women and men start micro-businesses to escape the country’s crushing poverty.
As a car mechanic and mechanics teacher, Andy Cowie is used to working with a totally different set of tools, as is his wife, Jutta (pronounced YOO-ta), a nurse and nursing teacher. But together they are devoting their skills to economic development in the Western hemisphere’s poorest and least developed nation.
Four years after a 7.0 earthquake hit Haiti in January 2010, leaving 300,000 people dead and 1.6 million homeless, the Caribbean nation’s 10 million residents
are still reeling. Recovery and rebuilding has been slowed by the legacy of poverty and its crippling effect on self-esteem and personal independence.
Into that gap, the Cowies are trying to infuse the confidence that comes from a self-sufficient small business. And that’s where the menagerie of critters, crafts and crops comes in. All of those items and
more have been attempted as micro-businesses by the women and men in the 57 Self-Help Groups (SHG) overseen by the Cowies and sponsored by CBF.
Pioneered in India and Africa, the SHG concept is to empower people in the world’s poorest communities to save money and loan it to each other in order to begin small businesses that elevate their families out of poverty.
With more than 100,000 Self-Help Groups on three continents, the program has proven most successful when it starts with women and in the poorest communities. Empowering women helps the whole family, especially the children, SHG advocates say.
After centuries of poverty, the people of Haiti tend to feel dependent, disempowered and distrustful, especially when money is involved, said Jutta. “People just live for today.”
Among the world’s poor, saving is almost unheard of. But SHG participants are required to set aside money each week, however small the amount. Financial development leads to social development, the Cowies said. “It’s all about self-esteem,” explained Jutta, a veteran mission worker from Germany. Participants learn to trust and work with each other, discover their personal strengths and find a self-confidence most never knew they could attain, she said.
Each Self-Help Group is autonomous, Jutta noted. Participants “make up their own rules, set their meetings. We want to give them a voice, help them see their own resources.”
In the SHG model, a group is formed when there are about 20 interested women in a village or community. Each group is led by a facilitator, who relates to about eight other facilitators in a “cluster.” Each facilitator in a cluster has been cultivated by a trainer. It’s Jutta’s job to recruit and train the trainers, whom she describes as “stakeholders in the communities.” The Cowies work with about eight trainers now, yet they still visit the individual groups regularly.
The program in Haiti was launched in July 2011. When the Cowies assumed leadership in April 2013, there were 37 Self-Help Groups. All 57 groups there now follow the SHG model of microenterprise, adapted from the experience of others in Ethiopia, except in Haiti there are also men’s groups.
Although the Self-Help Group program is “Christian-based,” begun by Christian charities and each group meeting in Haiti begins with prayer and a song, the program itself is not “overtly Christian,” Andy pointed out.
“They take on everyone,” he said. “The first priority is to get people out of poverty. We’re not evangelists. We’re showing Christ through our actions. If people come to Christ because they see how a Christian behaves, that’s great.”
Jutta said she is encouraged by the growth of the small groups in Haiti but, like many things in the country, the pace of progress seems to be “two steps ahead and one step back.” Volunteers who visit the Caribbean nation are also overwhelmed by the magnitude of the needs.
“The problems are complex and have repeated in varying ways for generations,” said Matt Tennant, pastor of Kilmarnock (Va.) Baptist Church, who went to Haiti in February with two others from his church to work with the Cowies. The team built cubbyhole cabinets for the 28 children of the Source of Light Center orphanage.
“Addressing the problems in a country like Haiti can feel very much like spitting in the ocean,” Tennant lamented. “It just doesn’t change anything. … One could easily have a sense of hopelessness and get overwhelmed trying to address all the problems.
“As we drove around [Port-au-Prince], I found myself constantly dwelling on the devastation and poor conditions. It takes a strong people to endure what they have. Very few people could experience tragedy on the scale of Haiti and yet persevere.”
Tennant said the Cowies’ Self-Help Groups are the most significant thing the couple is doing in Haiti. “It gives the participants the potential to transcend poverty and create a better life. It is real Kingdom work.”
Ric Wyatt and Tim Owen, both members of First Baptist Church of Woodbridge, Va., spent a week in 2012 replacing the
cinder-block home that a Haitian woman lost in the earthquake. While the elderly woman was “overwhelmingly grateful” for the new home — to the point of helping carry building materials to the site — the Cowies’ life-changing strategies will make an even bigger difference, Wyatt said. “I think it is fabulous and it will prove to be what it takes to have an enduring impact.”
“Groups can continuously send food or clothes or build houses,” Wyatt said, “but it is not until the people of Haiti are able to help themselves that they will really recover. … They need the training, ideas and business resources to tap into their entrepreneurial spirit. Andy and Jutta are helping them with that.”
Such a mindset change is crucial to the Cowies’ success, Owen agreed. “As I see it, their work is really hard. It doesn’t give immediate opportunity for the gospel. And it’s even difficult to grasp where…they introduce the idea of ‘abundant life.’”
At the same time, Wyatt said he was “moved by the spirit of a people so devastated by disaster. There is, even in such a poor place, still a lot of joy. … They are confronted by such poverty on a daily basis, yet they worship with an enthusiasm I have seldom seen.”
For a chance to make a long-term investment in a mission setting, Andy and Jutta Cowie became Baptist workers — first in 2010 for the United Kingdom-based BMS World Mission (formerly Baptist Missionary Society) and then in 2012 with CBF for a long-term development post in Haiti.
Previously each of them had more than a decade of experience — Jutta in China, Jamaica and Honduras; Andy in Romania and Hungary; and together in Ghana, Guinea, Liberia and France.
“We had asked to go to Haiti in February 2010, right after the earthquake,” Jutta recalled. Instead, BMS World Mission sent them to Guinea, but the project there failed to materialize.
Meanwhile, BMS had channeled some of its earthquake relief funds for Haiti through CBF, Andy said. But the missions organization wanted to make the partnership with CBF more personal by jointly sending field personnel.
“We had already done French [language] training for Guinea,” Andy recalled. “So BMS asked if we wanted to go to Haiti.”
When the Cowies first arrived in Haiti, they lived for four months at the Source of Light Center while they looked for permanent housing. The orphanage is sponsored by the Haiti Baptist Convention, Hungarian Baptist Aid, Baptist World Alliance and the Baptist General Association of Virginia.
Although it’s not part of their assigned duties, the couple remains close to the children, hosting small groups at their apartment or taking all of them to the beach. “It’s difficult not to get involved when there are 28 children running around looking for attention,” Andy explained.
Using a facility at the orphanage, Andy recently set up a vocational program to train auto mechanics. It’s a logical idea — old, broken-down cars are a constant eyesore on Haitian streets, giving mechanics job security. But when the Cowies recently returned from a training trip to Ethiopia, the 20 student mechanics had all lost interest and vanished.
Andy hopes to revive the program, but such experiences try one’s patience. “Two steps forward, one step back.”
An animal-husbandry project last summer was more successful, and Andy wants to repeat it. Working with the nonprofit Food for the Poor and a Haitian church, they distributed 47 goats as investments to Port-au-Prince families. When the goats produce offspring, they are sold and the money either pays school fees for their children or is donated back into the program. In the first year, 20 female goats produced offspring.
Finding just the right product is the key to microenterprise. Making fledgling businesses sustainable is a real challenge. Jutta trains SHG women to make jewelry, but it doesn’t sell well in Haiti. An export market can be found in England and the United States, she said, but “the quality needs to be perfect,” and export logistics can be a drawback.
Instead of profit, the jewelry projects empower the self-help entrepreneurs by building their confidence. Now the women want to try making sandals and hats. Both are ever-present in Haiti, so the prospect for success might improve.
The Cowies point to the story of Eniel Monfacil, from the town of Plaisance, who became a successful businessman through a Self-Help Group. He took a loan, bought a small truck and started collecting metal in Port-au-Prince to sell in Plaisance. He was able to repay his loan, send his children to school and find his missing self-confidence.
In January, Jutta brought on her replacement — a new trainer coordinator for the Haiti SHG program. It’s an essential step because the Cowies’ field assignment in Haiti is planned to end in the summer of 2015. It’s important that the work of rebuilding lives continues.
“Andy and Jutta are incredible people — fun, committed to the Lord, examples of God’s grace in action,” Tennant said. “Their heart is for mission work, for serving people.”