The textile industry has long been an important employer in Mauritius. It is hard work, with many women combining domestic responsibilities with long days in the factories just to feed their families. So when factories began to close in the 1990s, many found themselves struggling to survive.
“Life became very hard,” Anooradah Poorun, a former textile worker says. “Children could not go to school. Women suffered domestic violence: some were forced into prostitution.”
In an effort to ensure the struggles of Mauritian families wouldn’t rob a new generation of education, Anooradah founded the Association Pour l’Education des Enfants Defavorises, a free pre-primary school in Chemin Grenier in the country’s south, in 1997.
But while the school was able to offer an education to its students, poverty remained a grim reality for their families. “Our childrens' mothers were still jobless, staying at home, suffering from domestic violence and having babies almost every year,” Anooradah says. “So in 2006, after meeting with 20 mothers, we decided to use their traditional knowledge about conservation and cultivating medicinal plants to conserve biodiversity and improve their livelihoods."
With support from the Global Environment Facility's Small Grants Programme (implmented by the United Nations Development Programme), which also helped the women to gain co-financing from the British High Commission, the women launched an entirely new enterprise – Secret Grand-Mère (Grandma’s Secret), the first copyrighted Mauritian brand of local medicinal and herbal teas.
Focusing on building on the unrecognised expertise many women already had, the group worked to revive knowledge of medicinal plants in their community. They set up a small nursery on the school's roof and women received training in plant cultivation and managing the nursery, alongside picking and dehydration techniques, packaging and marketing.
“Mothers would come in the early morning to water the plants, and after school hours to dehydrate the leaves and pack teas,” Anooradah says.
With their first dehydrator in the school’s small kitchen, soon the group was selling their tea at fairs and by word of mouth. Orders swiftly increased, and in 2011 the women got their first international contract, exporting to a company in China. But growth brought its own challenges.
“Orders increased but our production unit consumed a lot of electricity,” Anooradah says. “So, in 2015, we moved the rooftop nursery, built a proper unit on the first floor and approached the Small Grants Programme a second time to support us to install solar panels.”
With 72 square meters of solar photovoltaic panels in place, producing 14,360 kilowatt hours of electricity per year (the equivalent of 50 trees saved), the women were not only able to slash their costs – but to make a profit.
“We save on bills and sell around $450 of electricity to the grid every month, which helps provide food to vulnerable children at our centre,” Anooradah says. As demand grew, the women set up a “Buy Back Leaves” system, cooperating with an additional 45 women from all around Mauritius, who buy the company’s seedlings, cultivate them, and then sell them back to Secret Grand-Mère for processing. They have also helped to restore respect for the powers of the island’s traditional medicine, with more than 5,000 families now keeping medicinal plant corners of at least one square metre in their gardens.
From a route out of poverty for a small group of women, with the dedication of its members and the support of the Small Grants Programme, Secret Grand-Mère has become much, much more.
“Our mothers are respected by their husbands and the greater community and contribute to local economic development,” Anooradah says. “Their self-confidence and quality of life has improved significantly: they have even learned how to give interviews to the media.”
“Twelve of our members were victims of domestic violence and eight were always looking for government subsistence allowances, but through the capacity building and gender violence support included in the project, they understood their rights. They now have more respect in their families, can voice their concerns and share financial responsibilities. They do not need the government allowance and can stand on their own feet.”
Secret Grand-Mère won the Enterprise Mauritius Emerging Exporters Gold Award in 2013. Anooradah Poorun has received the Green Africa Award in the category of African Women for Change (2013), as well as the Pride of India Leadership Award (2011) from the Government of India for her leadership role in social work.
This article originally appeared in "The Global Environment Facility: Delivering solutions for a sustainable future," the September 2017 issue of UN Environment's "Our Planet" magazine. The magazine was launched at the GEF-7 2nd replenishment meeting in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.