Bull Session with the Mamas of Mkombozi

by Janna Marlies Maron on March 25, 2014

Editor’s note: this is a guest post by Cinde Dolphin. 

Bringing the Bull Session from ThinkHouse Collective in Sacramento to the base of Kilimanjaro in Africa isn’t as crazy as it sounds.

I started thinking about using the Bull Session model for business discussions as soon as I signed up for a volunteer assignment. This roundtable brainstorming and idea-sharing format had already generated so many good ideas and helpful suggestions for me over the last few years. It made sense that something similar might be useful to Mkombozi, a women’s micro-loan cooperative located just outside Moshi, Tanzania.

These women are all rural farmers. They make and receive loans through a cooperative formed about five years ago. Without the assistance of a commercial bank, the all-female membership lends small amounts of money to each other, with very low interest rates. What started as an organization of 10 is now 26 members strong. Their resulting success has been a source of confidence and empowerment, and in order to sustain growth, they wanted to learn new business principles and increase their English language skills.

For two months my job as a volunteer with Cross Cultural Solutions was to create an opportunity for these women, “mamas” as we call them, to come together and discuss issues related to economic and social development among themselves and their families. The hope was that this group would support and empower more women and, ultimately, fight poverty in the area. Although in many ways I felt inadequate to help these women (I’m not a farmer!), my experience with ThinkHouse and the Bull Session allowed me to share a model that had generated countless solutions to everyday business questions within Sacramento’s creative community. It seemed natural to me that the same concept could be applied to a group of entrepreneurial farmers in Tanzania.

I tried it, and it worked.

Mkombozi 2

During one session, a woman expressed concern about the price of cow feed. Yet another lamented that her supplier was not willing to sell feed in small quantities. This small discovery allowed the mamas to collaborate and purchase feed in bulk–lowering costs for the entire group.

Being around a table with people from different business and life perspectives is constructive, even in a rural farming environment. The mamas I worked with were surprised at how many of their neighbors were applying different farm practices. When they shared individual preferences for planting spinach gardens, it resulted in finding the best-possible schedule for the highest garden yields. They shared good and not-so-good experiences and it opened doors to new ways of doing things. Some farming practices were generations old, and had never been questioned. Holding a Bull Session was the perfect way to help the women and their families update to more effective and productive ways of conducting business.

Cinde Dolphin is an independent marking consultant and frequent attendee at ThinkHouse’s weekly Bull Session. Read more about her adventures in Africa on her blog

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