Young women are breaking barriers with YouLead

Jacinta Dickson runs one of the only women-owned cassava processing facilities in Cross River State, Nigeria. Her leadership is empowering others in her community, showing them they don’t need to rely on traditional gender roles.

“I grind, press and fry cassava in my factory. Other women can do the same if they put their mind to it,” she says.

Cassava is widely cultivated by young women and men in most communities, but the processing of the root vegetable is a male-dominated trade. Women tend to shy away from cassava processing due to a lack of experience in operating the equipment.  Jacinta was determined to shatter that barrier.

Her journey started while participating in Cuso International’s YouLead (Youth Leadership, Entrepreneurship, Access and Development) program. An instructor asked her to look around her community, identify a problem and find a money-making business solution.

She realized that most people were processing their cassava in small pans—a time-consuming method. With her new mindset, skills and training, and support from her family to rent land, she was able to raise enough money for the necessary equipment and open her business.

Cultural expectations to stay at home and tend to their families often prevent women from participating in business operations. But many young women are now stepping forward to combat these gender expectations.

Emilia Okon, Cuso’s YouLead Gender Equality Officer, has been advocating for gender equality since participating in a leadership program at 14 years old.

“We talked about women’s empowerment, what barriers we were facing as young girls, and of course, how we could overcome them and be persistent and go beyond what society was offering us,” says the now 36-year-old. “That opened my eyes to all the possibilities that a young girl could be.”

With Cuso, Emilia ensures a gender perspective is integrated throughout the YouLead program. This includes finding ways to work around challenges that affect women and other marginalized groups.

“We have quite a number of women who can’t read and write. We came up with a strategy to ensure the applications are simple enough for them to access or we walk them through the application. We come up with different approaches just to ensure that no woman is excluded,” she says.

Jacinta Dickson with one of her employees.

As Jacinta’s business grows, her success is having a ripple effect on her community. She has hired other young people to work with her, and the reduced processing times means she can sell more cassava and earn more income. She’s also taken steps to ensure her processing factory is environmentally friendly. 

Participating in YouLead started Jacinta on her path to success and she encourages other young women to not limit themselves based on their gender. 

“I am grateful to Cuso International for leading me in the right direction,” she says. “I gained self-confidence during the training and it pushed me to start the biggest cassava plant in my community. I advise women not to be limited by cultural expectations of what a woman can or cannot do.  

You can help more women like Jacinta take their first steps to success by making a donation in her nameIn the face of the global COVID-19 pandemic, Cuso’s work is needed more than ever.