Empowering Women - Hellen's story.
Hellen Saera Hilli (nee Ghemu), a widow with six children and now 16 grandchildren, lives on Vangunu Island at the south end of Marovo Lagoon, the longest World Heritage listed saltwater lagoon in the world, situated in the New Georgia Islands (Western Province), Solomon Islands. In a population of over 177,000 women, Hellen is the first and only woman to own and operate her own DME (Direct Micro Expelling) unit.
Hellen is a born leader and a good organiser. She tells how her father would encourage her from a very young age, telling her she was a special child. He earned 8 shillings a quarter as a Pastor, working extra hours on plantations so he could send Hellen to a ‘white-man's school’.
“Hard life taught me a lot”, she says.
Hellen recalls life being hard, walking miles to school and sometimes having only one meal a day, but she believes the hardship was foundational in making her strong and resolute to never give up on life. “Hard life taught me a lot”, she says.
With no training in business, only a conviction to help her people...
Hellen’s parents returned to the Solomon Islands in 1971 after working as missionaries in PNG, where Hellen was born. Her father, Pulepanda Ghemu, became Minister for Trade, Industry and Labour in 1975 and maintained that position in the first National Parliament in 1978 for 12 years (3 terms). He died at age 87. Hellen’s mother is still alive and is now 82.
With no training in business, but only a strong conviction to help her people, Hellen, a qualified seamstress and curtain-maker, started a sewing school in the capital Honiara 23 years ago - to help young girls who had dropped out of school, and also to teach housewives so they could help support their families. As well as skilling up, the sales from clothes and other items sewn helped these women, and Hellen, to survive - especially after her husband Harold Hilli died. This business is still running today and has been passed on to Hellen’s eldest daughter.
Hellen was convinced she could set up her own DME..
It was time for Hellen to venture into something new that could further help her people, so she returned to her home village on Marovo Lagoon, where there is much need.
In 2016 Hellen had heard about DME and after researching and learning about the technology she was convinced that she could set up her own unit. What motivated her was the belief that she would greatly contribute to helping her people by buying the coconuts from the growers, of whom there are many, because for them producing and selling copra is dirty work that provides very little return.
Hellen did not have, nor has she now, any working capital. But with determination she sought support from the Government.
There were several challenges. The first was how to raise the money to purchase the DME equipment and materials to build the shed and dryer to the exact specifications. Hellen did not have, nor has she now, any working capital. But with determination she sought support from the Government. It took a year to receive assistance and it still was not enough. Undeterred, Hellen pressed on and in 2019 her DME Unit was completed.
Hellen can buy coconuts from 30 registered growers, helping them and their families.
When her oil was tested by Kokonut Pacific Solomon Islands (KPSI) it was found to be of excellent quality and was in demand. But with only a single press it is not feasible to employ more than six people. So much more could be done with two or three presses. However, with one press Hellen can buy coconuts from 30 registered growers, helping them and their families. Most of their plantations had been abandoned for many years because of lack of industry for the coconut. “It is an emotional experience for me knowing I can help my people by buying their coconuts to press into oil because this gives them purpose to now look after their plantations”, Hellen says.
Hellen mentors her women to help build their confidence, and encourages them by telling them they can do whatever they set their minds to.
Thanks to Kokonut Pacific's DME these plantations are now being used and maintained. Hellen recalls a story of one of her DME employees who, because of her employment at the DME Unit, was able to afford the school fees for her children. Hellen is thankful to Kokonut Pacific for inventing a technology that can be operated by both men and women. Due to a few teething problems and the falling price of virgin coconut oil, Hellen is just covering the running costs of the DME Unit, and this makes it difficult to grow and expand, “…but I will find a solution sooner or later,” she says. With all the health benefits and uses of Virgin Coconut Oil - in cooking, moisturising the skin, and helping with stomach ailments - she will persevere and is looking forward to adding soapmaking to her project once properly trained. She also plans to seek out other local markets.
Hellen’s aim is to teach her people that “money does not fall from the sky!” They need to work to earn it and not rely on hand-outs. More importantly, she mentors her women to help build their confidence and she encourages them by telling them they can do whatever they set their minds to.
...women are the ‘strength’ of the community.
In 2017 Hellen diversified and planted Cocoa Trees - on one hectare at this stage (600 trees) - but she hopes one day to plant 5-10 hectares. As part of this first planting, she employed groups of women as casual labour to teach them how to grow and harvest Cocoa Beans. Part of this is a Nursery project growing seedlings so that each of the women can plant and manage their own Cocoa Trees and once harvested generate their own income. At this very moment, Hellen is trying to find a way to purchase a dryer for the Cocoa Beans so that she can buy the wet beans from the women, creating an income stream for them. This way she motivates the women to get into action instead of relying on their husbands or waiting for Government hand-outs.
“The women are the bread-winners and they enjoy it”...
In the Western Province, especially Marovo Lagoon, women are the ‘strength’ of the community. There is not much opportunity for men to earn an income. Most men fish and are skilled carvers, creating and designing beautiful wood carvings made from ebony, hardwood and kerosene wood, but these are only bought by international visitors.
What is needed is for these skills to be boosted with further training and innovative ideas as well as opportunities...
Melanesian women are generally regarded in high society as "house managers, raising children, planting gardens, cooking and cleaning, not seen as income earners”, explains Hellen. However, on the ground it is a very different story. “The women are the bread-winners and they enjoy it”, she says. Their basic skills of weaving, growing produce and cooking gives them many opportunities, especially at the ports on Marovo Lagoon where the ships come in. They weave items to sell, they grow produce and sell, and come together in groups to cook and sell. What is needed is for these skills to be boosted with further training and innovative ideas as well as opportunities to obtain financial support to expand - support that does not involve complicated and convoluted government forms to fill in. Half of the population is still illiterate. The other area of need is helping them build self-confidence in their abilities and worth. Hellen has worked with and cared for over 600 women for many years, holding the position of President in her church women’s group, and thus she understands their needs.
Hellen prays that one day women will not need to fight as hard as she did to gain the approval of men in order to get financial support to start a business. With three women now in Parliament she hopes this will mean the beginning of real change.
The gaping hole is the lack of foresight to provide support for these women to enable them to reach their full potential.
Empowerment of women is quite different in the Solomon Islands. Women do earn and get to enjoy the benefit of the resources they have. The gaping hole is the lack of foresight to provide support for these women to enable them to reach their full potential.
Hellen has very big dreams and by the end of 2021 she hopes to own her own cargo boat to transport goods to the city. This is perhaps her biggest dream yet but, in all her experiences, she has seen the seemingly impossible become a reality. So it just may come to pass! Let’s hope it does.