Up until last month, the words “feasibility study” made me think of a room full of economists discussing complicated graphs and casually using technical terms I learned (and forgot) in college. I imagined that conducting a feasibility study was confined to those with advanced business knowledge. My perception quickly changed while sitting in on a Community Empowerment Program (CEP) session entitled “The Six Steps to Determining Feasibility.”

With a population of approximately 450 people, the Senegalese village of Lamoye has participated in Tostan’s nonformal education program since 2010. In the final phase of the program, which will be coming to an end in Lamoye this month, the focus has been on training in project and financial management. My visit to Lamoye with one of Tostan’s social mobilization teams coincided with one of the scheduled sessions, so I eagerly accepted the CEP facilitator’s invitation to observe.

Dansa Boiro, Lamoye’s CEP facilitator, who has become fully integrated in the community over the last three  years, began by writing the title of the day’s session on a large chalkboard.  While Dansa spoke to the participants in their mother tongue, Pulaar, I waited curiously to see how the facilitator would teach what I perceived to be a very technical topic using only chalk and a stack of printed black and white images. By the time the class was over, I was amazed by how completely relevant and practical the instruction on feasibility studies could be to a rural community whose primary economic activities are agriculture and small-scale trade.

The simple black and white images proved to be an integral teaching tool during the lesson. They told the fictional story of Aminata, a rural Senegalese woman faced with financial difficulties who decides to dye and sell fabric to generate income. As Dansa held up each image, he asked the participants to explain what it depicted; he then proceeded to tie these explanations into a narrative that showed why the efforts of Aminata failed to result in a successful economic venture. After the participants discussed what went wrong with Aminata’s initial attempt, Dansa held up another set of images that this time showed her starting a much more successful income-generating activity.

In this second story, Aminata faces the same financial challenges, but instead of deciding on a whim to dye fabric, she assembles a group of women and together they brainstorm different ideas. Each image Dansa showed corresponded to one of the six steps to determining feasibility: the group electing to make local soap, going to the market to research current sales and availability, identifying all of the steps involved in soap making, calculating the cost of palm oil, firewood, and the other necessary materials, determining how cheaply they could sell the soap and still make a profit, and using the collected information to decide if this income-generating activity is feasible.

During the session, Dansa would stop and ask participants for examples of other activities the women could have chosen, or types of questions that should be answered when doing research at the market. To solidify the concept of calculating costs and revenue, he drew bricks of soap on the board, wrote out the price per bar and how many bars could be cut from each brick, and asked the participants to calculate the total income for each batch of soap made. Mansang Camara, one of the participants, took out his cell phone and used the calculator to do the math, putting into practice a skill that CEP participants learned during their completion of the Mobile Phone for Literacy and Development module earlier this year.

It was exciting to see how interested the participants were in mastering these concepts. They recognized that these skills could lead to concrete improvements in their community’s development. Training on feasibility studies and other related topics such as budgeting and microcredit is extremely useful in helping community members make the most of the Community Development Grant they receive from Tostan – a small grant managed by the Community Management Committee and used to establish microcredit funds or invested in development projects of their choosing, ensuring that the benefits of the program continue long after its formal conclusion.

Having witnessed Tostan’s facilitator teaching feasibility studies in a way that was so applicable to the community, I began to really appreciate the impact that the skills learned through CEP classes can have on people’s lives. Knowing how to manage and invest money effectively will change the way Lamoye’s residents decide which crops to plant during the rainy season, or which products to sell at the market. Now, when I hear the words “feasibility study”, I no longer think of economists and my heavy textbooks. I think of Aminata’s bars of soap, of a chalkboard in an isolated village, and of a dedicated facilitator who turned a complex topic into a practical skill that will change the course of a community’s economic development.

Story by Allyson Fritz, Tostan.