Keithlin Caroo is the founder of local organisation Helen’s Daughters which aims to empower women in rural areas and who earn a living by farming. This week Keithlin reveals what led her to initiate this project in an economic climate that yearns for tourism while thirsting for a stable agricultural industry. This interview coincides with Helen’s Daughters’ biggest endeavour—a crowdfunding campaign to help solve issues faced by small farmers in Saint Lucia. Head over to startsomegood.com/helensdaughters if you want to help close the gap between local farmers and large tourism entities.STAR: Are you interested in agriculture?
I was born and raised in the rural community of Fond Assau in Babonneau. I would say that I was raised in a farming family. Although my parents are not farmers by profession, my grandparents were. Farming had always been important to my family because it always seemed to get them out of a financial bind. Now that I look back, I can say farming helped get a lot of my aunts, uncles and parents through school, and it’s still something that they practice today even though it’s not a main profession.
When I was young, I wasn’t interested in agriculture, nor was I encouraged to be because during the banana crash a lot of farmers grew resentful towards the occupation, especially the long and gruelling labour that is required. Many farmers, like my parents, pushed their children towards “office jobs”. During my childhood, I was honestly just trying to find a career that I thought my parents and grandparents would be impressed with; first that was a lawyer, then a doctor, then an engineer.
When I finally realized that I had an affinity for languages, history and social studies, my career choice started to turn to what I was passionate about which turned out to be me wanting a career in international relations.
STAR: How did Helen’s Daughters start out?
It started off about a year after I joined the UN. The work I was doing was completely disconnected to the Caribbean. But I had joined believing that in some way I would be able to contribute to Saint Lucia directly. That wasn’t the case.
One morning, the UN Women call for proposals for activities on women’s economic empowerment caught my eye so I decided to submit a proposal (although its completely different from what we do now). It was based on rural women’s economic empowerment because I felt that rural women in the agricultural sector are the most marginalized. I mean, consider the conditions: that they must sell their produce in the market, or think about the long hours and how exhausting it can be if mechanization, like tractors or ploughs, is not applied, and they have to do that work themselves.
When Helen’s Daughters started, it was all social media advocacy and I realized that, in a sense, my advocacy was part of the problem, I was highlighting their daily struggles and I wasn’t coming up with any solutions. Fast forward, to now; I organised the first-ever Rural Women’s Workshop, a one-day leadership and capacity-building event for rural women that turned into a needs-assessment exercise for me. I could hear first-hand what they were going through and what I could possibly do.
STAR: What did Helen’s Daughters set out to accomplish at its inception?
Honestly, we set out to redefine the image of what it meant to be a rural woman—a female farmer. There’s so much strength in that demographic, and yet these women never get the recognition or the opportunities that they deserve. Also, by redefining the image, I hope to attract more young women to farming. I know some people will say, “Well you’re not a farmer,” but if I had known then what I know now, I think I would have been. There’s a possibility to make a handsome living from farming—modern farming that is—which would allow you to farm smarter, employ modern tools and have access to market information, rather than working harder for lesser returns.
STAR: Has it accomplised these goals?
My greatest difficulty has been accessing capital. I’ve been bootstrapping Helen’s Daughters since its inception and realized that if I wanted to move at a faster pace, I would need to have more capital. I tried the grant route but halfway through the process, I realized that there were some stipulations that I thought would be ineffective in our programmes so I pulled out. This was what led me to the crowdfunding campaign. I was nervous about putting myself out there, but the response has been amazing.
So far, we have reached the 75% mark and I hope that we can get enough to at least build out the Minimum Viable Product, test it and get our first set of customers, which will lead us on the road of self-sufficiency.
STAR: Helen’s Daughters helps how many women?
So far 30 women benefit directly from Helen’s Daughters and I hope to gradually grow that number. I’d like to take the marathon approach and invest into building the capacity of a few women at first so that they are able to access commercial markets themselves and then mentor other rural women and grow from there.
STAR: What opportunities are offered to these women?
Currently we are working on developing computer applications that are
accessible to rural women wherever they are. These applications would provide them with sustainable farming tips, information on market demand and prices, and direct access to commercial markets. We have also given some of these women the opportunity to partner with Canadian university students and faculty to address real-time problems that they encounter, and it’s a programme that we want to build on. Too often academia is far removed from real-time problems but this partnership was beneficial to both sides.
STAR: How have rural women responded to what is offered by Helen’s Daughters?
I think they love it. I do also think they want us to do more! Rural women have been fed up with being overlooked and it’s wonderful to see a change. For example, we used to run a #HerStory series online and in print, and many of the women would say that this was the first time they were ever featured in a newspaper or online, and you could see the pride they regained in their profession after that.
STAR: As a rural-born woman yourself, how do you think something like Helen’s Daughters would have benefitted you?
I know that I would have been involved with the organisation if it was there before me. At the time, agriculture wasn’t on my mind, even though I was raised in a rural area, so it probably would have made me think of the multi-dimensional aspects of farming, from policy to agricultural sciences to even helping to modernize farming. Maybe my career choice when I left graduate school would have been different.
STAR: How you were able to achieve your dreams of working at the UN?
It’s been a tough road. I had always wanted to join the UN and, while I was doing my Master’s degree, I applied to dozens of internship postings. Thankfully, I was selected for one of them. The only problem was that the internship was unpaid and in New York. I didn’t have the money to live in NY for three months, but I knew that the opportunity would open a door for me. So, I enrolled in a payment programme with my school for the upcoming semester and used my tuition money to pay for the three months I would spend in New York.
At first, since I was going to school in Connecticut, I thought it would be cheaper to commute, instead of paying for rent in both Connecticut and New York, but I was wrong. I ended up having to commute six hours a day. So, after the first month, I had to find a place in New York. Thankfully my mom knew someone who was renting a room in Brooklyn for $500. The room had no furniture, so I had to use an airbed. By the second month, I think there was a hole in it.
My main goal was to get a job right after but there is a UN rule that interns cannot be hired for at least six months after their internship has ended. Fortunately, the stars aligned that when a vacancy did open up after the six-month period, the department that I interned with hired me and I’ve been with the UN since then.
STAR: What advice do you give to Saint Lucian women, especially those from rural areas?
I would say that you shouldn’t allow where you come from, regardless of if it was a rural area, to dictate where you will go.