The Family Witness

The Family Witness

In the nearly 4 years since ATE was founded, our projects have evolved significantly. We started with an idea and a lot of enthusiasm, and with a huge amount of work we have turned that idea into something that is becoming sustainable and replicable. It’s been a fascinating journey, with lots of bumps along the way. We are constantly improving our work; researching, reflecting and making lots of changes to the way we are working. Some of these changes have significantly improved the work we are doing.

In the summer of 2014 one of our new Small Business Owner’s was a young woman with a lovely (but empty) work premises and strong skill set – for the purposes of this article I will call her Olivia.  Olivia was a weaver; a personable, confident, skilled 23-year-old with big dreams. She seemed like an ideal candidate for our BizATE Program, so after lots of training and assessment we gave her a cash grant of just under £100 to enable her to mend her broken weaving equipment and buy some threads. If all had gone well, she would have been weaving beautiful cloth and making healthy profits within a few months.

Unfortunately, when we went on our first monitoring visit just three days later, it was immediately clear that things were not going to plan. Under pressure from her brother, Olivia had spontaneously spent the majority of her cash grant on confectionary and soft drinks, which she was selling to passing children from her weaving premises. She was selling it at a loss and spending the income on herself, definitely not building a sustainable business as was promised.  She had breached the terms of her contract with ATE.

We spent the rest of that day doing the very difficult and upsetting job of removing all products purchased with ATE funds, and the left over money, from Olivia’s premises. Behind my sunglasses I was very emotional, watching a young woman lose her chance to change her life. Her mother wailed in the background, her sister was sobbing on the floor – they had no idea why we were being so harsh. No matter how I felt at the time, I was then and still am completely sure that it was the right thing to do. We have to ensure that our beneficiaries are honest and trustworthy, we have a responsibility to our donors to make 100% sure that their money is spent on exactly what was promised, and we absolutely must be respected by the communities we work in. Despite knowing we were doing the right thing, it was a painful process and upsetting for everyone involved.

One of our many lessons from The Olivia Story was that we MUST engage the Small Business Owners families in the grant making process. If Olivia’s brother had understood the implications of what he was asking her to do, would he have put pressure on her to misspend her grant? If her mother and sister had known that this would lead to the money being taken back, would they have allowed it to happen?

Since that terrible day, we have introduced the idea of the ‘Family Witness’. Now, before a potential Small Business Owner is even invited to the initial workshop, we go to the family home, sit with the family members and explain the process. We are clear that we are working to grow businesses, not give a gift of cash to be spent on what ever they choose. If that candidate eventually receives a grant, a senior family member signs a contract too, a contract which make very clear the expectations of all parties, and the consequences of breaking the contract are explained in great detail.

Since we introduced this now very obvious part of the process, our success rate is even higher. Of our 64 businesses, 60 are working as promised – their enterprises are up and running, and if they have problems, they come and discuss them with us. Together, we are developing a culture of honesty and commitment.

Yesterday, we offered a grant to Rufina, a young mother who runs her business from under a tree. From a huge pile of over 250 applications, she has been selected as one of 8 to benefit from a cash grant, training and mentoring to grow her weaving business. Located opposite the ATE Office in Lawra, Rufina is a dedicated, skilled weaver who is committed to expanding her business and supporting her family. We look forward to visiting her next week to check she has purchased the agreed equipment with the grant. Her family witness was her sister – we know she will help Rufina keep focused and protect her from any other pressure from her family.


Sarah is the Chief Executive of Action Through Enterprise (ATE) For more information go to

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