I grew up with Keithlin Caroo in Fond Assau, a small community in Babonneau I’d like to think is somewhat unforgettable. Our childhood homes were doors away from each other and every now and then we (children back then) would bump into each other. A student of St. Joseph’s Convent at the time, most times when I saw her, she was wearing her bright blue uniform (she always greeted me with a smile.) She was extremely shy, but even better, she was extremely bright too. Many predicted she would ‘go places’ and unsurprisingly, she did.
On Tuesday (November 20), we met up at Rituals Coffeehouse for an interview. As I entered the crowded coffee shop, I spotted her a few feet away; she was sitting across her mother at a high top table wearing a bright yellow kimono. It was the first time we had seen each other in years—after a quick catch up, we opted for an outside table and soon, our interview commenced.
Her personality had changed considerably. A once shy Keithlin was outgoing as ever. Now a well-rounded desk officer in the Department of Political Affairs at the United Nations (U.N.),Keithlin eagerly shared more about her background and ‘Helen’s Daughters’, the focus of the interview.
She attended the University of Puerto Rico where she obtained a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Science, (she minored in International Relations) and subsequently attended the Central Connecticut State University where she pursued a Master’s of Science in International Studies.
The founder of ‘Helen’s Daughters’, a Saint Lucian non-profit organization with a special focus on rural women’s economic development through improved market access, adaptive agricultural techniques and capacity-building, explained how the organization came to life.
“U.N. WOMEN has an annual global call for their Empower Women Champions for Change programme, which revolves around sourcing project ideas that can help solve women’s economic empowermentand I decided to try out for the competition. Persons had to pitch something related to women’s economic empowerment and I was like: why not rural women? My grandmother was a farmer, my family home is in a rural community and I have several aunties and uncles in the farming industry,” she shared, adding that her project was “one of the two Caribbean projects that won.”
“Most of the farmers in the banana industry back then were able to make a livelihood out of farming—for some it enabled the rural class to become part of the middle class. However, when we lost preferential treatment in the UK market (which meant we had to compete with multinational corporations like Dole and Chiquita), it literally meant that the economic security that farmers once had was lost overnight; they had to figure out what new crops were in demand and most had no clear plan for a future that wasn’t dependent on bananas. You found farmers who were once wealthy from the banana industry and thought it would always be there, lost everything and had to start from zero,” she added.
Her grandmother’s life story inspired her to do more.
“I remember when she died, we were cleaning out stuff and I found her birth certificate. My grandfather put himself as a farmer and she put herself as a housewife; it rubbed me the wrong way because she was always there with him and after, she would go to the market to sell the produce,” Keithlin said.
With Helen’s Daughters, she hopes to bring about significant change.
“I wanted to do something where I could hear first-hand what was going on with rural women; then we did the workshop,” she said to me, after sharing that her first ‘Helen’s Daughters’ workshop was a success.
She continued: “We discussed things like leadership development, workers’ rights, all of these things that would help them; at the same time, however, I heard their voice in the issues: that “yes, we’re disorganized but nobody’s investing in us, yes we don’t understand climate change or how to adapt; but we see some people who make it and sell to commercial markets, but why can’t we? We have the land— or— how do we partner? All of these things and from there it started.”
Keithlin caught the attention of Forbes contributor James Ellsmoor, who was impressed by her great efforts.
“Once we got the whole social enterprise idea of connecting rural women to the hotel industry—it caught his eye,” Keithlin said, not wanting to give away too much just yet.
According to the 28-year-old, “We’ve created a lot of partnerships for rural women to develop their skills. For example there is a Canadian agricultural NGO here called ‘PROPEL-WUSC’; where farmers were able to go to certain courses and so on, like record keeping for social media. We were able to help facilitate the access for rural women to sell directly to hotels, so some women actually got hotel contracts thankfully.”
Helen’s Daughters also developed a partnership with the University of British Columbia, which partnered Humanitarian Engineering students with female farmers from Helen’s Daughters, to come up with sustainable farming solutions.
The organization’s agri-tourism initiative will also make life easier for farmers.
“The agri-tourism initiative came from the rural women’s workshop. I noticed that the problems are twofold: on the farmer side, they feel like they don’t have the investments, they don’t have the training and public institutions are not supportive and so on; on the private sector side, you find that they’re not that open to dealing individually with farmers,” she said, adding, “because sometimes they’re not certified; sometimes they don’t know the appropriate quality standards, sometimes they’re not on time with their deliveries and so on. There’s quite a lot of disorganization, so clearly there’s an information gap.”
The organization plans to introduce data technology to local farmers in the future which will make life easier for all.
In the future, Keithlin wants ‘Helen’s Daughters’ to “become an umbrella organization that could be somewhat like a fair trade organization for rural farmers: where we have access to commercial markets and for that model to be able to be replicated in neighbouring islands facing the same issues.”