Growing up in the far north of Ghana, I was no stranger to tragedy. My parents struggled to provide my siblings and me with our most basic needs. Hunger and sickness were our constant companions. Living in a mud-built thatched hut, when it rained, my mother, siblings and I would crowd into a corner to try to stay dry, an impossible feat during the rainy season. Over the course of my childhood, I lost three of my eight siblings to infection and disease.
In spite of these challenges, my mother, who married at an early age and never had the opportunity to finish school, was determined that her daughter’s life would be different. Without even a uniform or a book to my name, I would walk several kilometers barefoot and on an empty stomach to school every day. Each week brought the same impossible struggle, “If I go to school, what will I eat?” I would miss school regularly to travel to the bush to help my mother cut firewood to sell at the market, barely earning enough for sustenance from one day to the next. When it came to starting Senior High School, there was such a gap between my earnings and the cost of school fees, that for a time it seemed that all was lost.
But I was not to be defeated, and between school terms I travelled south in search of work. Like many of my rural peers, my only option was to carry out back-breaking labor at illegal mining lines, carrying heavy loads long distances on my head just to earn a few Ghanaian cedis. I was determined to complete school, but that meant enduring terrifying journeys alone, a punishing work schedule from sunrise to sunset, and cruel treatment from employers, all without even a roof over my head. Through years of pain and sorrow I persevered, until I finally completed school.
Me on my way to lectures, during my undergraduate degree in Development Planning. (Photo: Sarah Winfield/CAMFED).
What kept me going was that I want to help other people so that they don’t suffer… I never give up. I want to get to the highest level so that I can help the deprived people in society.
My hopes and aspirations for a better future for myself, my family and community did not end there. In 2015, I was selected for the Mastercard Foundation Scholars Program at CAMFED, enabling me to continue to university. Soon after, I joined the CAMFED Association (CAMA), where I found inspiration from like-minded young women, harnessing their inner strength to bring about real and lasting change in their communities. An awareness of how different things could have been if my mother had been able to complete school strengthened my resolve to help young mothers and victims of early marriage. With fellow CAMFED Association members, I would meet with students, parents and other community members to impress upon them the importance of girls’ education and the negative consequences of teen pregnancy and child marriage. I have personally already supported 13 girls to go to school.
At university, I pursued an undergraduate degree in Development Planning, with a special interest in health policy planning. I continued to volunteer with the CAMFED Association and was selected as Vice Chair of my university’s chapter. While still studying I also decided to found my own NGO, Advocacy for Social Inclusion and Girls’ Education (ASIGE), in my home district in the Upper East Region. With a Board comprising the District Girl Child Officer, Queen Mother and other community stakeholders, our mission is to advocate for those who are unable to meet their basic needs. We advocate for girls’ education and support teenage mothers, primary and secondary school girls.
Me in action — training women in my home district in basket weaving skills through my non-profit organization ASIGE.
Using straw, rubbers and dye, the women create innovative baskets as part of a long-term strategy to eliminate poverty in their region. These environmentally friendly baskets are also developed to replace plastics and help the world deal with plastic waste.
When it comes to social exclusion, poverty is the root cause. ASIGE addresses this primarily through sexual and reproductive health education designed to tackle high levels of teenage pregnancy and HIV/AIDS, and the provision of income generating skills training such as basket weaving, tailoring and shea butter production for women in the community. By 2022, the cooperatives I set up comprised 429 female artisans, and more than 80 men engaged in leatherwork.
I am also working to broaden the impact of ASIGE by providing training to women in sustainable and innovative agricultural practices, such as the cultivation of cashew trees. In parallel, I developed a microfinance fund and financial literacy training program to provide women with the resources and know-how to build their own businesses and save for the future.
Through all these initiatives, I’m helping to turn the tide of poverty and gender inequality in my community. In two successive years (2017 and 2018), I was awarded small grants from the Pollination Project to invest in the ASIGE basket weaving project. With the profit generated from the baskets, ASIGE reaches 5000 adolescent boys and girls annually. To extend our reach, I set up a microenterprise that produces washable menstrual pads to help girls stay in school.
Here I am behind a group of women in our cooperative who sew sustainable menstrual products, which we then donate to girls at the local school. During the COVID-19 pandemic we also started sewing face masks to enable women to keep earning an income.
When the coronavirus pandemic hit, which slowed the demand for our products, we found innovative ways to continue generating an income. We encouraged all vendors of ASIGE baskets to open online shops, and pivoted part of our work into sewing face masks, which were sold locally as well as being exported to the US, UK, France, and Japan.
In ten years’ time, I want not only to touch the lives of women in the Upper East Region, but to extend to all regions in Ghana.
In November 2021, I realised my vision of setting up a permanent Women’s Weaving Center in Bolgatanga district that gives year-round shelter from the weather to over 300 skilled artisans working as part of my growing cooperative. The joyful opening ceremony was attended by local and traditional leaders, community members, and other stakeholders and was covered by national press.
By 2022, I had also raised funds to run a vocational training program for 50 teenage mothers, who are learning skills including the weaving of traditional fabric, or Kente.
When I got the opportunity to study for my MSc Africa and International Development at the University of Edinburgh in late 2022, two of my fellow CAMFED Association members supported me by managing my non-profit while I was away. I also felt supported by my CAMFED Association sisters based in the UK, who helped me feel settled while studying away from home.
Me (far right) with my CAMFED Association sisters Veronica, Fiona, Vivian, Genevieve, Lucia, and Forget when we met up at an event in the UK in 2023.
In turn, I too have shown up for my sisters, largely through supporting them in their transition from secondary to tertiary education, and in setting up their own businesses. One example is Mavis, a CAMFED Association member who I supported to set up her own agribusiness, through which she now farms 30 acres of land and employs 17 young women in her community in rural Ghana.
I am a philanthropist and a leader who is making a lasting impact on my community. Although I grew up in a village that you can’t find on a map, I am working tirelessly to ensure that girls like me are visible, valued and have opportunities their mothers could only dream of.
500,000 – the number of women I aim to lift up through my non-profit organization Advocacy for Social Inclusion and Girls’ Education (Photo: Sarah Winfield/CAMFED).
Related news & stories
NGO hands over weaving centre to women at Sumbrungu
On Tuesday November 16, 2021, Dorcas Apoore’s social enterprise Advocacy for Social Inclusion and Girls Education (ASIGE) came together with partners to celebrate the opening of a basket weaving center at Sumbrungu in the Upper East Region, Ghana, for the artisan weavers in her collective.
Dorcas' NGO on News Ghana: Supporting young mothers with vocational skills training
News Ghana reporters caught up with Dorcas in April 2022, as her NGO received weaving equipment in support of the vocational training she is offering to young mothers who had to drop out of formal education.
In June, 2018, CAMFED Association member Dorcas Apoore participated in the European Development Days 2018 as one of 16 Young Leaders. She attended high level meetings and spoke on a series of panels, bringing her expertise as an agent of grassroots change to an international audience.