Using Education to End Generational Poverty

Three Sisters is a “high social impact, low-profit” social enterprise committed to the financial, educational and social empowerment of women and children in Benin, West Africa. They work directly with artisans in Benin who produce Africa-inspired jewelry and accessories and sell them online and at events in the US. A portion of each sale goes to provide educational support for communities in Benin.


Three Sisters was started when co-founder and anthropologist Marcy O’Neil was living in Benin on a research trip. While renting a room from a local family, Marcy befriended the room’s housekeeper and her young daughter, Angelique. As she continued to get to know this family, she watched firsthand how Angelique’s passion for education and school work eventually turned to disappointment. She was struggling in school, could not afford a tutor and without basic needs, like electricity or running water, success in education was her family’s only chance of leaving a life of poverty. As Marcy and her husband continued to visit the family over the years, they decided they could no longer stand to watch their friends suffer in poverty with no way out.


Knowing the importance of an education in changing the circumstances of impoverished families, in 2014 Marcy and her husband started Three Sisters as a tutoring program. Starting with just one local teacher and two kids, they have grown to tutor over 19 kids, and fund their programs through donations and the sale of handmade accessories and home goods from Benin artisans. Partnering with the artisans, Three Sisters is able to sell beautifully crafted goods, with over 90% of their products are made by women, and give local women the income needed to keep their children in school.


With a full collection of earrings, bracelets, wristlets and necklaces, each piece of jewelry Three Sisters is made using sustainable materials, and carries the colors and patterns of traditional African cloth. This year they are particularly excited to work with Sika Lauretta da Silveira, a talented artist whose paintings and installation art are currently on display at one of the national museums in Benin. Last year, the artist designed a collection of earrings shaped like waterdrops to symbolize and celebrate the rainy season in Benin. The artist made each pair by hand in her Cotonou studio out of local ebony wood.


We take our commitment to the triple bottom line seriously and ensure that our artisans honor that commitment as well.


Recently, the social enterprise has focused in on literacy as a combatant against generational poverty through a program launched last year called Books that Bind. According to USAID, “Without basic literacy there is little chance that a child will escape the intergenerational cycle of poverty” (2015). Over 2.5 million people speak Fongbe in Benin, yet initial market research suggests that there are no children’s books available in Fongbe in southern Benin. Public schools often do not have libraries and those that do contain books only written in French. Through Books that Bind, Three Sisters brings together illiterate elders, school-aged children, teachers and anthropologists to create bilingual, culturally relevant children’s books.


Their new initiative works to accomplish four goals: Address a lack of reading materials in local languages; draw upon the overlooked knowledge of illiterate adults living in extreme poverty; provide additional teaching materials for public schools that serve marginalized populations; and cultivate a culture of literacy in an area self-identified by residents as a “shantytown.”


Through the program, they have already documented seven folktales in their original language (Fongbe, Goun, or Mahi) and translated them into French and English. The books were illustrated by members of the community and shared in a public ceremony in April of 2017. They have received a small grant from the US Embassy in Benin to complete a second volume so they are able to expand our outreach. They currently have a waiting list for participants in their program, and expect to hire more tutors and staff as income increases.


From Three Sisters founder, Marcy O’Neil:

We have been members of Social Enterprise Alliance for two years and have found the community to be quite supportive. We were vendors at the 2017 Social Good [Festival] and have taken advantage of the webinars, networking and online resources available for members. I teach social entrepreneurship at Michigan State University and often send my students to the SEA website to research what others are doing in the [Social Enterprise] space.  

To learn more about Three Sisters : Trois Soeurs, L3C, check out their member directory profile.

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