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Loans Empowering Women

A letter from Ruth Brown serving in the Democratic Republic of Congo

September 2015

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Muoyo wenu! (Life to you!)

Like most of you, I remember where I was and what I was doing when I learned about the events of September 11, 2001.  Since then I’ve enjoyed piling more memories onto that calendar day to celebrate the truth that “the Light has come into the world and the darkness shall not overcome it.”  This past September 11, just minutes before 9 a.m., I walked up a small hill from a busy marketplace on the outskirts of Kananga to a view I will long remember and treasure: High on the thick trunk of a mango tree, above a circle of colorfully dressed women seated on benches and chairs, was a huge, battery-operated clock, some 2 feet in diameter!  I’m still laughing at the memory!

Some of you can appreciate the expression “We’re running on African time!”  Time has a different quality here.  Church services are four hours long, and just this past week I waited two hours for a meeting to begin.  But at this meeting on September 11, 2015, 23 of 24 seats were already filled at 9 a.m. sharp.  Then, upon the arrival of the last woman at 9:05 a.m., the group secretary requested immediate payment of a late fee of 100 Franc Congolese (FC)—about 11 cents—and, in front of everyone present, that tardy member quickly placed money into a red plastic bowl.

Peer-group micro-finance system strengthens social bonds among community members

Peer-group micro-finance system strengthens social bonds among community members

The group included women from four different Christian denominations and those with no church membership.  They began with prayer, and then three women, each with one key, came forward to unlock the three locks on a heavy metal chest.  The secretary then removed all the contents of the chest: 24 small notebooks, 2 larger notebooks for the treasurer and secretary, 2 plastic bowls (1 green, 1 red), and 3 different-colored cloth bags of money.  The first “Loan” meeting of the first micro-finance group implemented with a grant from the PC(USA)’s Presbyterian Women’s 2014 Thank Offering had begun!

The majority of the women present work in the market for 8 to 12 hours each day, selling oil, soap, bread, vegetables, and/or small bags of peanuts.  A few of the women work in corn mill cooperatives, a couple of them are seamstresses, and one is a primary schoolteacher.  All are acquainted with one another and live in the same neighborhood.  We look forward to holding educational sessions with them to help them plan how to improve their businesses and/or begin sales of new products with their newly earned savings.

The group members decided that all their members would be able to contribute each week a “share” valued at 500 FC (54 cents).  Additionally, every member contributes 200 FC (22 cents) every week to a “social account” set up to give grants rather than loans, upon agreement of all members, to any member requesting funds for urgent family situations.  And the members will also be reimbursing all costs of their start-up kit—the metal box, locks and all contents—at 200 FC (22 cents), paid every other week for 10 weeks.

Loans are not given until shares have been collected from every member for four weeks; loans may be requested once a month thereafter.  Some people are able to place two or three times the share amount into savings each week, but the majority contribute just the one share.  At this first “Loan” meeting on September 11 four women requested loans.  During their four days of training, they had learned that members may receive only up to three times the value of their contributed shares, and they must pay the entire amount back, with a 10 percent declining interest, in three months.  The four women took loans ranging from $13.98 to $16.13 (USD), all to be repaid by December 11, 2015.

One by one, each woman comes forward to pay her share

One by one, each woman comes forward to pay her share

Kristi Rice, PC(USA) mission colleague here in Congo, has been working with the Presbyterian Church of Congo’s Community Development Program (CPDC) since 2012, carefully planning this micro-finance program.  Kristi had prior experience in micro-finance in Rwanda.  After training in program assessment and focus-group discussion evaluation, our CPDC coalition members assessed micro-finance groups of three local presbyteries and six other community groups.  We discovered that all lacked initial training of group members as well as scheduled meeting times and group presence at times of loan repayments.  None of the members we assessed had received any training in how to use loans to improve their small businesses and few of the groups had received regular monitoring.  The most disheartening finding was that the Congolese Presbyterian women who were receiving start-up loans had a general lack of motivation to repay their loans because they “would be receiving another loan [from the Americans] sometime in the future.”

Our new program has been designed to eliminate these weaknesses.  Kristi has shared with CPDC members proven methodologies for successful micro-finance programs. Leaders are best elected by secret ballot.  Flexible loans and emergency grants are made in the presence of the entire group, and this helps to strengthen social bonds between community members. The best savings and loan cycles are six to nine months, with close supervision and training during the initial year.  After the first cycle, the group may operate on its own with minimal support.  Payment to support the supervisor/trainer can be built into the members’ contributions in subsequent years.

Elder Victorine Manga is the gifted Congolese teacher and community organizer selected to lead this program.  She participated in the initial assessments of existing micro-finance programs and was a member of the team that wrote the grant proposal to PW’s Thank Offering. After receiving the grant Elder Victorine met with local village chiefs to explain the program and to receive their assistance in promoting general information sessions with community members.  Once groups are formed, Elder Victorine leads four days of training prior to the first shares being given, followed by monthly trainings and supervision for the remainder of the first cycle.

International development organizations have found that targeting women for such economic empowerment programs raises household living standards more than micro-finance programs with male membership.  That’s why we chose only women participants for the first two years of our program.  If all goes as planned, more than 1,000 families will experience the benefit of added income before the end of this two-year grant! This project directly addresses one of Presbyterian World Mission’s critical global initiatives: “to eliminate the root causes of poverty, particularly where these causes affect women and children.”

Thank you for making this program possible through your prayers, your financial support for my position, and for contributing to the Presbyterian Women’s Thank Offering.  If you have not yet supported this ministry, please consider doing so.

The clock mounted on the mango tree is a symbol of the discipline needed for these communities to take a step into a healthier, more secure future.  Please consider micro-savings programs as a way to respond to your own community’s needs. And if you already have a similar program in your community, please do let me know.

With thanks to you!

The 2015 Presbyterian Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 147

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