30 March 2009

Aiding Women's Group in Senegal with Micro-credit Loan

It has been said that if work is what liberates women, then African women are the most liberated in the world. After all, they do produce over 70% of the continent’s food, as women usually cultivate the crops and tend to the fields. As for trade, women dominate the market economy of the village as well. Throughout West Africa , I have witnessed firsthand the tireless work ethic of African women, as they always seem to be tending to the fields, stooped over a fire or carrying something on their heads: a basket of bananas, firewood, dried fish or peanuts. Women (and girls) are responsible for fetching water, which is the most strenuous task in much of Africa , and they are also responsible for raising the children, preparing the food and tending the household. Hard work indeed.

There are prominent examples of African women reaching positions of power: the president of Liberia Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf and recent Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai from Kenya are two of the most inspiring examples. While in the Senegalese capital of Dakar , I worked with professional television producers, lawyers, nurses and development workers – all impressive, dynamic African women. But in many parts of West Africa , women still face an uphill battle. Though opportunities for advancement have grown in urban settings, the sad truth is that in rural villages, there is little hope for advancement. Here in Nder, a small village in the arid northern region of Senegal , the literacy rate hovers around 10% and most women are more concerned with putting food on the table than anything else.

Located in the Sahel region, Nder suffers from limited rainfall and poor soils. Faced with worsening climate conditions, it is getting more and more difficult for families to produce enough food to subsist on. Perhaps the biggest obstacle to increased food production is the lack of capital needed to invest in a second crop, one that can be planted and harvested in the off-season. The growing cycle in Senegal is seasonal: during the rainy season, the community plants and harvests vegetables such as potatoes, tomatoes and millet. But in the off-season, they could be growing a cash crop like peanuts to supplement their families’ income, as peanuts grow well with less rainwater. The problem is that such an endeavor requires an investment in seed, fertilizer, etc.

Enter SEM ( Senegal Eco-village Microfinance), a non-governmental organization that provides low-interest loans to local communities looking to create new businesses. Just like the last project I supported in Cape Verde with David and his goats, SEM provides micro-finance loans, but distributes them to larger, community-based groups, such as the twenty women of Nder that have banded together to plant a peanut crop for their village.

The women of Nder have a history of standing up and demanding change, as this village was home to a female-led rebellion against colonial French forces during the colonial era. It seems that this fighting spirit is still alive and well today, as the local women have banded together to fight for their village’s survival. Faced with complete isolation (the nearest school and medical clinics are over 50 miles away), the village is suffering from abandonment of men towards the cities. Without a means to provide for their families, men are forced to seek work in the cities, a demographic drift that threatens the sustainability of Nder.

But with the additional income generated by a peanut crop, conditions will improve and the village cohesion will be maintained, as has been the case in so many other villags within the SEM Eco-village network here in Senegal . With a proven track record of success, SEM provides the ideal partner to efficiently administer this loan. On behalf of 100 Friends, I have fulfilled the loan request of Nder’s Womens Group for the amount of $900. This money will go towards the purchase of seed, fertilizer and insecticide to ensure a stable crop of peanuts that can then be sold at the local market to be made into peanut oil for export.

Helping people help themselves is a mantra I try to adhere to. Here in Nder, it’s as plain as day. Due to their isolation and lack of collateral, these villagers would never qualify for a loan from a traditional bank. The simple banking assistance of SEM will allow these women to lead their village to greater prosperity, perhaps ensuring its very survival in the process. I will be receiving (and passing along) field reports from them as soon as the crops are planted and harvested. Once the loan has been repaid, it will go back into the SEM Fund and will be lent to a similar group next year. Money is used to boost a community’s food production, generating income and maintaining social cohesion and then it is recycled and plugged into the grid again. Is there a more logical and simple manner of fighting poverty as that?

16 March 2009

Ya herd? Using Micro-Loans to Raise Goats and Climb out of Poverty

Much has been written about the benefits of micro-finance recently, especially since Bangaldeshi Muhammad Yunus and his Grameen Bank, won the Pulitzer Peace Prize in
2006. To briefly summarize, micro-finance is the provision of financial services to poor people in developing countries who lack access to the commercial banking system. For those unfamiliar with this world-changing concept, please allow me to explain in a personalized example.

David is a strong and intelligent 25 year-old Cape Verdean. He finished high school, but like most people on this small volcanic island of Fogo (“Fire”), there is limited opportunity for him to work or pursue his studies. Though he would like to start his own business, he does not have the capital needed to make the initial investment to get anything started. As a result, he picks up work with a small company that mines stone from the hard earth. But even this grueling work is infrequent, leaving David without a dependable means of income. He and his wife have started to build a house, but up to this point, they have not gotten beyond building a tiny room of concrete blocks; running water and electricity are still a dream away.

The nine inhabited islands of Cape Verde are small, barren and isolated. With very limited rainfall, few natural resources and little arable land, Cape Verde is experiencing hard times, especially during the current drought, which explains why there are more Cape Verdeans living abroad that on the islands themselves. It is a sad, but telling commentary on the depths of this drought to see such beautiful islands abandoned by nearly anyone that has the means to immigrate.

Unlike many of the islanders of Fogo, David does not have family members abroad that can send him money. He would like to earn a stable income and knows that he could earn a living by raising goats, as the goat milk provides an essential source of vitamins and the cheese can be sold to the local community. Once the goats mature and reproduce, the cheese production increases and the young goats can be sold off for a profit. There is land near David’s house that is perfect for grazing animals, but there is a problem: like many people in the developing world, David lacks the start-up capital needed to finance the initial investment. In order to buy 6 or 7 goats, he would need $900. For someone with David’s financial standing, taking out a traditional bank loan in Cape Verde (as is the case in most developing countries) is impossible, as the banks do not offer credit to the poor, many of which cannot provide the collateral required.

For millions, the only source of credit is the local pawnshop or a loan shark that charges exorbitant interest rates, sometimes as high as 1,000%! I have personally seen people in the favelas of Rio that have been threatened and beat up by these loan sharks when they fall behind on their payments. So this leaves David (and MILLIONS like him) in a precarious position, but thankfully micro-credit institutions have stepped in to address the needs of these local entrepreneurs by providing poor people with low-interest loans to start their own business and climb their way out of poverty.

While in Cape Verde , I discovered one such institution OMCV that is doing amazing work with micro-loans, as they were recommended to me by Peace Corps volunteers and local development workers. While visiting David on the slopes of the enormous volcano that towers over the islanders like a sleeping giant, I met Senora Isabel and her husband, who live next door. Three years ago, Isabel took out a $400 micro-loan with OMCV for the same purpose. With the profits from her cheese-making industry, she repaid the loan month-by-month, took out another $400 loan and then last year, due to her credit worthiness, was awarded a larger $800 loan. Today, she and her husband have a flock of 80 goats and a thriving cottage industry of making cheese! With the help of OMCV, they now sell their cheese ($2 a wheel) in bulk to large hotels on neighboring islands with more tourism and have expanded their cramped family shack into a more comfortable 3-bedroom home with a stove and electricity. They are now also raising chickens and can afford small luxuries like a radio, a bedspread and a set of dishes. As she happily recounted to me over a plate of delicious goat cheese, “When I first heard about micro-credit, I had no idea what it was!” She is proud to tell me how she repaid every penny of her loans on time and she and her husband are overjoyed to have found a means to work together to provide income for their family. As they told me, they are able to put some money into a small savings account that acts as an emergency fund, should the need arise.

Visiting David next door, I felt like I was glimpsing into the future. He has witnessed Isabel’s success and knows that micro-loans are the answer to his prayers. He is committed to applying his tireless work ethic to creating his own goat herd and cheese business and knows that by repaying his loans on time, he will be able to take out additional loans to further increase his success. Thanks to the donations of people like you, 100 Friends was able to finance David’s $900 micro-loan.

David, ecstatic upon hearing the news, pledged to dutifully look after his goats with the utmost attention, “as though they are my own babies,” he told me with a smile. This was especially touching to me as I have heard about the human-like qualities of goats: goats milk is said to be very similar to human breast milk, the bleats of many goats sound like crying babies and the eyes strongly resemble humans. Interestingly enough, goats were among the first animals domesticated by humans over 10,000 years ago in present-day Turkey and Iran; the domestication of goats allowed humans to move to more arid lowland regions, marking the transition to the modern era. As humans began to harness the stable food supply that goats provided, they were able to expand into new ecological areas and grow in communal size, which constitutes one of the most fundamental changes on human history. The worship of the half-goat Greek god Pan is further evidence of the goat’s influence on human history. Hopefully, the seven goats David purchases and raises with this micro-loan will allow he and his family to evolve to a more comfortable lifestyle, one free of hunger and hardship.

Best of all, when the money is repaid back into the OMCV fund, it will then be lent out to another local entrepreneur, allowing ANOTHER family to pull themselves out of poverty and create a better life for themselves. This magical, yet simple formula of micro-credit is changing lives all over the world and thanks to your help, the wheels will keep turning.

11 March 2009

Attacking Malaria by Saving Lives With $2 Bednets

Malaria kills over a million people a year, yes one million! Last month, I walked out of my hotel and saw my local friend Steven lying under a palm tree, wracked in sweat and shaking violently. I didn’t have to ask him what the problem was; it was obvious he was in the midst of a malaria attack. Watching someone in the throes of an attack is a gruesome experience. Fortunately for Steven, I was able to help, but millions of others are not so lucky. After the one-celled malaria plasmodia have entered the body through the probiscus of a female mosquito, they travel to the victim’s liver, where they burrow themselves into liver cells. Over the course of a week, these parasites eat and multiply until they burst out of the cells and enter the bloodstream. Soon, the victim is gripped by anxiety, as though the body knows its immune system has been attacked. A sever fever and violent shivering are the body’s attempts to increase body temperature, in an attempt to kill off the parasites with heat. A sudden onset of chills quickly morphs into an intense sensation of bitter cold, even more traumatic for Africans that have never felt a cold winter’s chill before. They shake so hard and are so cold they often beg to be covered or smothered. Those without anyone to care for them or wrap them in blankets or coats simply collapse onto the ground, where they lie in a half-conscious state of convulsion. Hours later, when these painful, rhythmic waves of cold and pain have passed, the victim enters a debilitating period of exhaustion and weakness. After the attack has ended, the person is wracked by sweat, fever, pain and nausea – sometimes for days on end. Children not strong enough to withstand this battle (especially those without access to water or medical care) often perish at this point. Malnourished people are especially vulnerable to the ravages of malaria, as the disease slowly wears them down to nothing.
If untreated, the parasites continue to reproduce, until billions of them travelling through the victim’s circulatory system, attacking the oxygen-carrying red blood cells. This is when the body starts to break down: the lungs battle for breath and the heart becomes too weak to pump. I have seen these weakened people, frail to the touch and I grow angry knowing that malaria is an easily treatable and preventable disease, yet it kills more than a million people every year! Here in Africa, malaria is a rampant child-killer as 3,000 kids die every day from the disease. That’s one child every 30 seconds. In the four minutes it takes you to read this report, another eight kids have perished. These are staggering statistics, especially considering it has been going on for centuries.
Actually, malaria has been wrecking havoc on the world for millennia, as pre-human hominids and dinosaurs also suffered from the parasite and many animals still die from the parasite today. It is suspected that Alexander the Great died of malaria (which led to the collapse of the Greek Empire), while its presence may have also stopped the advance of the armies of Genghis Khan and Attila the Hun as well. Though the world has eradicated once-pandemic diseases like smallpox and polio, over a million people a year die from malaria, which is twice the number of a generation ago. Meanwhile, as National Geographic notes, several regions of the world (such as here in sub-Saharan Africa), “have reached the brink of total malarial collapse, virtually ruled by swarms of buzzing, flying syringes.” In addition to the health costs of malaria, the infection of half a billion people inflicts a debilitating effect on these countries’ economic condition as well. There has been a lot of international attention devoted towards curbing the ravages of the disease, especially by the World Health Organization and Bill Gates, who called the disease “the worst thing on the planet.” One of the main obstacles to producing a vaccine is the fact that pharmaceutical companies do not want to devote their Research & Development resources to finding a cure because they know that the African people cannot afford an expensive vaccine. This is the sad but true economic reality. How many children need to die before the world will be mobilized to end it? Apparently more than 3,000 a day.
But instead of cursing a reality out of my control, I have sought out the most effective way to save a local community from this fatal disease. Many are surprised to learn that malaria is easily prevented; by using Insecticide-Treated Bednets, the death rate falls by roughly 60%. That is pretty astounding, considering that each bednet ranges in price between $2 and $5. Here is Senegal, malaria is the leading cause of death for kids under the age of 5, responsible for 30% of their deaths and over half of their hospital visits. When I learned that only 14% of these children are exposed to these bednets, I vowed devote my resources to try to save the lives of some of these kids. In my search for an effectively-run local organization to partner up with, I discovered Tostan, which was founded by Chicago native Molly Melching, who has been working to promote education, health and human rights here in Senegal since her days with the Peace Corps in the 1970’s; Tostan is a wonderful model for community-led development fostered and facilitated on a local bottom-up level. (For more info, see my last blog entry www.adrockcarter.blogspot.com or www.tostan.org)
When I expressed my desire to donate mosquito nets on behalf of 100 Friends, Molly’s face lit up with excitement.
“I’ve got the ideal village for you,” replied.
Beliga is a community of roughly a thousand people, located close to the city of Thi├Ęs, a few hours outside of the capitol of Dakar. With $800 in hand from 100 Friends, we visited the local health clinic, where we purchased 400 of these specially-treated mosquito nets and then drove out to the village where we were enthusiastically greeted by the villagers. Upon delivery, the village chief and the two female leaders of the local development council expressed their heart-felt thankyous, passing along their gratitude to all of our supporters (that means YOU!). They were overjoyed to receive these life-saving nets and installed them with gusto. Since the villagers usually sleep at least two to a bed, nearly all of the villagers of Baliga will now be protected from this lethal threat.
It’s amazing how simple saving lives can be: we recognize a need, we research the most effective manner to address that need, we purchase the item in need and then go directly to the community to administer the aid. Thanks to the generous donations of people like you, we are able to provide the $2 bednets that will undoubtedly spare many of the inhabitants of Baliga from the ravages of malaria. Who knew two bucks could be so well-spent?