I had never heard the term “microfinance” three years ago. Throughout my life, I’d put a lot of energy into avoiding numbers, and I had done pretty well. I majored in English, worked as a paralegal drafting and editing court documents, and successfully passed off bar tab calculations to more numerically inclined friends at the end of every late night gathering. The word “finance” itself inherently repelled me, like some boring cousin your mom might guilt you into hanging out with—it takes all your effort to smile through gritted teeth when cousin Johnny monologues about his pet iguana, just as my eyes would instinctively glaze over at any reference to interest rates. But after three years of working in impoverished African and Mexican communities for whom micro-finance is a lifeline and a future, I’ve grown to understand that microfinance is much more than numbers—it is a symbol of possibility, opportunity, and empowerment.
When I was accepted into the Peace Corps, my primary assignment was obvious. An English degree, TEFL certification, and a year’s experience working at an elementary school qualified me for exactly one position: teaching English. The thought of preaching the powers of the gerund to a rowdy, pubescent audience certainly did not thrill me, but I was so excited to start a new life and a new adventure in a foreign country that the job was secondary. And so after careful packing, frenzied last minute preparations, and many tearful goodbyes, off to Africa I flew.
Diang, Cameroon, a village of 2,000 in the fringe of Africa’s largest rainforest, the Congo Basin, was my home for two years. As my French improved, my relationships with the community deepened, and I formed close friendships with people I want to know forever. One of my best friends was a local business owner named Estelle.
Estelle was a single mother of two who had moved to Diang from an even smaller village to open her own business. She had left school at 15 with her first pregnancy and spent the next few years in an abusive relationship with her daughters’ father. When she finally gathered the courage, she left him and moved to Diang. When I met her, she was renting a three-room shack in the center of town, using the front room to sell beer and cheap whiskey.
By this point, I had a rudimentary education about microfinance. Many of my friends were Small Enterprise Development (SED) volunteers, and I had been subjected to countless heated debates about the sustainability of micro-loans in international development. Terms like credit and financial security were becoming more than abstract concepts to me—and I would eventually come to witness their personal power through my work with En Vía.
After being friends with Estelle for a while, I began to notice little things about how she ran her business. For example, even though she wrote down most of the purchases her customers made, she would write on whatever tiny scraps of paper she had nearby and stuff them in a drawer. When the beer delivery truck came, she wouldn’t always check her inventory before buying her supplies. And when she needed to buy malaria medication for her children, I would see her open the zipper pouch where she kept all her business money.Even though she was extremely intelligent and her business was successful, I noticed a few things she could do a little differently.
With my own rudimentary business education, and after conferring with my SED friends, I offered Estelle my advice. I showed her how keeping track of purchases in a notebook not only organized her incoming money but helped show her which beer brands were more popular than others. I advised her on setting aside money for savings and about setting long-term business goals. The advice was basic and she learned quickly. We even started talking about the possibility that she might take out a micro-finance loan to develop her business—but after researching her options, Estelle realized it was implausible for her.
Because of unreasonably high interest rates, micro-loans are considered to be a tool for the wealthy in Cameroon—which is ironically contrary to the original intention behind micro-finance. Estelle had the modest dream to expand the outdoor patio of her shop and buy chairs. Eventually, she even planned to move to the city where life would be easier, with electricity and water, but for now, it was a distant dream. She is smart, hard working and ambitious, but without a small bit of capital to pull ahead, her life remained stagnant.
I completed my Peace Corps service in June 2011. I was elated to be home with my family again, in my beautiful New Orleans, enjoying the luxuries of the developed world—consistent electricity, flush toilets, hot water, yoga classes, organic coffee shops with vegan baked goods—but my experience in Africa changed me, and I couldn’t forget Estelle and all the friends I had made. The inequalities of our lives nagged at me, pulling at my sleeve when I was feeling comfortable, reminding me not to forget. I started daydreaming about my next adventure, wistfully searching organizations on the Internet—and this is how I found Fundación En Vía.
My work with En Vía has introduced me to a lot of women like Estelle: brilliant and driven, but confronted with harsher realities than many of us have had to face. The business classes we offer cover a lot of the topics Estelle and I discussed in the slanting afternoon sunlight outside her back door. But more than that, En Vía provides the loans that would have helped Estelle so profoundly. Like Estelle, the women we work with are empowered and strong. It is simply that En Vía is able to provide these women with the tools they need to get ahead. I wish so badly Estelle had the opportunity to benefit from the resources we offer.
Many non-profits, particularly those that work in international development, struggle with the sustainability of projects. In addition, current research shows the fallacy that aid is always a good thing—scholars like Dambisa Moyo and William Easterly are popularizing the theory that dropping billions of dollars into Africa has not only made no difference in alleviating poverty, but has actually critically hindered development. And besides these macro-scale inter-governmental blunders, I witnessed so many well-meaning charities donate money and resources without any training, leaving water pumps to rust when no one was trained to fix broken parts, or school buildings to decay without teachers or administration to maintain them.
But En Vía is not that type of organization. It is not well-meaning outsiders throwing money at a problem they don’t understand. It is genuinely community-based, and with a model of providing basic monetary capital while interweaving educational programs, it promotes sustainable development that I honestly believe in.
It is funny how closely tied I’ve become to something that years ago would have provoked from me deep yawns and sleep-heavy eyelids. But after what I’ve seen, I truly believe in the power of microfinance now, how it provides opportunity to those who need it without condescension or arrogance. Every week, when I lead tours to visit our borrowers in Teotitlán, when I hear stories about their lives and families, about their businesses and plans for their futures, I feel proud to be a part of an organization like ours. I’m also reminded of Estelle and her strength and my hope that she can one day have access to resources like those we provide. And, my friends, through these experiences, I have a little confession to make—I have kind of fallen in love with microfinance. It was pretty unexpected, but I suppose they do say opposites attract. For now, our relationship is going strong, and we might even be looking at a long-term commitment. I’ll keep you guys posted!