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In Africa, building an economy from the ground up

Women in a Tanzanian VICOBA (VIllage COoperative BAnk)…

Despite enjoying a stable government and relative peace—an enviable position in tumultuous East Africa—Tanzania is plagued with extreme poverty. Per capita income is only $1,400, 202nd in the world, and 36 percent of the nation’s 42.5 million people live below the poverty line.

In this remote corner of the world, David Myers saw an opportunity to help women and children overcome social and financial barriers. He traveled to Tanzania in June with UNITE—The World With Africa, an organization that connects Americans with Tanzanian partners in a series of Women’s Empowerment “train-the-trainer” style workshops.

During his two-week visit, Myers, a professor of practice in the Perella Department of Finance, visited villages and trained Tanzanian women in microfinance loan management and small business development. One of those villages was Monduli, where a new secondary school accepts 400 applications for 35 open slots every year and where some children walk up to three hours to school.

Those barriers hurt Tanzanian families, and especially women who often forgo formal education to take care of their villages and families. Many young women return home from school only to be met with all the family’s chores, like gathering firewood and water and preparing the evening meal. This leaves little or no time to study in the evenings, since their bomas—small huts made of cow dung and sticks—have no electricity to study by.

“This trip provided a whole new perspective on business and finance that I hope to bring back to the Lehigh classroom,” says Myers. “Less than six percent of the Tanzanian population has access to the banking sector, so finding opportunities for women to improve the quality of life of their families and their villages is difficult. Countless women who are abandoned or widowed by their husbands need both education and opportunity to achieve self-reliance.”

Knowing that a mind is a strong tool

New and sustainable sources of income are becoming increasingly important for rural women, who rely on income from microfinance to provide for daily living expenses and their children’s school fees as well. Only primary school is free in Tanzania.  Even then, activity fees can prevent the poorest of the poor from going to school.

Myers also collaborated with the Women’s Education and Economic Center (WEECE), a UNITE partner. WEECE offers loans of up to $150 to those with no credit or collateral, a savings and credit cooperative with loans up to $450, and a village bank cooperative that helps rural villages develop sustainable lending programs through community-owned businesses.

According to Myers, a little can go a long way. Typical microfinance loans ranged from $35 to 70 and helped women purchase chickens, pigs, cows and goats, as well as land and seed for corn. Myers also talked with women in Tanzania’s Kilimanjaro region who run small convenience stores, a paint shop, and a sewing business.

“With these loans women are able to live a life that is not dependent on men,” said Valeria Dominic Mrema, executive director of WEECE, who worked with Myers.

“They can provide for their children, and they understand that their minds are strong tools that can do much more than the culture expects of them.”

 

Story by Tom Yencho

Posted on Wednesday, August 04, 2010

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