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HEAL Africa provides holistic care for the people of Democratic Republic of Congo
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HEAL Africa's Holistic Approach to Microfinance

HEAL Africa began to think about access to credit many years ago, when working with very poor women who were too poor to be considered for conventional credit or microfinance programs, if they were available. A holistic approach demands looking at the reasons why people are so poor. What can be done about it? Goma has lived with conflict in surrounding areas for the past 15 years; in 2002 the volcano Nyiragongo erupted, its lava destroying one-third of Goma, Displacing once again many of the poorest. Many poor women and their children have fled to Goma for safety from the wars over the past fifteen years. Their experience had mostly been agricultural. Goma is built on lava, with very little cultivable land.

Women's ability to access food, health care, and education for her children usually boils down to economics. How to pay for things that can't be made or bartered for? In Goma, DR Congo, there's virtually no employment. Very few companies are making anything here anymore. The coffee production has shut down or moved to Rwanda, the mining industry doesn't employ many women in Goma, the airlines require trained and educated personnel. Simple jobs like sweeping after the trucks have unloaded their cargo of charcoal, sacks of rice, corn or potatoes are hard to come by. If you're lucky enough to get such a job your pay will be what you've swept up; you take it home to eat or cook with.

Training women to save is easy enough if they have money to spare. Learning to save while living on the edge of absolute poverty is much harder, and requires teaching, encouragement and discipline. There also must be a safety net. Most women spend their small capital if a child gets sick. It's been one of the main obstacles to women receiving health care, and to keeping a small business solvent. HEAL Africa is helping people analyze their own situation and help them creatively change their own options. These are cultural shifts that none of us make by ourselves. Helping that shift to happen for a woman has far reaching implications. How will her daughters perceive their role in the world and the opportunities before them now that they've had access to education and have grown up with a mother running a business that can provide for her family? How will her sons view of the role of women and how will their respect for women be deeper?

HEAL Africa has learned from the Grameen Bank model, and solidarity groups are a big key. The first successful savings model at HEAL Africa came with the foster mothers of HIV orphans. They met on a regular basis, learned new skills about business and created strategies to help them protect their capital. They created a separate "emergency" fund to help each other during times of medical or other financial crises. They worked for each other when one was ill. They helped each other succeed. This has now expanded to others in the community. They still save. They still have businesses, but because they continue to "pay back" or contribute back even after they have paid off the original loan, they now have devised a "capital boost" that rotates around the group. They know each other, so everyone trusts the others to repay. This involves groups in churches, mosques and neighborhoods. Accountability is strict. Relationships are critical in Congolese society, and everyone knows this. They've helped make their own rules, so everyone's involved. And they can see the difference it makes. (We're all more careful when it's our own money, aren't we") Hear them:

  • "Everyone contributes $2 a month. The money we bring brings profit to 6 people. Our group got $300 to start with. We've paid it back, and keep bringing money back, and now our fund is $900 from which we can borrow."
  • One woman sells used clothing; another sells manioc flour. "At the end of each month since December I have made $38 ".
  • What changes have occurred in two years? "My child had died. I thought I wouldn't be able to take care of my husband's children. My Lord saw other children, another husband. The children are in school, they're wearing clothes, and they eat what they love; we have food."
  • "I didn't know about dollars. Now I do."
  • "I buy meat to eat. I have no debts."
  • "I've learned to get a profit in my business. Maybe there are some people who have a different idea of how to do business."
  • About how they promote their group and reach out to include others "Keep your history (remember what your life used to be like) to see how far you've come. We're looking for people like you used to be. "Give what you have, not what you don't have. In your faith community aren't there people like you used to be? Those are the people we're looking for."

Another type of credit/savings has emerged through the Safe Motherhood groups.

When HEAL Africa began to work with women to improve their delivery outcomes, they asked why women didn't go to the maternities or clinics in their area. The answers:

  • $5 for a delivery was more than the average family could afford.
  • Care away from the village was often not good anyway, (poorly trained and ill-equipped)
  • "Family pressure. The husband's mother and relatives would criticize a woman who left her family (who would feed the children, the husband?).

In this version, a sum of money is given to the women of child-bearing age in a village, to provide income which will be used to help pay for medical costs of women who need to go to the clinic for safer delivery. This usually takes the form of a garden which is cultivated primarily to sell crops. It's combined with teaching for the villagers: training for the traditional birth attendants (TBA) so that they're more able to refer women to medical centers. They're trained, and equipped, and brought into the health services sector. Nurses in small rural maternity centers are also trained and equipped. (Many years of war and looting has decimated the supplies in most rural centers. Over 67 clinics have been helped in the past five years.) Men and women in the community learn about child spacing and become involved together in preparing and planning for safer deliveries.

In Maniema province there's another version of savings and loans, small community banks. Six associations in the village are picked, and the president of each association represents them on the governing committee, which also includes the supervisor of the Wamama Simameni house and the president of the Nehemiah Committee. This builds community and works with people who already trust each other. It provides a way for a community to build its strength and financial capability to bring cash into the community, provide a way for businesses to thrive, and make opportunity for many in a place where there are no banks and no other options.

Hear from :

D. Her husband was beaten by Mayi-Mayi and incapacitated so that he can no longer work. Because she was able to access a $100 loan, she can now support her family. She makes bread from manioc flour. She goes to the other side of the river to get manioc flour, and makes bread with it at home. Twice a week her children sell bread door to door. It was very hard to eat before. And now I can even send my children to school. It has made a very big difference?.

S. She's married, with seven children. Her husband is a government employee without a regular salary, so she is responsible for meeting the family needs. A $50 loan has enabled her to buy dried fish, which she sells. She's making enough to be able to send two kids to university; they have one in secondary school, and two in primary school. Her husband is an electrician with the railroad company, who sometimes gets a month of salary five months late.

E. lives with his grandsons and supports them. His first loan was for $50, and he has since taken out two loans of $100 each. This is possible because of his tailoring business. He can now keep stock; he used to have a hard time getting supplies to make items for customers. He has no trouble keeping his business going, paying back his loans, and keeping his three grandsons who are 10, 7 and 6 years old well fed and in school.

For more information about HEAL Africa's experience with credit and income generation, see Micro-grants, Micro-loans and HEAL Africa's Hybrid Approach to Savings, Lending and Credit.