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Microfinance: “Just one of the possible arrows in the fight against poverty”

Thanks to organizations like Grameen and Kiva, microfinance and investing in entrepreneurs has received a lot of media attention over recent years.  Breaking Ground is excited to have moved in this direction in 2010, but we are aware that it is not a silver bullet. First and foremost, the Women’s Entrepreneurial Program teaches valuable skills, creates a supportive community and encourages women to imagine, and then materialize, a better future.  We added a financing element to respond to a real need in the community and we have determined that loans are the best method to ensure the sustainability of the program: when women repay their loans it is deposited into a fund for future graduates of the business class.

Before making the transition to loans, we spent a lot of time researching the pros and cons of microfinance models, and have designed an approach that we believe will be effective for years to come. 

Community Appropriate:

One of the central values of Breaking Ground, is that each program must be designed with the community it serves, so that it meets the unique needs of that community. Our approach is specific to the needs of the women in each community. This means we change the course and the loan model for each group with whom we work. 

Low interest rates:

Many microfinance institutions charge high interest rates, to cover the high risk of lending,  but because Breaking Ground is providing the capital for the loans, our partners are willing to take a much greater risk than usual, at a greatly reduced rate. We have negotiated a 5% interest rate with our microfinance partners. Of this 5%, 2.5% goes to the bank, to cover the cost of servicing the loan, and the other 2.5% goes back into Breaking Ground’s WEP fund to cover the risk of default.

A flexible repayment schedule:

Breaking Ground works with each of our entrepreneurs to establish a repayment plan, before she receives her loan. These plans take into account the specific timeline of her business and when repayment will be feasible.  This gives women the flexibility necessary to make bold moves and take substantial steps forward.

The size of our loans:

Breaking Ground understands that part of entrepreneurship is making big moves, so we give loans that range from $200 to $1000, depending on the experience and needs of each entrepreneur.

Recipient selection:

Loan recipients are selected by a committee that consists of members of Breaking Ground, members of GADD (the organization that runs the course),  representatives from our partner microfinance institution, and two of the women’s peers. This selection process ensures that each recipient’s business plan is carefully evaluated from many perspectives before being selected.

Size matters:

Because we aren’t looking to make a profit, we keep not only our interest rates, but the number of women receiving loans, low. This allows us to give each woman the support that she needs to succeed.

The title for this blog post, is a quote from "Poor Economics" by Abhijit V. Banerjee and Esther Duflo. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in learning in more detail, about the role of microfinance in the developing world.



Program Development: Health & Social Indicators Survey

As I mentioned in a previous blog post, whilst in Cameroon this June, one of my projects was conducting our Health and Social Indicator Survey (HSIS) with women in the neighborhoods where we work. In both N'gaoundéré and the Lebialem Valley, I interviewed a cross section of women of various ages and, whenever possible, ethnic groups. Some women were current or past participants of the WEP, others were the friends and neighbors of these women; people we would like to see signing up for a program in the future.

These surveys will serve a number of purposes.  Firstly, the data they provide gives us improved knowledge of the women that we are working with and will provide tracking points to see the impact of our programs over time. Secondly, the survey allows us to see where we should focus our attention, if we start to integrate a health curriculum into our classes.

The WEP classes are a safe, supportive space and a designated meeting time.  It seems a perfect opportunity to deliver basic family health information to our participants and, through them, to their wider communities. We are a long way from having a curriculum written and a trained health professional working with our teachers, but this survey is the first step in that direction.

Since I brought home the results, Alden Blair, one of our board members, has been huddled over his computer analyzing the data. Many of the findings supported our experiences in the community, but the statistical results are still quite astounding.

Some highlights of our findings:

  • There was no uniform knowledge of HIV/AIDS transmission methods, and thus perhaps understandably there was a great deal of interest in HIV/AIDS (and other STI) education.
  • The costs of receiving healthcare (transport to a facility, cost of the visit or cost of medecine) was cited as the main barrier to care by the majority of women.

  • Across the board, hand washing is a clear area for intervention. Though most participants recognized the need to use soap and water (we were unable to follow up and see if they a. owned soap and b.used it regularly) knowledge of when washing was needed was low.

  • In the Lebialem Valley, a majority (64%) of the women stopped attending school due to the financial burden of school fees. Half the women had only received a primary level education.

  • In the Lebialem Valley, 17% of women surveyed treat their water, though only occasionally and with crude filtration methods.

  • In N'gaoundéré, the water source was often a public pump, a source that is likely to have been treated. However 76% reported that this source had been unavailable at least once in the past month.

Hopefully, our programs that increase family income and show the economic advantage of educating young girls, will eventually lead to more girls staying in school longer.  The findings also confirm the importance of a crop diversification program in the Lebialem Valley that will improve the communities' access to a variety of nutrients, as well as generate income to increase access to healthcare. Other findings, such as those concerning water filtration and hand washing, are areas that a future health curriculum could address directly.

One thing that was clear across the board, was that the women surveyed are hungry to learn. I hope that as we move forward with this information, we will be able to answer their questions and empower women to take care of themselves and their families.

Like most Breaking Ground initiatives, the design and implementation of the survey was a collaborative effort. Thank you to Claire Espey MPH, Mailman School of Public Health, for her careful critiques and TRADADEV for their translation services. If you have questions about the survey content or our findings, please contact us.


Meet Miriamou Yaya

The beautiful makeup bags and purses that Breaking Ground is starting to sell were designed and made by Miriamou.  A graduate of our Women's Entrepreneurial Program, Miriamou is a 28 year old Fulani woman and mother of five. A vivacious and generous woman, as well as a fabulous cook, Miriamou is the social hub of the Tongo Pastoral quarter. Though she is rarely allowed to leave the house, the world comes to her kitchen.

Miriamou currently earns money for her family by completing small sewing projects from home.  In the future, she hopes to expand her sewing business and start selling pagne (the distinctive cloth used for Cameronian clothing and Breaking Ground bags) in her quarter.


Alex's Trip to Cameroon: Women in N’gaoundéré 

After my adventure in the Lebialem Valley, the next major voyage on my trip was taking the train to N’gaoundéré. Unlike the roads to Folepi and Nkong, the train to Adamoua region is fairly luxurious: we slept in a four person sleeping car, we ate in the train restaurant and were offered “room service” for breakfast in the morning. Of course, you can also buy baton de manioc, peanuts, mangos, honey, mandarins and bananas from the train window at any of the station stops. We arrived surprisingly promptly at 8am and were greeted by Miriamou, a long time friend and recent WEP N’gaoundéré graduate.

After resting for a couple of hours, Paul and I set to work.  The goal of our trip was to see how the women who have received funding are progressing and to make plans for our future classes here. We visited as many of the grant recipients as possible, asking questions about their businesses, the class and their plans for the future. This part of my job is truly a pleasure as I love meeting with each woman and learning about her work and her family.  It is also very satisfying to hear what the women learned through our class, how their businesses have grown and to think about ways to support these women further in the future.

Above, I am filming Haira Oumarou as she shows me how to use the knitting machine she purchased with a grant from Breaking Ground. Haira used to have to rent time on someone else's machine, so owning her own both decreases her overhead, and increases her producivity. Though  not allowed to open a boutique in the market, and thus sell directly to a wide variety of clients, Haira sends the children's clothing she produces to stores, or to friends in the quarter. She told me that one of the most important things she learned in our business class was to value herself -her skills and her time.

Here I am speaking with Mbai Eunice in her vegetable farm. She received a grant from Breaking Ground in 2009 and used the money to expand her plot and purchase an electric water pump.  This expansion has allowed her to diversify her crops to include eggplant, tomatoes, lettuce, huckleberry, folere and corn. The pump allows her to keep all this delicious produce well watered throughout the dry season, increasing her annual yields.

Whilst in N’gaoundéré, I was also conducting surveys with the women, gathering the information that will help Breaking Ground design a basic family health curriculum that responds to the specific needs of the community. This part of my trip was more challenging.  As I listened to the stories of sickness in the family, miscarriages and the rising number of people in the neighborhood with HIV, I was further convinced of the importance of adding a health element to our classes. The need and the desire are palpable.


Alex's first week in Cameroon: Planting Palm in Folepi

After two days in the city of Dschang, meeting with our partner organizations and visiting the construction site at Keuleng, I woke up at 5am last Tuesday and hopped on a motorcycle to accompany Paul and his team into the heat of the Lebialem Valley.

Though I have visited Cameroon many times, this was my first trip into this remote and humid part of the country. I had heard horror stories about the quality of the roads and was prepared for a long, hard, muddy trek. Fortunately our moto drivers were experts and negotiated the road (which sometimes resembled a river) with expertise.

Not only is the road tough, but there is no cell phone reception, no electricity and very few improved water sources. The difficulty of accessing and staying in this part of the country makes our work there hard, but all the more important. The purpose of our trip was to conduct two day workshops in Nkong and Folepi, demonstrating the methods to properly peg and plant fields of improved palm and cocoa. If planted and cared for correctly these trees will greatly increase the income of these villages.

As I am not an agricultural expert, my role on this trip was to evaluate the women's business class, and to see how we can improve and expand it next year. This was a great way to start to get to know the women of Nkong, Folepi and Bangang as we discussed the class, their families and their hopes for the future.

The highlight of this week was probably our first night in Folepi, when the community gave me the title of MAFoLah Folepi, an honorary village chief, to show their appreciation for the work Breaking Ground is doing in their community. As with any moment of celebration in Cameroon, people gave impromptu speeches, the beer flowed and the community sang and danced the night away.

The rest of my schedule is as follows...

June 6th: Paul and I will visit the village of Balevang with our partner organization RIDEV to scope out the possibility of a future project there.

June 7th: I will be in Dschang, meeting with women who have taken the most recent WEP class and discussing the future class with the instructor.

June 8th: We leave for Yaoundé

June 9th: In Yaoundé to meet with COREDEC, the NGO with whom we have run the WEP in N'gaoundéré.

June 10th-15th: Paul and I will be in Ngaoundéré.  There we will meet with the women who received funding for their projects in the last six months.  I will also be enjoying the fabulous cooking of my good friend Miriamou!

June 16th-17th: We will travel to Buea to meet with potential partners CIC, Man and Nature and ERuDeF.

June 18th-19th: I will have a couple of days on the beach in Limbé. Taking the time to compile my notes and relax a little before my long flight home.

I hope the next two weeks are as inspiring and productive as this first week has been!

On est ensemble,

Alex Moore



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