Monday, April 9, 2012

Notes from the Field #4: What a marriage! Songhai Centre creates a business incubator using Eliminate Poverty Now’s Women’s Capital Fund, with help from Israeli volunteers and the Peace Corps.

Father Godfrey Nzamujo
Father Godfrey Nzamujo likes to speak in metaphors. Here’s a good one: Agriculture can be a weapon of mass construction.  He also likened Eliminate Poverty Now to the perfect marriage partner.  He sees that the goals of Songhai Centre and Eliminate Poverty Now are perfectly compatible.
"Agriculture can be a weapon of mass construction."

We were delighted with the amount of time Father Godfrey gave us this week.  After all, we are a new and relatively small partner.   They are funded by governments!  And the U.N. is financing the expansion of the Songhai concept to 16 countries in sub-Saharan Africa as a core strategy for the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals. 

On our first visit to Songhai last year, so much about this “incubator” for agricultural entrepreneurs impressed us: the energy and dedication of the students; the state-of-the-art training they receive; the technical support Songhai provides after graduation; the market that the center has made for its network of graduates; and the resulting success of their farming and food processing businesses.

We especially liked their loan pool which enables new graduates to start businesses.  Most of these loans go to men for two reasons.  First, they represent the vast majority of students.  But second, women rarely apply for loans because they lack traditional forms of collateral like land. 

When we offered to expand the existing capital pool with an additional revolving fund dedicated to women graduates (Eliminate Poverty Now is providing $100,000 over the next 5 years) it struck a responsive chord.  It gave them the impetus to think through how to support women graduates as they look to start up their own ventures.  And it creates an added incentive for women to attend the Centre. 

Songhai developed a process to administer the program, and were aided by two Israeli volunteers and a Peace Corps volunteer.  They have formed a Loan Committee comprising many of the top leadership of the Center.  They publicize the fund to current students, previous graduates and local women’s collectives.  The Committee carefully evaluates the proposed projects and the applicants.

Before loan funds are disbursed, the Loan Committee visits the site to be sure everything is in order for a successful start. And during the term of the loan, the Centre will make regular farm visits to check on the project’s progress and provide any necessary technical support. While one of their concerns is loan repayment, their top priority is the success of the project.

As the committee explained to us in yet another metaphor:

Women typically don’t have the collateral to qualify for a business loan. In this program, Songhai is their collateral.

These women will graduate in June and start new businesses!

We met the first eight loan recipients. Four are about to graduate and will start new businesses; four are previous graduates who will add new operations to existing businesses.  Their projects included egg-laying operations, food processing (soy milk and yogurt), animal raising (rabbits and chickens),  soap making (herbal soap and detergent) and crop production (carrots and other market vegetables). The quality of their planning was excellent. The businesses they will start will provide products in short supply and high demand in their local markets.

These women have graduated over the past few years.

With Songhai’s strong support, these women have a much greater chance of success than with a typical loan. We had no idea our funds would be the beginning of such an important project.

And we are thrilled, but not surprised.  After all, a year ago John (never one to miss an opportunity to use a metaphor himself), said “This could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

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