Harvesting Hope in Senegal Through Microfinance

Most Rev. George Thomas and Constance Proctor, members of the Catholic Relief Services (CRS) board of directors, have been visiting CRS Senegal this past week. They recently visited a microfinance lending institution and the women it helps. Lane Hartill, the CRS regional information officer for West Africa, filed this dispatch:

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Bishop George Thomas and Constance Proctor talk with a member of a village bank in Thies, Senegal. Photo by Lane Hartill/CRS

Maybe it was the explosion of color. Or the lizard skin drums. But Constance Proctor, a member of CRS’ board of directors, couldn’t help herself. She just had to dance.

She wasn’t alone. A gaggle of women, their smiling leader with henna-painted hand and a set of pipes Aretha Franklin would have been proud of, moved rhythmically to the music. Covered in sequins with babies bucking on their backs, these women — members of a village banking group in the town of Tivaouane — had something to celebrate: an organization that lent them money so they could lift themselves and their families out of the slow economic vortex that sucks in so many Senegalese.

They were celebrating Caisse Autonome pour le Renforcement des Initiatives Economique par la Micro Finance (CAURIE-MF), a microfinance institution. CAURIE-MF grew out of a microfinance program that CRS has nurtured since 1999. It became autonomous in 2005. It’s no Bank of America or Chase Manhattan. CAURIE-MF isn’t interested in credit ratings or cash flow. All of its 13,500 borrowers are women. Most of them have never had a bank account.

CAURIE-MF benefits poor women, those who sit on buckets in the sand, under a relentless African sun, selling everything from millet porridge and melons to peanuts and whisk brooms. They lend money to women who really need it. An infusion of cash — loans range from $50 to $3000 — is like a shot of pure adrenaline into their businesses. They take off, humming with possibility.

Angel Di√©dhiou is an elegant lady with perfectly painted eyebrows and a gentle voice. Her loans from CAURIE-MF have allowed her to grow her chicken business from 50 birds to, at its peak, close to 300. That’s not all. She now takes orders for beauty products from local businesses and travels to neighboring Gambia and Mauritania, loads up, and then sells them at a profit. Call it Avon, Senegal style. Business is booming, she says, and it’s only going to get better.

“It really does change their life,” says Mrs. Proctor. “It’s huge for them.”

After visiting with members of a village banking group, Mrs. Proctor takes the microphone and addresses the crowd. Some of the women nurse babies. Others embroider cloth while she speaks.

“Because you are doing so well, it is going to allow other women in Africa to have similar experiences and to have the possibility to do what you are doing,” she says.

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Constance Proctor sits among village banking members in Thies, Senegal. Photo by Lane Hartill/CRS

The women cheer. Drums erupt. The women know it’s true.

The essence of CAURIE-MF’s lending theory is ingeniously tied to African culture. Village banking groups select their own members. Most women start out by contributing around $4. Instead of putting up collateral for a loan, group cohesion and trust is leveraged. When your sisters, friends and neighbors are part of your lending group, you repay. You can’t let them down. That has led to a zero default rate on loans.

“The modest amount of money that CRS and Caritas spend is producing an abundant harvest of hope in these villages,” says Bishop Thomas.

Women who received loans proudly display their wares to the board members. Some hold up sticky fish, grinning as they dangle them under their chins. One lady balances a bowling ball sized melon on her palm. She can’t stop smiling.

Neither can Bishop Thomas. Or Mrs. Proctor. Microfinance works. You can, as Bishop Thomas puts it, see the success “written on the women’s faces.”

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One Response to “Harvesting Hope in Senegal Through Microfinance”

  1. Gilda Johnson Benton Says:

    Hi Connie, So very beautiful; Continued Success & BLessings to You & Rodney. Gilda

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