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Archive for December, 2008

Banking Without Borders

On Monday I made a trip out to a small village near Oshakati, Namibia’s second largest city. I went to profile a group of women that receive small ($25-$300USD) loans from our newest partner, Project Hope Namibia. Project Hope operates a small microfinance institution, and we’re teaming up with them to allow ordinary people, such as yourself, to make small loans to some of the poorest people across northern Namibia. Here’s a little background on Project Hope:

Project Hope Namibia, a USAID funded Micro-finance Institution

Project Hope Namibia, a USAID funded Micro-finance Institution

The Mission of Project HOPE is to achieve sustainable advances in health care by implementing health education programs and providing humanitarian assistance in areas of need. In Africa, Project HOPE engages and empowers women and families by creating sustainable, integrated, community based health programs. In Namibia, the foundation of this project is to expand Project HOPE’s Village Health Bank (VHB) methodology to families supporting and caring for orphans and vulnerable children (OVC). This is done by providing small-scale loans to groups of women to start or expand their income generation activities along with valuable health education in a capacity building environment. The project has expanded to reach elderly caregivers, orphan headed households, and young girls/women.

All loan recipients receive health education & business skills training

All loan recipients receive health education & business skills training

What we’re attempting to do is pair lenders, such as yourself, with loan seekers in Namibia. You lend a small amount of money to an aspiring entrepreneur through Promote Africa/Project Hope, and as the loan is repaid, you get your money back. And if you’re thinking, “What if they don’t pay back the loan?” Project Hope’s default rate is less than 5%. The key to their approach is group-lending, whereby all loan recipients belong to four-person groups called ‘solidarity groups,’ (SGs) so that if any member of the SG defaults, the others are responsible for loan repayment. The resultant peer pressure ensures extremely low default rates, even though Project Hope lends to the poorest of the poor.

So, the purpose of my visit was to profile the first group of loan recipients that will receive funding from the Promote Africa/Project Hope partnership. Please, please check out the loan recipients here. Read their bios and get to know more about this project. As you’ll notice on their profile pages, we asked them a number of personal questions in a questionnaire that we distributed (which was translated into Oshiwambo). Probably the most memorable moment of spending Monday with the group of women was when we asked them for the number of dependants (people who rely on their income) they had. I sat and watched while many of the women counted through both hands multiple times. Eventually, because several of the women were unable to keep track of all of their dependents, we had to set an upper limit. Any woman with more than 15 people relying on their income was allowed to simply write in “15+”. This simplified things and hurried the process along.

The Women of the Omulumbu Village Health Fund

I joined the women of the Omulumbu Village Health Fund

This week, we’ve launched our fundraising campaign for several projects, including partnerships with Project Hope, Omuthitu Combined School, BEN Namibia and Yelula, the sum of which we’re calling Banking Without Borders. In the spirit of holiday giving, please pick a project and help us help them. Happy holidays everyone!!

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Last Thursday I made a visit to Ongandjera, a tiny village in northern Namibia, to meet with community leaders and see if there’s any way that we can get their idea off the ground. They have a plan to increase school enrollment and performance levels by developing a school-feeding program. Food will grown by students on school property and cooked using solar ovens. What we found is shown below, but in short, I was blown away by the community’s involvement and enthusiasm for an effort that requires such minimal funding and holds such significant promise. The communal environment, where students study, work in the fields, eat food that they grow themselves using solar ovens, etc.—reminded me of a monastery I visited on holiday in South Korea last year, yet this is a tiny, disadvantaged village school in rural Namibia.

Research suggests that school feeding programs, in addition to improving child welfare and nutrition, can increase school enrollment rates. This is due to the fact that, in Namibia, the school day ends at 1:00PM, which removes the school’s responsibility to feed lunch to learners. In Ongandjera, it is estimated that 40% of school age children have lost at least one of their parents to HIV/AIDS. Additionally, due to financial constraints, many of these learners miss at least one meal a day. Ensuring a free or subsidized lunch at school provides a strong incentive for parents to send their children to school, and it will help learners with their academic performance, as they will have renewed energy and enthusiasm to study.

Omuthitu Combined School Feeding Program Directors

Omuthitu Combined School Feeding Program Directors

The project started when a US Peace Corps volunteer at the school began using a donated solar oven to make bread to sell to teachers. Since then, the community has formed a volunteer feeding program committee comprised of 35 school parents. In a school of 300 students, nearly half of whom are orphans, this number of parents represents over half the children at the school. Clearly, the community’s level of involvement thus far has been extremely encouraging.

The soon to be garden (funds permitting)

The soon to be garden (funds permitting)

To date, the school has acquired three solar ovens and some foundational supplies to begin constructing a school kitchen. However, in order to scale up the project into a school-wide feeding program, more investments are necessary. These include 2 new solar ovens, pots, pans, poles (for the kitchen), wiring (fence to surround the garden for security purposes) and initial seeds will have to be purchased. To donate directly to this project, please go to www.PromoteAfrica.Org. 100% of your tax-deductible contribution will go directly to Omuthitu Combined School.

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Thanksgiving in Kunene

I spent last weekend in the beautiful Kunene region of northwestern Namibia. On Saturday, I was lucky enough to connect with a dozen or so American volunteers in the area and have a reasonably traditional American Thanksgiving, albeit minus turkey. I even took a shot at fixing my mom’s legendary broccoli casserole, which didn’t turn out so bad. After Thanksgiving dinner, six of us piled in the truck and drove three hours north to Epupa Falls, an incredible landscape situated on the border of Namibia and Angola.

Sunday morning, we woke up and headed to Opuwo, the regional capital, so that I could sit down with a local cooperative of carvers. The group, known as Beads for Seeds, is comprised and managed by a group of 17 Himba and Thimba artisans. As with the San bushmen, the Himba have been historically marginalized by the Namibian and Angolan governments, so poverty is rampant in the Kunene region. But, the hospitality and natural beauty that I encountered in what was my first visit to Kunene have made it my favorite area in Namibia.

Beads for Seeds in Opuwo, Namibia

Beads for Seeds in Opuwo, Namibia

Beads for Seeds produces a unique product that I have never before seen in stores or online. They take used PVC pipe, which has been stripped from the ground and is destined for the landfill, and reuse it to make bracelets. The process is innovative, unique and environmentally friendly, but most importantly, the bracelets are stunning. Each piece is hand-carved, and gets its coloring from the natural organic compounds that form on the inside of PVC pipes after years of transporting water. So, each bracelet is unlike any other. Among the volunteer community in Namibia, these bracelets are among the most popular items in the country.

Handcarved PVC Bracelets from Kunene, Namibia

Handcarved PVC Bracelets from Kunene, Namibia

I attended the cooperative’s weekly meeting on Sunday afternoon and presented my proposal to sell their products overseas. Thankfully I had an interpreter with me, and he relayed the discussion while I watched for two hours as the group discussed the intimate details involved with producing high-quality export goods. I was inspired by their patience, humility and excitement in dealing with each other, as the group does not make a decision until there is unanimous agreement and all questions are answered. Additionally, because the artisans each have a personal stake in the cooperative, they are all extremely concerned about its well-being, as Beeds for Seeds represents each individual’s first formal business endeavor.

Once all issues were resolved, the artisans agreed to carve a sample stock of 200 bracelets for Promote Africa by the end of the year. We’ll send these bracelets to retail partners and post them online to see the response, and if all goes well, we’ll sit down with Beads for Seeds in the beginning of the year and set up a formal agreement to ensure stock availability and fair compensation.

Keep checking our storefront and we’ll have these products listed as soon as they’re in the states in January.

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