Many things have taken me by surprise here at JWOC. I never thought, for example, that I would find microfinance so interesting. In fact, before coming, I wasn’t even sure of what it entailed. In simple terms, it can be thought of as lending money, something that’s quite sequestered from the traditional image of charity work, but the microfinance project at JWOC is much more than that, it is about empowering entrepreneurs in a small community.
JWOC lends money to people in villages throughout an ever expanding area – these are people who have promising ideas, or are looking to grow an already established business and support their family. The borrowers would not usually be able to acquire an accredited bank loan, for various reasons, such as not being able to do the hefty paperwork, or not owning any collateral.
The loans are given with a large dose of trust, as JWOC does not take action against failure to repay, but measures are set in place to minimize this, such as loans being given out to groups with one member being a leader that deals with the individual finances, and incentives for those who pay back.
One afternoon at JWOC, I had the opportunity to work for the microfinance department, consisting almost totally of JWOC’s scholarship students who volunteer as part of their sponsorship through university. I went with a team to a nearby village, to collect repayments from two group leaders.
The first house we arrived at, we were greeted with great welcome and gracious hospitality. Once sat down and comfortable, we talked about the business. This particular entrepreneur was a middle aged lady, who had bought a sewing machine with her loan, after learning how to make tote bags on a course with another charity. I was pleasantly surprised by their quality, something I could definitely see myself buying for a friend. She used unconventional materials such as clear plastic and shredded newspaper and sold the stylish bags on to a large organization that gave her a modest sum of money, but nevertheless, allowed her to support her family and live comfortably.
Yet again, we were met with smiles and welcomes upon our arrival at the second house. Looking around, I saw a water filter provided at a large subsidy by JWOC, a perfect example of how JWOC ties in its various projects merging microfinance with clean water and, whilst handing out a loan, educating people about hygiene and good health. This businesswoman had chosen a more conventional route to take and had a small grocery vending business within her house. She used the loan from JWOC to buy in supplies for the shop. Business seemed to be going well and yet again, it was a humbling experience talking to someone who was so grateful for a sum of money that I may have once wasted on a family holiday.
Travelling back to JWOC headquarters I had time to reflect upon the trip. Both businesswomen had used every cent of their money to its maximum potential, and in doing so they could support their families, maybe provide education to their offspring, good food and nutrition, etc. Moreover, they were happier, had prospects and goals, and had the opportunity to join the next loan cycle from JWOC – who knows what they will do with the money. A little bit of capital can go a long way, not just in providing sustenance to a small group of people, but in allowing enterprise to flourish, small economies to thrive, and in providing the first rung of the social mobility ladder.