Microfinancing is effective in many communities, but what about those who are too poor to get started? Fonkoze is Haiti’s answer. Founded in 1994, it now has branches in all parts of Haiti, and supports women like Ytelet to get out of extreme poverty and into futures as business owners.
Founded by Father Joseph Philippe and a network of community activists in 1994, Fonkoze is now Haiti’s largest microfinance organisation. Father Philippe and his colleagues had come to believe that democracy in Haiti would depend on developing a more inclusive economy, so they established an institution that could serve as something like a bank for Haiti’s most excluded; its rural poor. Fonkoze began to offer small loans and a way to save, and eventually spread across the country. It now has 45 branches in all parts of Haiti that serve over 60,000 borrowers and hold over 200,000 savings accounts.
Ytelet is one such borrower.
Too poor to microfinance
When Ytelet joined Fonkoze’s CLM program in January 2011, she was struggling just to feed her children and herself. She lived by farming, but didn’t own her own land, so she could never grow enough to get by.
CLM stands for Chemen Lavi Miyò, Haitian Creole for “The Pathway to a Better Life.” It is a program that provides the comprehensive support that a person in Ytelet’s position needs to transform their life. Fonkoze established the program when it learned that there are families too poor for the usual microfinance system.
CLM is an example of the ‘graduation approach’; a poverty-elimination strategy drawing increasing attention. Developed by BRAC in Bangladesh, the approach is now being used in dozens of countries. Graduation programs have been studied extensively, and proven effective. They empower women like Ytelet to break free from the poverty traps that hold sway over their lives, by unlocking entrepreneurial talents that can pave their road to success. This is achieved by providing support in three key areas.
Many poor families were driven into extreme poverty by sickness or death. When Ytelet joined the program, her health was a barrier. Poor nutrition left her vulnerable to even minor fevers, and unsafe drinking water caused her frequent stomach and intestinal problems. Eventually a fever confined Ytelet to bed. The nearest clinic was a long hike from her home and to get there, she needed to be carried in a stretcher. Her family went to a nearby traditional healer, who told them that Ytelet was doomed, so they decided that the hike wasn’t worth the trouble.
The CLM program assigns each family a case manager. Ytelet’s case manager enlisted neighbours to help him carry her to the hospital, and made sure that she was allocated a bed upon arrival. Less than a week later, Ytelet’s health had improved to the point where she was, able to hike back home.
Few of the CLM program’s health interventions are as dramatic as Ytelet’s, because its main focus is prevention. For instance, participants receive water filters and latrines (few have access to a latrine before they join). They also receive help to repair their home. All participants graduate from the program with a tin roof on their home, which protects them from tropical downpours. In addition, they receive weekly training in critical health topics, including vitamin A, hygiene, nutrition, and family planning.
Finally, Fonkoze’s close collaboration with Partners in Health (PIH) ensures that all program participants receive free healthcare at Partners in Health facilities. For Ytelet the care that PIH provided saved her life.
We say that teaching someone to fish feeds them for a lifetime, but a woman who knows how to fish still needs tools. CLM teaches women to manage small businesses, and provides them with the assets to get started. Most choose livestock, but they can choose merchandise to start a small commerce as well.
Before the CLM program, Ytelet had been a farmer. But without means of her own, she was only able to work as a sharecropper, planting seeds she had bought on credit. Her debt to the landowner and the 100% interest she was paying for seeds ensured she was never able to get ahead.
The CLM program gave her the means to rent land outright and to buy seeds with cash up front. Soon her farming became profitable. For the last harvest before she joined, Ytelet had planted four cans of borrowed beans. Her harvest had been reasonable, at about thirty cans. However, fifteen cans went to the landowner and eight to the man who lent her the beans.
Six months into her membership in CLM, Ytelet planted 12 cans of beans, which she purchased with cash up front on a plot she rented for 1000 gourds. She put away 40 cans at harvest, even after using some to pay her field hands.
Ytelet also received livestock, enabling her to build wealth with which to invest. She increased the scope of her farming and added a profitable business buying and selling beans. She also sold her goats’ young to buy a horse, which enabled her to carry more merchandise to market.
Despite everything that CLM could offer Ytelet, she would have had a hard time moving forward on her own. Her case manager was a critical part of her success. Case managers meet with members of the program once a week for 18 months.
For Ytelet, her case manager’s importance was especially clear. He brought her to the hospital when she was on the verge of death. He showed her how she could transform her farming into a profitable business.
Accompaniment is important for many of the women who pass through the program. Training can show them the path to a better life, and assets can make walking the path feasible. But setbacks are the rule, rather than the exception, for the poor. Without adequate emotional and strategic support, a single setback could cause a woman to fail. Case managers also help participants learn the habit of planning and looking ahead, which is critical if they are to change their lives.
A brighter future
Ytelet graduated from the CLM program in 2012, and four years later her progress continues. She moved from Zaboka, where she grew up, to Regalis, a market town across the mountains with better schools for her children and better vending outlets for the beans she sells. She hikes back to Zaboka regularly, because she still farms there, but her own harvests are now only one part of her growing business.
Not every CLM graduate is as successful as Ytelet, but over 95% who finish the program require no further subsidies. With no jobs in the Haitian countryside, especially for women suffering extreme poverty, self-employment is their only option. They are entrepreneurs by necessity.
Ytelet makes decisions every day, as she moves her resources between her fields, her livestock, and her bean business. She strategises constantly about ways to maximise her profits and increase her net worth. She is surely an entrepreneur, and an admirable and effective one.
Steven Werlin has been a faculty member at Shimer College, in Chicago, since 1996 and the Communications and Learning Officer for Fonkoze’s CLM program for two years. He’s been living and working in Haiti since 2005. His book about the graduation approach, To Fool the Rain, will be published in January 2017 by Ti Koze Press and is available for pre-order on www.fonkoze.org/to-fool-the-rain.
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