One of the most inspiring things I have seen in Cameroon is the progress made by many GHAPE borrowers over the years. GHAPE is the local NGO where I am working during my time as a Kiva Fellow in West Africa. Their aim, like many of the other hundreds of microfinance organisations around the world, is to combat poverty by bringing capital to people who have none. GHAPE sow these funds with a good handful of business advice to ensure their borrowers’ ventures grow tall.
I spent my second week visiting the small town of Belo, which is frontier territory for microfinance. Just under a year ago GHAPE chose Belo for the site of their second office, with the express purpose of reaching some of the remote villages in this lush but poor hilly district.
Under the impressive stewardship of GHAPE staffer Kenneth, capably assisted by credit assistant Miranda, the Belo branch is now meeting the needs of nearly 500 borrowers in six rural communities. I had the privilege to attend one group’s first proper meeting, a few weeks after their initial GHAPE training. As the chairperson checked his notes to ensure the procedures were being followed, the members hesitantly completed the small green slips used to record their savings. They will graduate to become borrowers only after attendance at a few more such meetings. Their first loan – they call it ‘empowerment credit’ – will be fixed at 40,000 CFA Francs ($100 /£55), which most, at least in these parts, will use to make modest investments in their farms.
Back in the town of Bamenda, I made the journey to Centre 1, in the village of Alabukam. Many of Centre 1’s borrowers were among GHAPE’s very first, taking their initial loan nearly 10 years ago. And they are justifiably proud not just of this, but also of the progress that they and their families have made. From modest beginnings, many now have empowerment credit of 500,000 CFA Francs ($ 1,250 /£700) or more and are making monthly repayments greater than their first year’s total loan amount. While many have continued to expand farm output, several borrowers have progressed to other ventures. One I interviewed had just set up the village’s first pharmacy; two others earn money by renting motorbikes to the young drivers who ferry goods and passengers to and from town.
Of course things don’t always go swimmingly, even when some British chap from Kiva is attending your meeting. One recently dragged on for four and a half hours. A group of borrowers had failed to bring any money, meaning the centre’s repayments were short by 43,500 Francs. When this happens, the rest of the centre is expected to make up the difference, which is no laughing matter when it’s a big sum like this. Cue much grumbling and discussion. But eventually a resolution was found which kept everyone fairly happy and made sure the meeting met its obligations.
Microfinance may not be a panacea, but years of hard work from GHAPE have brought results in Cameroon which are tangible. And from new groups to old I have been struck by the borrowers’ infectious enthusiasm and their genuine desire to help each other help themselves.
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