We’ve seen the infomercials: the sad pictures of poor young children, living in shanty towns under no more than a few cardboard boxes and sticks. From what even the newest reader knows, one can picture hundreds of those slum towns, littering the continent of Africa. Daniel Howdon of The Independent recently wrote an article about the transformation of one such population into what he called a “shining town on a hill”. It’s an interesting article to read, especially in the context of my previous post, “Nicholas Kristof and Microfinance in Africa”.
We briefly mentioned her before, Ingrid Munro of the Kenya-based, nonprofit organization, Jamii Bora is an example of microfinance success in Africa. What began as just one women giving small loans to 50 beggars in the streets of Kenya has blossomed into a true microfinance organization, servicing 170,000 members in over72 branches all over Kenya.
Howdon’s article highlighted something that we find unique to microfinance organizations, this “can-do” attitude. An underdog mentality means that organizations (like Jamii Bora) refuse to succumb to the bureaucratic and political pitfalls.
“When Jamii Bora found that the Kenya power corporation wanted a fortune to connect the town to the grid, their attitude was “we’ll do it ourselves”. So they built their own renewable power station. When builders’ merchants wanted to overcharge for breeze blocks and tiles, they built their own factories which now provide jobs as well as materials. Kaputei’s houses are powered by solar panels and its water will be processed by one of the first ecologically sound recycling plants in Africa.”
Jamii Bora’s Kaputei town is a shining beacon on the hill, built in the Kenyan countryside. The goal is to transmute slum populations to this community. Kaputei has neat rows of clay-tiled roofs. Most of the houses have running water. And some of these poor are experiencing flushing toilets for the first time. The tireless workers of Jamii Bora sprouted a town worth remembering, and style worth emulating.
That’s why we think microfinance is a success in Africa. Because these small do-gooders will continue to push their way through the red tape. Not only that, but these small successes are proving a far greater point. True, these microfinance organizations are maneuvering succesfully through poverty-stricken regions. We think the greater point is that, in the long run, development and poverty alleviation will no longer be a Western-run field.
Clarice Adhiambo was one of Ingrid Munro’s very first microcredit clients. Clarice used her first loan to begin a very small business, selling fish and chips as an inexpensive lunch for workers. She grew her business, loan by loan. And today, she is a wholesale retailer to vendors, shops, hotels, and restaurants. She also continues to work with Jamii Bora; inspiring and encouraging otherse to follow her lead.
Some have criticized development workers. Although they may have benevolent intentions, these critics argued that none of these projects were sustainable in the long run because Africans were not solving their own problems. Well, Jamii Bora and its army of members are proving the critics wrong. It’s the beauty of microfinance. The formerly-helpless individuals become the strongest proponents. The newly empowered serve on advisory boards and they become directly involved in expanding projects. In short, the poor take ownership of their own development. So although we may still see faults in the overall picture of development in Africa, microfinance will continue to slowly chip away at poverty.