The Power of the Purse

By Laura Elizabeth Pohl / Molly Marsh / October 2010

Mirebalais, Haiti — Forty women sit on wooden chairs in the hot sun, holding their purses as they wait for their turn to repay their loans. They’re clients of Fonkoze, Haiti’s largest microfinance organization, which is supported by U.S. foreign assistance as well as U.S. churches—including many Bread for the World partners. The organization was founded by Haitian Catholic priest Father Joseph Philippe in 1994.

It’s a serious occasion. While the gathering opened with prayer and singing, the group is silent as individual women stand and put their bills in numerical order before presenting them to the credit agent. Each carefully signs her name in a blue record book.

Rosemene Charles, a 44-year-old mother, has come to these meetings for seven years. Back then, she received a loan from Fonkoze (an acronym for Fondasyon Kole Zepòl, or Shoulder-to-Shoulder Foundation) for 600 Haitian dollars—about $55. She used it to start a small business selling candies and cookies, but she was soon able to expand to other products—and locations. Not only does she sell her products at the local market, she also operates a small business from the front room of her house, a short walk away from this afternoon’s meeting.

“When my profits started multiplying, I bought a goat, pigs, and now I’m making a profit,” said Charles. “I just keep turning the money around and around, and my loan has become more as the years went by.”

Her store is in a room off her front porch. Just behind her concrete house are a small garden, grapefruit and plantain trees, and a shed where she stores corn and other dried food. Nearby is her kitchen, a small wooden structure that includes bowls and pots for cooking.

“I’ve come very far,” says Charles with a quiet smile. “I didn’t have this house you see; I built it while I was in Fonzoke. My house was a broken-down house before—nothing but pieces of wood standing up.”

Several of Charles’ children—who range from 6 to 24 years old—are home and helping with chores. She has been able to send all of them to school; seven years ago, she could only afford to send the oldest. “My satisfaction is that every year they move up to the next grade,” she says.

Charles credits much of her success to her solidarity group, a small circle of close friends who take out loans together. If one woman has trouble repaying her loan one month, the other women can help her cover it.

“We’ve been together for so long,” she says. “I don’t think I ever want to leave these ladies. We’re friends; we get together and have fun, we talk. We have so much that we share.”

These solidarity groups join others to form what Fonkoze calls Credit Centers, larger groups of 30 to 40 women who work together to bring themselves out of poverty. Each center elects a chief who is trained to lead the women and offer education and literacy classes. The chiefs also represent the women at regional and national assemblies, ensuring that clients’ input is incorporated into organizational decisions.

Charles’s Credit Center, meeting today, calls itself “Fok Li Bon,” meaning “It Has to Be Good.” It’s run by Elza LaFortune, a no-nonsense woman who arrived at the meeting via motorbike. A Fonkoze client for 10 years, she receives a stipend every three months to organize education, health, nutrition, and literacy classes for the women.

The literacy classes, held twice a week for two hours, begin with the women learning how to make the shapes of letters so they can sign their names. Charles is a member.

“My parents never sent me to school,” Charles says, “so every time I had to sign [my name], I had to make little crosses on papers. Now I’d like to know how to read and write. I’m going to feel like I’m a different person when I can sign my name.”

Most of the women in Charles’ Credit Center are graduates of the first two levels of Fonkoze’s Staircase Out of Poverty program. The first—and newest—level, called Chemen Lavi Miyò (CLM, The Pathway to a Better Life), is an 18-month program geared toward helping the poorest of the poor—women who don’t yet have the skills to manage even a small loan.

That would be women like Marie-Ange Lory, a 28-year-old mother of three who lives outside Mirebalais. Fonkoze case managers found her when they went to visit her mother and noticed a small shack outside the mother’s home. “Is that where you cook or leave your animals?” they asked. The mother said no; it was her oldest daughter’s home.

The shack was in such bad shape that Lory and her children had to put plastic bags over their heads when it rained so they wouldn’t get wet. The case managers took photographs of her and the house, and quickly put her into the CLM program.

For the past 17 months, Lory has attended meetings twice a week with case managers who teach her and other women everything from caring for livestock to setting five-year personal and professional goals. They also learn about nutrition, how to identify when their children are sick, and the importance of drinking safe water.

“My life has turned around. Now I have a house where no water comes in—it’s got a cement floor—and my kids are going to school,” Lory says. “I have five goats and 25 chickens. I’m moving forward.”

Lory will soon graduate from CLM and move up to the next Fonkoze program, which is aimed at women who want to start a small business but need business, literacy, and education classes.

Small loans have helped Charles and the majority of Fonkoze’s 50,000 female clients across Haiti become more self-sufficient and provide for their families, but these women also contribute to the economic life of their communities—a critical factor in a country with no safety net, little infrastructure, and a banking system that was destroyed by the 2010 earthquake. With access to credit and other resources through Fonkoze’s network of 41 branches, mostly located throughout rural Haiti, these women play a critical role in rebuilding Haiti.

“Before, I had nothing to do. But when I started with Fonkoze, all of a sudden I had lots of things to do. I had a business to run,” says Charles. “I have moved up. I have moved forward with my life.”

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