Independent Appeal: Micro-credit can make a massive difference to lives in Africa

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The Independent Online

The business is only small scale but it's a profitable one. It involves driving two hours to Lake Kivu, on the Congo's eastern border, three times a week and bringing back to the town of Rutshuru a load of fish from the fishermen who work the lake: usually tilapia, big solid fish with plenty of protein. They are popular in Rutshuru, and they can be sold at a premium.

But there's something unusual about this business: it is run by a woman. Fatuma Kazuba started it with a loan that might be deemed an impossibility, for in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), women are not allowed to own property and so have no collateral.

What enabled Fatuma was an innovation becoming increasingly important in developing countries: micro-credit. Small or even tiny loans can make a huge difference to people in countries of dire poverty, and Fatuma is the beneficiary of one of them.

They usually come, of course, from organisations other than regular banks, and in Fatuma's case the cash $300, or about 150 came from a community credit fund. While Western banks hold assets in the billions, the total value of this fund is $46,494, or just under 24,000 considerably less than Britain's average wage. Yet since it started up in 1999, the fund has helped more than 1,500 individuals launch small businesses of their own. The fund is supported by The Gorilla Organization (GO), formerly the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund Europe, the British-based charity that helps conserve the gorillas of the DRC, Rwanda, and Uganda. It began as a way of helping the families of the rangers who patrolled the DRC's Virungas National Park, home of mountain gorillas.

In the late 1990s, after the 1994 Hutu-Tutsi genocide in Rwanda sparked a vast refugee movement into the Congo and two wars, much of the machinery of government broke down in the DRC and the park rangers were left unpaid for long periods. "When the refugee crisis was on, it was very difficult to monitor the park," explains Jillian Miller, the director of The Gorilla Organization. "The rangers were going out every day to do the monitoring as best they could, but they had no salaries. No one had asked how these guys could do their work if they didn't get paid. We found they were supported by their wives and children because they had small businesses or grew food. "We wanted to help, but women don't get access to credit in the DRC because they don't own property so we decided we would have a micro-credit scheme" she said. The scheme was set up in Rutshuru, which is a principal base for national park patrols. The money was lent for periods of up to three months, at very low rates or interest (2.5 to 3 per cent) and lent to groups, small associations of perhaps six people, rather than to individuals ("Because then you get peer pressure to pay back," Mrs Miller explains).

The maximum loan was $350. It has been a huge success, so much so that it has been expanded to include men and others besides the families of park rangers.

The result has been a range of small enterprises. A popular one has been the retailing of palm oil, which is widely used in the DRC: with a $250 dollar loan, Jeanette Kavira, also from Rutshuru, has managed to set up a palm oil business.

She makes a series of journeys every week to Oicha, a village near the town of Beni, a three-mile drive to the north in a hired van, and buys palm oil wholesale, which she sells at a slightly raised price when she returns.

The profit is small about $2 per load but it mounts up, and the income is very useful for Jeanette, who at 38 is a widow with six children. She uses it for clothing, food, and especially for school fees for in the DRC all education has to be paid for. Fatuma also uses profits from her fish business to pay for schooling.

At the age of 40, she has 10 children to support. "The first four children did not go to school," she says. "But now with the profits from the business, the others can go to school too."

The credit might be micro but in its consequences, it is major.