The AIDS epidemic is decimating the face of Africa. It is killing whole generations of mothers and fathers and leaving a sea of orphans in its wake. On a continent already plagued by poverty, disease and hunger, there is a light of hope. A candle burns in the lives of Africa’s poorest people: the hope and opportunity of microcredit.
Microentrepreneurs are low-income, self-employed people who receive very small loans to use in their microbusinesses. They are struggling everyday to lift themselves out of poverty. Disease and more expressly the horrific AIDS pandemic is taking a toll in their lives and the lives of their families.
Perhaps Opportunity International expressed the challenge best in a paper released in 2000. “If AIDS awareness has not reduced the rate of infection, the question that must still be answered is this: what other factors, apart from HIV-ignorance, are contributing to the high rates of HIV in certain African countries? …Because many women are economically dependent on men, the degree to which they are able to express their own will is often limited. This lack of choice – or lack of power – leads some women to engage in high-risk behaviors, which increase their chance of contracting the HIV virus. Many women believe the negative economic consequences of leaving the high-risk relationship outweigh the possible repercussions of staying with an infected partner.”
Some microcredit programs in southeast Africa are beginning to answer this challenge. They are working wonders in the lives of microentrepreneurs. They implement new innovations everyday. Healthcare, life and disability insurance, orphan care programs, as well as preventive education programs are put into action through powerful, strategic, cost effective partnerships.
Programs such as Ugafode, an Opportunity International affiliate in Uganda, The Foundation for International Community Assistance (FINCA) Uganda, Uganda Women’s Effort to Save Orphans (UWESO), The Association for Community Based Promotion (A.Com.B) in Togo, and URWEGO, World Relief affiliate in Rwanda, are all implementing new products and services to help ease the pain of AIDS and to help families maintain their own economic self-sufficiency through microcredit.
FINCA Uganda is innovating its microcredit program in ways the world has never seen. In 1996 FINCA began partnering with local organizations among them the Black Creek Orphans’ Project and the AIDS Education Centre, to provide education and support services to its clients. These organizations have sent representatives to village banking groups to help educate clients in AIDS prevention methods, for family members with the HIV virus and to help meet the needs of children orphaned by the disease.
|“If AIDS awareness has not reduced the rate of infection, the question that must still be answered is this: what other factors, apart from HIV-ignorance, are contributing to the high rates of HIV in certain African countries? …Because many women are economically dependent on men, the degree to which they are able to express their own will is often limited. This lack of choice – or lack of power – leads some women to engage in high-risk behaviors, which increase their chance of contracting the HIV virus. Many women believe the negative economic consequences of leaving the high-risk relationship outweigh the possible repercussions of staying with an infected partner.” (Opportunity International, 2000)|
In Uganda, FINCA borrowers can go to the Nsambya Hospital in Kampala or the Kitovu Hospital in Masaka. The healthcare program is being expanded to more hospitals and localities. This program provides hospital care for illnesses including AIDS. The client, her husband, and children are covered under the standard payment; a client may choose to extend coverage to additional children (i.e. orphans) or family members for an additional fee.
FINCA Uganda is also offering life and disability insurance. Children are being educated as well, the program started incorporating the school fees into the insurance payment. Not only are people healthy and insured but their children’s futures are also being grounded in solid education.
The International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) is supporting the Uganda Women’s Effort to Save Orphans (UWESO) by extending microloans to 5,865 group members who’ve taken in AIDS orphans. The project facilitates the empowerment of foster families through skills development, providing access to rural financial services and accelerating social cohesion. The overall objective is to promote income and food generating activities so that the foster families can cater to all the children under their care, including orphans (in some cases 8-12) and their own offspring. Informal vocational training schools individual orphans in activities by local private artisans, traders and street merchants, reimbursed by UWESO.
The Association for Community Based Promotion (A.COM.B) located in Togo is successfully reaching and transforming the lives of its 1,350 very poor clients with microcredit and health innovations in response to the AIDS crisis. It provides savings and credit services to urban areas throughout the country and has been in operation since 1995.
A.COM.B spearheaded a new program in two high prevalence HIV/AIDS and extremely poor districts. They partner with two local hospitals in order to combine health education and microcredit. The hospital sends staff with the microcredit field officers into key areas to provide education and training to microentrepreneurs. Within these targeted districts the rate of illness among the population has significantly increased causing a greater demand for these new services. A.COM.B determined that combining health education, information and referrals is a cost effective way to compliment their long-term financial services strategy. During the weekly village bank meeting the credit officers together with hospital staff discuss, health issues, including HIV/AIDS prevention. In addition, hospital staff recommend that clients visit the hospital if they are in need of medical attention. So far, the clients have been very pleased with the program.
Opportunity International is experimenting with several different programs in Zambia, Zimbabwe and Uganda in southeast Africa in an attempt to meet the changing needs of their clients due to the current AIDS crisis. Such breakthrough interventions include, insurance, health and AIDS education as well as, separate peer education. They are also working to reach Africa’s next generation by assisting young African microentrepreneurs in business start-ups.
The road to a poverty-free world is long, but microcredit combined with health education can be a powerful tool in the lives of Africa’s poorest people.