Praise Obikyere runs a small elementary school in Kpone, a village near the port town of Tema, on Ghana’s southern coast. On a recent morning, Praise led her class, of about a dozen bright-eyed 6 and 7 year olds, in a head-to-toe vocabulary game.
“Where is your nose?” she asked. The children touched their noses. “This is my nose,” they answered in unison. “Where is your mouth?” “This is my mouth,” they said, touching their lips. And on down, switching from “this” to “these” with elbows, knees, toes. They beamed at Praise’s applause, proud of their growing mastery of English. In neat, matching uniforms – girls in jumpers, boys in shirts and shorts – with new backpacks hung in an orderly row along one wall, it didn’t seem possible that many of these children are orphans, living in impoverished conditions. The meal the school serves them in the morning is likely the only one they get for the day.
With spiraling inflation hitting Ghana’s most vulnerable, those meals are becoming harder to provide, Praise told us, on a visit several US board members recently made to Kpone. A study in contrasts from the modern bustle of Ghana’s capital city Accra, just 20 miles away, Kpone is a rural hamlet of unpaved roads, tin roofs and free-ranging goats, whose residents are still largely fisherman and small farmers, and women typically end their schooling before reaching their teens; most become small traders. Praise grew up in Kpone, and pursued a career as a teacher, then returned to start her own private elementary school for disadvantaged children--in a town that had never before had an elementary school. Her husband, Daniel, helps run the school, which now has over 60 students enrolled, all under the age of 8. There are also two other teachers on their payroll.
The school receives a modest subsidy from the government. But with a recent surge in the price of staples like corn and rice, the school did not have enough funds to cover food costs for the rest of the school year, and Praise was considering closing her doors.
This past January, WomensTrust extended its microfinance services to Kpone, one of several new communities where in the last six months we've added more than 200 women as loan clients. In Kpone, Praise is one of 42 women who've received their first loan from us. With a loan of 1000 cedis (about $500) Praise was able to purchase bulk quantities of corn, rice and other foodstuffs for the students’ meals. Paying in cash allowed her to purchase directly from a wholesaler, who gave her a volume discount, which brought down her costs for each student's meal and eased the strain on the school's cash flow.
During our visit to Kpone, several more WomensTrust clients met with our Senior Loan Officer Solomon Fiagah and Mary, who finished high school with the help of a scholarship from WomensTrust and is now an intern in our Pokuase office, assisting with record-keeping and loan collections. Loans to women in this community vary from 300 cedis (about $150) to 1000 cedis ($500) depending on the type of business and the client’s ability to repay, among other factors, explains our Senior Loan Officer Solomon Fiagah. Typically, WomensTrust’s loan cycle is four months, at 15% interest.
Unlike some other microfinance organizations that operate in the area, WomensTrust loans have “no hidden costs," Solomon notes. "We are partners with every one of our clients. We are here to ensure they succeed."
Our loan clients in Kpone, like all of the women we serve, represent a wide range of businesses. During our visit we met Mary Nati, who runs a brick-making operation in Kpone and employs four workers, at salaries totalling 160 cedis per day. To meet her overhead and increase profits, she used an 800-cedi loan from WomensTrust to purchase a double-axle truckload of sand that enabled her to double her output and increase her to capacity to serve the region’s burgeoning building boom.
We also talked with Joyce Farhu, a self-described “fishmonger” who sells fish that she buys from local fisherman and then smokes in a traditional mud-walled oven commonly seen in the yards of people’s homes along the coast. She also farms a small plot of land on the outskirts of town where she grows okra and maize. She used a 300-cedi loan from WomensTrust to purchase seeds. In a few months’ time, she hopes to be increasing her income with the sales of fresh okra and corn that she will harvest from her farm.
Aishye Iddriesu, an elegant woman in an embroidered headscarf, also came with passbook in hand to make a repayment on her loan. Aishye told us she earns most of her income sorting and reselling scrap metal from old electronics equipment. But her passions are making jewelry and other products she can sell to women. Recently, she met a wholesaler of shea butter, a common ingredient used in moisturizers and cosmetics, and saw an opportunity to become a supplier to local hair salons and individual customers. WomensTrust provided her with an 800-cedi loan to purchase the shea butter, which is giving Aishye the opportunity to develop a new business and expand her customer base.
Kpone is only one of several new areas in which WomensTrust is expanding its microfinance services beyond our home office in Pokuase. Recently, WomensTrust began working with the market sellers’ association in a small, vibrant neighborhood market in the Achimota area of Accra where we now serve more than 60 loan clients, whose kiosks and tables in the crowded aisles offer everything a cook would ever need, from the staples to the pots and pans to the charcoal to cook it on.
WomensTrust will continue to widen our reach by working with local leaders and partners to strengthen and grow our programs in communities of need throughout Ghana.
WomensTrust has opened a new office in Nsawam, an agricultural community in the Eastern Region of Ghana, with a major marketplace. Our Nsawam loan clients are market sellers and women in the surrounding villages.
The girls’ scholarship program distributed school uniforms, school supplies and paid school fees for 240 girls from Pokuase and Nsawam for the 2012-13 school year. Some of the girls in Pokuase have now graduated from Senior High School, some with dreams of higher education. Three of those girls are “giving back” by working in the WomensTrust office.
With the addition of the Nsawam office, we have added a Village Savings and Loan Association (VSLA) program. This program works with the poorest of the poor, who do not qualify for microfinance loans. We are overseeing a pilot program in Avaga village, which is run by community members, with training and oversight by WomensTrust staff for one year, at which time the members can then operate on their own. It is transparent and is effective in fostering savings.
We at WomensTrust are excited about these new projects, run by local community members and look for continued support so we can reach many more women and girls.
WomensTrust is expanding our microfinance and education programs into new communities that will allow us to help empower thousands more impoverished women and girls in Ghana to build better futures for themselves and their families.
In December of 2012, we extended our microloan programs to women in Nsawam, a vibrant trading center of 120,000 people located about 10 miles north of Pokuase, the village where WomensTrust maintains its main office. WomensTrust has opened an office in the community and will hire two new employees to administer our programs there.
Currently, WomensTrust has more than 700 active microloan clients, and has awarded over 800 scholarships to keep girls in school.
Every February thousands of women gather together in New York City to explore the critical issues facing women globally. Thanks to a sponsorship from Anglican Women’s Empowerment (AWE), I traveled from my home in Pokuase to New York to speak on a panel at this year’s gathering, the 56thSession of the United Nations’ Conference on the Status of Women. The event confirmed for me that women’s empowerment is not a destination but a lifelong journey.
This year’s conference focused on rural women and their role in eradicating poverty and hunger across the globe. Being born a woman in a rural village automatically puts a lot of obstacles in your path. But I’m certainly not alone on the journey. I was able to personally meet with women leaders like US Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice; Melanne Verveer, UN Ambassador at Large for global women’s issues; Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Leymah Gbowee; and Pan-African Women Parliamentarians’ President Gertrude Mogela. I returned to Pokuase inspired and ready to work harder than ever in solidarity with other rural women. I thank the AWE – and all its sponsors and supporters – for making the dream of this rural woman come true.
Sophia. Patience. Gifty. Beatrice. Grace. Forgive. They are among about two dozen girls who gather each afternoon during the week in a makeshift classroom in Pokuase, where they spend the next two hours learning about computers.
The class is a program of WomensTrust, whose mission in part is to empower impoverished girls in Ghana through educational scholarships to help them stay in school, and extracurricular classes like health education and computer training. The computer class was first offered in 2009, through a generous donation that allowed WomensTrust to purchase 20 PC laptops and hire a local instructor. Since then more than 100 girls have received computer training--girls who otherwise would have no exposure to what we take for granted as a staple of modern life. Most public schools in Ghana can't afford computer labs, and though cell phones and ipads seem ubiquitous, these gadgets are still out of reach for many families, especially those in rural villages like Pokuase.
One recent afternoon I drop by the office of WomensTrust just as the computer class, which is conducted in an adjoining room, is getting underway. The girls, ranging in age from 9 to 16, come straight from school, still dressed in their uniforms that identify their grade and where they attend -- green dresses with yellow sashes or brown jumpers with yellow shirts for the grade schoolers, yellow shifts with blue or white trim for the junior high and high schoolers. They wear their hair closely cropped; school dress codes are strict and prohibit the elaborate plaited styles that are so popular here.
The girls sit quietly. A few have open books perched in their laps; others jot notes in notebooks. Their teacher, Dominic Osei, and a few of the girls make several trips carrying in a dozen laptops from the storeroom, and set them up in two rows on the long table. The girls take turns sitting in front of the screens, hands poised over the keyboard as Dominic guides them through the basics: turning on the computer, creating a password, logging in.
The girls are rapt and completely engaged--the kind of students every teacher hopes for. But there are other challenges. Power outages occur on a daily basis; sometimes there is no electricity for hours at a time, and computer batteries have a short lifespan. There are only 20 computers for 24 girls; and the waiting list for the class is long, since it's open to all girls who receive a scholarship from WomensTrust, more than 700 to date. And the computers themselves are more than 3 years old now--senior citizen status in computer-time.
Want to make a difference you can witness with your own eyes? Make a donation to WomensTrust to support its computer-training program for girls in Pokuase.
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