From poverty to possibility: Microfinance in Africa


How can one cow transform a family’s life, health and financial condition? An organization founded by a U.S. sister started answering this question more than 10 years ago. Its slogan is “a hand up from poverty to possibility.” And that is exactly what is happening for many people in Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania and the Republic of the Congo. The MicroFinancing Partners in Africa mission statement describes its goal as an effort “to empower those living in extreme poverty.”

That may sound like an overly ambitious mission. Actually, it is simpler than you might think. M.P.A. founder Sister Toni Temporiti, C.P.P.S., described what she calls a “life-changing experience” that led to the creation of the project. In 2003, after decades of counseling individuals and families in the St. Louis area, she was granted a sabbatical and decided to go to Africa, where some of the members of her order had worked.

She joined a group of 21 young people called “the overland group” and drove from Egypt to South Africa, visiting 18 countries over seven months. The group camped out every night and after dinner would sit around the campfire and review the day. Women from nearby villages would join them. Almost every night, the women asked these visitors questions like “How far in a day do you have to walk for water?” Or “How do you decide every day what child to feed?”

Questions like these haunted Sister Temporiti. After returning to St. Louis, she found herself eating a hamburger at lunch and it dawned on her that the price of that hamburger could help an African family start a business. And the money to do this could be given to them as a loan, not as a charitable gift. The seed was planted for the M.P.A.

The price of that hamburger could help an African family start a business. And the money to do this could be given to them as a loan, not as a charitable gift.

Two years later she attended a conference of like-minded people in Nova Scotia, where she met Muhammad Yunuz, the founder of the Grameen Bank model of micro-lending. After earning a doctorate in economics in the United States, he had returned to his home in Bangladesh. One day, while he was teaching at Chittagong University, 41 women from the school’s neighborhood approached him asking for money. He gave a little to each woman, for a total of $27.

He advised them to buy a potato or two and sell them for more than they paid for. They repeated the process day after day and soon ended up with more and more money. And, Sister Temporiti emphasized, at the end of a few weeks, every one of the women paid back the original loan. Thus microfinancing was born.

After 30 years pioneering this model, Mr. Yunuz was awarded the Nobel Prize—not in economics, but for peace—acknowledging his own conviction that if people can work together and raise their standard of living, there would be no need for war.

At the same conference, she met Ingrid Munro, a retired U.N. delegate from Sweden. Ms. Munro had set up microfinancing programs in Kenya and became Sister Temporiti’s mentor.

Sister Temporiti eventually worked with Bishop John-Baptist Kaggawa of Masaka, Uganda, who had started the Cow Project. It works like this: A cow is lent to a farmer, usually a woman. The cow provides milk to feed her family and also some to sell to a dairy. Proceeds from the dairy sales are used for school fees and additional farm improvements. When the cow gives birth to a female calf, the family raises the calf for about a year, then it “pays forward” the young cow to the next qualified farmer and retires their “living loan.” The project became one of the first supported by M.P.A.

The increased family income enables children to attend school.

Many more such projects have been created since, including farming and produce and vegetable sales, grocery and dry good stores and bakeries—which sell their wares at affordable prices—and projects supporting other businesses serving people in poverty-stricken villages. The farms supported by the program also raise chickens, pigs and other animals, as well as grow soybeans, which can be turned into flour and milk—something of a cornucopia of food that was not available before in many of these African communities because of the cost of irrigation or fertilizer. A woodworking project has also emerged.

As Bishop Kaggwa puts it: “Miracles are happening here.”

With the money that accrues, the farmers not only provide for their families but become active as leaders of their community. They can strategize with their neighbors about improving their schools and community water sources, as well as other infrastructure issues.

Another benefit of the Cow Project has been the use of the cow manure, which serves to fertilize the barren land and to grow fruit and vegetables, some of which can also be sold. The manure is also the basis of a biofuel system that provides power for lighting and for hot plates used in cooking in the homes of participating families.

And it means that firewood will not be the only source of heat and some light. That not only helps the environment, it eliminates the time village women used to spend gathering firewood. Having light at night for working and studying is revolutionary for many families.

The increased family income enables children to attend school. Their required uniforms are made and sold by the village women, the children’s lives are transformed, and their families are offered a future they never dreamed of before.Microfinancing has brought much more stability to families.

Previously, some men, unable to get jobs in their villages and filled with shame, would desert their families to find work in the cities. When they found no employment there they became angry and desperate, many of the men resorting to alcohol to deal with their feelings.

Because of the microfinancing program, many of these men who had been forced to migrate have been able to return. Now each family member has a job: The fathers cut and chop the grass to feed the cows, dig drainage ditches and deep holes for the biofuel system, and, along with the mother and children, deliver milk to the dairy and manage the crops. The children also obtain water, and the mother cooks for the family and cares for their cow.

Eventually, the family creates a banking account, and any money matters must be decided upon by the whole family, no longer by just the father. The farmers not only provide for their families but become active leaders in their communities. Bishop Kaggwa reports, “The dream has worked.”

In addition to the Cow Project, M.P.A.’s partners in Uganda have developed two programs to support women. The Piglet Project is a living loan program specifically benefiting women who, either because of the youth of the mother at the time of her baby’s delivery or insufficient nourishment, have suffered an obstetric fistula injury during childbirth. The Safe Birth Project trains midwives and uses ultrasound and motorcycle-ambulances to improve access to prenatal care and hospital-level birthing services.

The M.P.A. also partners with a network of similar microfinancing operations with names like Jamii Bora, Caritas Maddo and Buwea (Bukoba Women’s Empowerment Association) throughout East Africa. The women of Buwea, for example, operate a soy farm, hiring their own members to plant, weed and harvest. They manufacture and sell soy flour and soy milk, which is an excellent source of protein and nutrition.

The proceeds from this project support the women’s revolving loan program, which offers small individual loans to women for home income projects such as raising and selling rabbits or tailoring. Buwea has grown from 127 members when M.P.A. first partnered with them in 2010 to over 800 members in 2017. They boast a 100 percent repayment rate on their loans.

Members of these various groups come from any religion or tribe. The motto of one of the groups is: “It doesn’t matter where you come from. . . . what matters is where you are going.” Meanwhile, other churches and dioceses other than Masaka offer significant support and involvement.

Much of the M.P.A. story so far is presented in two children’s books, written by Sister Temporiti with charming illustrations by a St. Louis artist and arts educator, Maria Allen-Koerner, with the stories told from the point of view of village children. One book is called (appropriately) Holy Cow: A Living Loan. The other one is One Potato Two: Small Loans, Big Change.

In 2016 the Partnership for Global Justice, a nongovernment organization at the United Nations, recognized Sister Temporiti with their Peace and Justice Award. She has also received distinguished alumna awards from both Washington University and Saint Louis University.

But perhaps her favorite tribute has come from the African families. As one of them phrased it: “Thank you. You have restored our dignity.”