Friday, June 4, 2010

HOPE in the Congo

This blog post was written by Kathy Guis, Field Support Specialist, Francophone Africa.

Training a new Kiva partner’s staff is always exciting, but working with the staff at HOPE Congo, S.A., Kiva’s first partner in the Republic of the Congo, also known as Congo-Brazzaville, has been especially rewarding. This is not only because HOPE Congo has a dedicated, bright, and energetic staff, but because HOPE Congo is a brand-new microfinance organization.

Normally, Kiva develops partnerships with established microfinance organizations, so we don’t often have the opportunity to work with organizations during the initial phase of their development. We have partnered with HOPE Congo during this early stage for two reasons. First, Kiva has worked with HOPE DRC, just across the Congo River from Brazzaville, for over 3 years. Second, HOPE International, the American NGO that founded both organizations, provided a financial guarantee to protect Kiva lenders’ investments in HOPE Congo.

As with any new organization experiencing its first successes, the energy in HOPE Congo’s office is infectious. I had the pleasure of attending the community bank meeting where HOPE Congo collected its first repayments on May 26, 2010, the first day of my visit here. Not only did every single member of the community bank Ebenézer make his or her full payment, but several interested entrepreneurs attended the meeting in order to learn more about HOPE Congo and microcredit. In fact, every time we visited clients, HOPE Congo’s staff was approached by prospective clients eager to expand their enterprises by participating in a community bank.

HOPE Congo is Kiva’s first partner in the Republic of the Congo. HOPE staff has worked patiently and diligently for two years to overcome the barriers to founding a microfinance institution in this country. Despite being one of the fastest-growing economies in the world due to its oil wealth, Congo-Brazzaville’s GNI per capita was $2810 in 2008 (World Bank Group), and the average life expectancy languishes in the low 50s (UNDP, 2009). With infrastructure and agricultural production yet to recover from the civil war that wracked the country during the late 1990s-early 2000s, an estimated 33% of the Republic of the Congo’s inhabitants are undernourished (World Food Programme, 2009), and I can tell you firsthand that food here, most of which is imported, is more expensive than any other place I have been in Africa to date. At the second meeting of the group Ebenezer, the group was trained on bookkeeping.

Despite the hardships that the civil war centered in Congo-Brazzaville in the 1990s imposed on the population, the city today is peaceful and its people are kind. Though traces of the fighting that destroyed many of the city’s buildings remain, one could take a walk in downtown Brazzaville without realizing how recently these streets were a war zone (let alone that fighting persists in the region between Brazzaville and Pointe Noire to the south).

With its community-banking methodology, HOPE Congo will not only provide credit services, but encourage the community of entrepreneurs in Brazzaville to come together and support one another. When we visited Sylvain Mouanga, a member of the Bonne Semence community bank, he commented that, though he may not be able get as large a loan with a community bank than he might as an individual lender, he is happy to participate because he recognizes that by contributing to the group guarantee, he is helping other entrepreneurs gain access to credit to expand their businesses.

It is through this kind of solidarity, and the hard work of HOPE Congo’s staff members, that HOPE Congo’s mission: “to improve living conditions of the population of the Republic of the Congo, empower its citizens, and bridge the gap between formal and informal financial services” will be achieved.

So please do lend to a HOPE Congo borrower today!