calendar 24.02. 2016

Not fish but nets

Johanna Rapp has been giving up her spare time for small entrepreneurs in Africa these past one-and-a-half years. The controller at ista is involved in the initiative which gives microloans to people in Kenya. This is primarily intended to enable women to start up their own enterprise. Spending her spare time doing something sensible is important to Johanna Rapp.

Esther used to wander through Gataka to sell a few tomatoes or cucumbers. Or to beg. Gataka lies south-west of Nairobi, a deprived suburb. Many of the roughly 150,000 residents have fled from the country to escape poverty. Esther, too. Then two years ago, she opened a food kiosk.

A microloan from vision:teilen e.V. enabled her to take this step to set up her own business. This Franciscan initiative operates worldwide to actively combat hardship and poverty, among other things, with the project for microloans in Kenya. Here, “vision:teilen” gives loans to groups of up to 15 women who have developed one or even different business ideas. The initiative is based on cooperation with various religious orders in Kenya, in particular with Franciscans and Passionists. It also has a coordinator in Kenya who maintains contact with the groups.

Taking the initiative for others

“When a friend of mine started working for a professional microlender, I kept thinking about it,” Johanna Rapp recalls. “I am already good with finance thanks to my work as a business controller at ista. I like working with facts and figures.” After finally making contact with “vision:teilen” through a friend, she decided in the summer of 2014 to start voluntary work. “At present, we are supporting 10 groups of women whose projects are receiving sponsorship of EUR 1,500 per group. Some of them have opened a shop, others raise chickens and sell eggs. We also support a bakery and a group that has bought an old motorbike to set up a taxi service.”

The groups are an important element of the concept. The individual members guarantee for each other – if someone does not pay, the others have to do so for them. “This keeps a good check on potential defaulters,” explains Johanna Rapp, who worked for a long time in investment banking and has a good grasp of company finances.

The microloan team consists of five voluntary helpers who meet once a month. They have divided up the work among themselves: one mainly looks after fundraising and donation management, someone else handles the finances and accounting, another person deals with communications such as blogs and a newsletter. Johanna Rapp follows the progress of the groups together with her friend, Martina Schermer: “We talk on the phone to the coordinator in Kenya once a month and discuss how things are going in the groups. For example, one group lost part of its harvest to roaming livestock. We decided to suspend repayments for the time being as the group members were not directly responsible for the loss. We are now waiting for them to plant new crops and overcome their misfortune before they start repayments again.”

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Photo top left: Esther’s children often play with their friends around the shop in Gataka. Photo top right: The members of the St. Francis Women Group from Mawego, all of whom are HIV-positive, also run a bakery and raise chickens. Photo at bottom: A microloan group on Mfangano Island, a small island in Lake Victoria, has specialised in selling smoked fish.

With good business sense, courage and commitment

In June 2015, Johanna Rapp saw for herself how well the concept works. Together with Martina Schermer, she travelled to Kenya for two weeks at her own expense to visit the groups. “I met lots of impressive people. They often have good business sense as well as lots of courage and commitment.”

As many of the borrowers come from the slums and in some cases can neither read nor write, they are trained at the beginning by the non-profit organisation Hand in Hand Eastern Africa. For six months, they are trained in the basics of business management and bookkeeping. The training courses also deal with group dynamics and conflict-solving. The groups are continuously supported from the very outset. They are assigned a contact who regularly visits them and helps them to solve problems.

News of this concept soon gets around in the region – the way it always is in Kenya. Having heard by word-of-mouth, new people interested in the scheme are always contacting the project coordinator in Kenya. “Once they’ve got an idea, they often go off in search of co-founders and prepare a business plan,” Johanna Rapp explains. “We help them to cost their business plan and explain what the difference is between a loan and money from development aid: the idea is to empower people to take their future into their own hands and become independent. Ultimately, also without us. Not fish but nets.” In order to strengthen the effect of the entire project, the borrowers must also act responsibly towards other people in need of support: only when one group pays back the loan can the money be passed on to the next one.

“We travelled around a lot, met many people, discussed and calculated. Nevertheless, I came back well rested from my two weeks in Kenya.”

Respect for the locals

Johanna Rapp was surprised how thrilled the Kenyans were about someone coming all the way from Germany to visit them. “The locals see all that effort as a sign of respect for them and it acts as great motivation.” This shows that the personal commitment of the “vision:teilen” employees makes a major contribution to the success of the initiative. The result: so far, all groups have paid back their loans. That is by no means always the case in the microloan business.

Microborrowers can fall into many traps. For example, an article in the Frankfurter Rundschau in January 2012 stated that, according to new studies, that more than half of borrowers could not pay the loan back punctually. In some cases, the ruthless methods of debt collectors forced them to take out more loans to service loans in default.

“I am aware of this criticism,” Johanna Rapp says. “But at “vision:teilen” many things are completely different.” For example, the initiative does not focus on economic gain. It is extremely important to look after and train the borrowers. “We are not under any pressure to make a profit as we work with donations. And we only provide a follow-up loan when the first loan has been repaid. Which is, after all, proof that the start-up is successful.”

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Johanna Rapp and Martina Schermer started their tour in Nairobi. From there, they travelled to Kisumu and across Lake Victoria to Mfangano Island (in anti-clockwise direction). Back on the mainland, they went to Homabay and Asumbi and then returned to Nairobi with stop-offs in Kisii and Molo.

You’re better standing on your own two feet

That’s what Esther also says; Johanna Rapp got to know her in Kenya: “Working for yourself is much better. My husband works in the local rose factory. He does not earn much money and has to work long hours. With my own enterprise, we share the burden between us.” The shop is doing well. Today, Esther earns a living herself, she no longer has to beg and can send her children to school.

Johanna Rapp returned from her holiday in Kenya even more committed: “Kenya was tiring as we worked continuously for two weeks. But we still felt as if we were on holiday,” the controller says with enthusiasm. “It is simply a great feeling to invest your time in something sensible and it puts your own problems into perspective. I felt very rested when I returned home.” She is currently organising a charity event for the microloan team of “vision:teilen” – a theatrical group is putting on a performance free of charge. And the next trip to Kenya is already being arranged for this summer. This time, the group contacts are to be given further training. Johanna Rapp has been involved in this for some weeks, organising all the necessary details: “We want to improve. It’s as simple as this: the know-how and our engagement are just as important as the money.”

 

Interview with the Kenya coordinator, Sister Carolyne Wilfrida. Johanna Rapp and her friend Martina Schermer conducted the interview during their visit to Kenya in June 2015.

You will find more information in the microloan blog of “vision:teilen”.

Do you want to support a women’s group with a microloan? Simply go to the online donation form in the blog.

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Microloans
became popular when the economist, Muhammad Yunus, established a microloan programme in Bangladesh in 1976. From then on, it has been regarded as a successful tool to fight poverty. Yunus received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006 for this work.

Picture credits: Martina Schermer, Johanna Rapp, grasundsterne