Women run banks are breaking the poverty cycle in Africa

In Ghana, there is a running joke that they are all becoming Italians – they can’t afford rice anymore and are eating processed pasta from Italy. These are not the poorest of the poor, these are working urban Ghanaians, according to Amrote Abdella, who runs projects to break the hunger cycle in Africa.

In Ethiopia, the price of wheat has trebled in the past year. Across the developing world, the global food crisis is biting higher and higher up the economic food chain as grain prices are driven up by a trifecta of climate change, growing demand for animal fodder and the use of grains for biofuels.

Rural Africans living on less than a dollar a day can do nothing to influence these factors, but there are ways to escape the poverty and chronic hunger trap, said Ms Abdella, an Ethiopian aid worker with the New York-based The Hunger Project, established in 1977.

She is in Australia to raise awareness about the non-government organisation’s microfinance program, which empowers women to break the cycle.

She said 80 per cent of sub-Saharan Africa’s food is grown by women, but they get access to only 7 per cent of agricultural assistance and 10 per cent of land. “They don’t have ownership rights to land or access to credit,” she said.

The African Woman Food Farmer Initiative is an attempt to shift that balance.

“The goal is to set up a government-recognised rural bank that is owned and led by women,” Ms Abdella said.

“[We believe] women are more careful with their spending, they are more conscious of needing to provide for the family than men.”

Since the women’s initiative started in 1999 in Senegal, the organisation has established 103 rural centres in eight African countries. The women’s bank is part of a wider “epicentre strategy”, in which a cluster of villages work together to meet their basic needs – educational, maternal health and HIV/AIDS care, animal health and agricultural.

Since 2000, 95,326 loans totalling $US5.7 million have been issued. Seventeen communities now have self-reliant government-recognised banks (no longer requiring donor funds) run by women, which fund ongoing community development. Not one of the banks has folded.

The timetable for self-reliance is about five years. “We set the vision for what they want,” she said. “We ask them is poverty and hunger something you feel you can tackle and change?”

Only when the villagers accept the possibility of that change can the project move forward.



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