We probably met on a hot and muggy night, with Empire State of Mind blasting through the speakers next to us, and maybe a little tipsy after just one Prestige.  Either that, or while eating fried goat meat with spaghetti and a tomato slice on our lunch break from rubble clearing.  Yes my dear readers, I met Jen in Haiti!  I liked her instantly: she’s an attorney herself and shared my dislike for the legal world.  That was pretty much all I needed to know about her to know she’s an awesome person.

Jen’s trip to Haiti had a bit more purpose then mine: she was scoping out a career transition.  Realizing she wanted to do something completely different than law, she realized she wanted to follow her passion for development work, but wanted to make sure this is what she wanted to do.  So she did what any responsible person seeking to transition out of the legal field would do: she booked a flight to Haiti and spent a couple months there working with All Hands Volunteers, which cemented her desire to work in the world of development.

And that’s what she’s doing now.  Jen is the new Director of Business Development for Micro Loan Foundation USA (“MLF”), but she’s been a volunteer with the organization for several years now.  MLF originated in the U.K., and is now setting some very firm roots here in the U.S.  As you can probably tell by the name, Micro Loan Foundation USA is in the business of providing micro financing to the poorest of the poor.  You can check out this old post if you need a little background on what micro finance is.

I asked Jen why she decided to stay with MLF, instead of looking for a different organization after she got back from Haiti.  Her response?  She believes in the model of the organization, and the mission it carries out: MLF doesn’t throw money at people (she doesn’t believe this is a solution for people of low resources in developing countries), but instead it provides women the means through which they can help themselves and become self-sufficient.

An interesting fact about MLF is that it only serves women.  Why?  Because they are the poorest of the poor, and the ones with the least amount of access to financing resources in developing countries (in some of the countries where Micro Loans works, women have no resources to go to the market, and are completely dependent on men).

MLF has branches in Malawi, but they are hoping to eventually be in any and all developing countries that could benefit from their services.  Jen mentioned that one of the difficult questions she gets pretty frequently from potential donors is “why don’t you offer your services in the U.S.?”  The answers are many.  For one, it’s not quite feasible in the U.S. yet.  $100 doesn’t go as far in the U.S. as it does in Malawi (obvies).  Another reason may sound unfair, but hey, didn’t your mom always tell you that life isn’t fair?  Developing countries simply need these services more.  Sure, there are people in the United States who would greatly benefit from similar services, but at least the United States has some form of infrastructure and other safety net services that help people out.  Women in Malawi and other developing countries literally have no other option, and would probably be unable to feed their family if they didn’t have these financial services through Micro Loans.

But what distinguishes MLF from similar micro financing institutions is that they are on the ground with local staff (read: job creation).  They are also 78% self sustaining.  This means that for the most part they don’t rely on donations or grants to keep their services going.  This is because the rate of repayment is high enough that the money gets cycled back into new loans.  I was curious on how they accomplish this when they don’t have delinquency fees, late fees, or sign up fees.  It all boils down to group liability and a desire to get ahead in life: the loans are given out to a group of women, and those women are jointly responsible for the loan: if Sarah doesn’t pay up her part of the loan, then Annie and I are also responsible for the amount she hasn’t paid back.

Another key component to the high rate of return on the loans disbursed is that Micro Loans teaches women what to do with surplus money, and how to save.  These are basic concepts for many of us, but for women who have never had a surplus of money, these are essential skills they need to acquire in order to run a successful business, and to raise a healthy family.

So where does MLF go from here?  They have some exciting partnerships on the horizon, including working with the government of Malawi on renewable energy projects, as well as partnering with an online platform, dsenyo which will allow goods to be bought and sold on a larger scale.  Pretty exciting stuff!

MLF has a lot of different ways you can get involved.  For one, they are hoping to establish Leadership Council’s throughout the United States.  These are groups of people who try to spread the word about who Micro Loans is, what they do, and try to raise some money in the process.  For example, Jen has organized several Micro-Brew events in her area, which sound like an awesome idea!  They could also use some volunteer hours from anyone with social media skills, marketing, PR, grant writing, design, etc.  These are all things that can be done remotely from the comfort of your own home :)

You can also follow their accomplishments via Facebook, Twitter, and even YouTube!

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