Alumna’s Microlending is a Force for Good in East Africa

Heather Merkel Cammarata ’86 spent last September navigating the roads of Rwanda, Kenya and Uganda, seeing first-hand the difference that small sums of money can make in the poorest of circumstances.

As the executive director of MicroFinancing Partners in Africa (MPA), she helps microfinancing assistance reach more people more quickly in the countries of East Africa. “We help those struggling in extreme poverty to work their own way to a more economically stable livelihood,” explains Cammarata. “A simple business loan can restore a sense of dignity and hope. It’s also a sustainable way of eliminating the desperation of living on less than $1.25 per day.”

MPA helps partner programs located on the ground in East Africa by providing additional funding so that the local programs can reach more people with their microlending assistance.

Many of the ultimate recipients are women. Heather’s journal from her September trip recounts a visit to the Bushoga (Rwanda) Women’s Bakery Cooperative:

“Our partner navigates us to the village of Bushoga for a meeting with the women of the bakery. Off the paved road and back on another rocker-roller of a dirt road, we make our way. Bushoga is planted on the other side of an enormous rice paddy run by a cooperative of farmers.

The women are trying their best to keep their cool. They are lined up in front of the only painted home on the one-street village, and they are sporting brand-new aprons proclaiming the “Rwanda Women’s Bakery, Bushoga, Rwanda.” They dance and sing and welcome us, “Nikaribu! Nikaribu!” and draw us in to the house that has been transformed into a bakery.

We sit around a picnic table in a neat alcove. Normally this is a kneading room, but today we all gather in. Markey asks each woman to share her name, who is in her family, her goals, and why she is involved in the bakery. A common theme is to provide good nutrition for their children, to improve Bushoga, and to make Rwanda stronger. One young mother states that she would like to earn enough money to open her own bank account, and not rely on her husband for income.

The bakery has been selling breads and cakes for one week now. They offer traditional Rwandan bread, a banana-bread-like cake fortified with crushed peanuts, and a deep-fried roll, a heavy donut of sorts. Each is delicious! One of the innovations that the women have figured out for themselves is that they will also sell tea and other beverages to wash down the baked goods.

This cooperative of 12 women and one man are saving regularly, each contributing about 500 Rwandan francs (about 85 cents) weekly, and each working diligently in the bakery. They have saved enough to get a house of their own (the current one is being used rent-free as an encouragement to start up this activity, but the rent-free period will end in December). They have also acquired a commercial stove and pots and pans to use in baking. They purchase flour, other ingredients, fuel, and materials for the bakery. They pay a small commission to young boys who can deliver baked goods by bicycle.

At this early stage, they are baking and selling out of 100 donuts and 30-40 loaves of bread per day.

One of the women, Angelique (pictured here), is illiterate and started with no skills, no training, no education, and few prospects for her life. Since the bakery has started, she has been the hardest worker, learning how to measure, knead, bake, and sell bread. She now says, ‘I am a baker!’”

For Heather and her organization, this is true success. “We’ve been privileged to see the transformative power of a small amount of credit done well. It truly is a path to peace.”

MicroFinancing Partners in Africa is a St. Louis based non-profit 501c3 organization. Heather and founder Sister Toni Temporiti work out of the basement of Sr. Toni’s family home. More information can be found at www.microfinancingafrica.org, or by reaching out directly to Heather at hcammarata@microfinancingafrica.org. We’ve also posted additional excerpts from Heather’s journal on the NDWC website in the “What’s New” section of the homepage.