Loans that Change Lives for the Better

By Chris Campbell Jan 26, 2011: St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Sister Toni Temporiti, left, Heather Cammarata and Sister Sherri Coleman are members of Microfinancing Partners in Africa, which makes small loans to Africans.

Instead of living with the Sisters of the Most Precious Blood in O’Fallon, Mo., she was traveling with a group of people decades younger in a tank-like vehicle, preparing to drive the length of Africa.

It was a bit of an adventure for Temporiti, who was enjoying a sabbatical.

The plan was to drive from Cairo to Cape Town, South Africa, stopping at remote villages on the way.

But something Temporiti saw while traveling shook her deeply, altering her life and the course of thousands of other lives.

“I met the strongest of strong women in Africa,” Temporiti said.
These women were often caring not only for their own children, but multiple orphans.

Abject poverty had left them with virtually nothing, but they were terribly generous with what little they had.

Traveling through the bush and the desert, camping on the outskirts of villages at night and eating cabbage and other village food cooked by campfire, Temporiti was galvanized by the sight of so many struggling people.

“I realized that a small amount of money could make a difference,” she said. “They could bring themselves out of poverty.”

Struck by the idea, Temporiti attended the 2006 Microcredit Summit in Nova Scotia, where she learned the basics about microcredit — small loans (some as small fifty cents) that help poor people with no collateral start their own businesses.

There she met Nobel Prize-winner Muhammad Yunus, a Bangladeshi economist who pioneered the microcredit concept.

Inspired, Temporiti returned to St. Louis and helped found Microfinancing Partners in Africa.

Aided by other Catholic nuns and lay people, the group established their “world headquarters” in the basement of a house Temporiti’s family owns on The Hill.

The idea was simple: generate money through fundraising events, then award grants to microcredit agencies in Africa.

Their group selected three: Jamii Bora in Kenya, the “cow project” in Uganda and Buwea in Tanzania.

“Jamii Bora means ‘good family’ in Swahili,” said Heather Cammarata, executive director of Microfinancing Partners in Africa. “They started with 50 beggar women in Nairobi.”

Jamii Bora helps the new business owners develop both a business plan and the financial education needed to pay back the loan successfully.

Cammarata, a South County resident who began volunteering with the group through word of mouth, said Jamii Bora has a 98 percent loan payback rate.

As the smaller loans are repaid, larger loans can be taken out. The business can be anything from purse-making to selling vegetables on the side of the road.

The “cow project” is the brainchild of a Ugandan Bishop, John Baptist Kaggwa.

Here, a cow — worth about $800 — is purchased on credit for local families.

Cammarata said her group has raised almost $200,000 for these projects and the much smaller Buwea, a loan agency still in its formative stages.

Rates of interest vary. Jamii Bora charges a half percent per week, which compounds to an annual interest rate of 26 percent.

While that might sound high, Cammarata points out that these loans are given to people with no credit history, no collateral and no access to credit.

“There is also the cost of training, support groups and infrastructure,” she said.

Sister Sherri Coleman, another staff member, said grants written by Microfinancing Partners in Africa have impacted the lives of numerous families.

“Twenty thousand Kenyan families have been helped,” she said. “Two hundred and fifty Ugandans received cows.”

All thanks to Sister Toni’s African sabbatical.
But she’s not the only one who was profoundly moved by personal experience. Cammarata traveled to Africa in 2010.

“It’s hard to describe the emotional connection you develop with people,” she said. “You have to be impressed by how hard they work, how much they appreciate the dignity that comes with supporting their families.”