Just a little over a year ago, on January 12, 2010, an earthquake with a magnitude of 7.0 struck the small island of Haiti. Little did we know, but that earthquake would become one of the deadliest natural disasters in recent history – killing over 316,000 people, leaving another 1.6 million homeless and causing over $10 billion in damages. Numbers like those make the situation in Haiti seem insurmountable, but to one small bank, they’re not.
To Fonkoze, which has been working in Haiti since 1994, the earthquake may have caused extensive devastation, but they are tackling the ensuing problems the same way they’ve tackled other seemingly insurmountable issues such as extreme poverty and high rates of illiteracy – by turning one rural woman at a time in to an entrepreneur.
The Situation in Haiti
Even without the earthquake, Fonkoze had their work cut out for them. Haiti was already the poorest country in the Americas. According the United Nations Human Development Index, Haiti ranks 149 out of 192 nations. Most Haitians live on less than $2 per day. Over 50% are illiterate, with some estimates putting that number closer to 60%. Haitian women are particularly hard hit with nearly 70% of them being unable to read. Not surprisingly, women earn considerably less than their male counterparts, though women run over 60% of households. The average life expectancy for a Haitian woman is 50 years old.
What is Fonkoze?
Fonkoze, or Haiti’s bank for the rural poor, was founded in 1994, after years of military rule and civil strife that devastated the country and took thousands of lives. Their mission is to “build economic foundations for democracy” by providing the poor with the tools they need to lift themselves out of poverty. Those tools consist of small loans, and accompanying education to teach people first how to read, write and do math, then how to manage their money, and finally how to start and operate small businesses. Fonkoze believes that there can be no true democracy until women are fully integrated into society; therefore, a majority of their clients are rural poor women.
How Does Fonkoze Work?
Fonkoze follows a staircase model in their fight against poverty. Completion of each successive step allows participants to gain access to the next:
Step 1: The Road to Life – this stage helps participants get their basic needs met. It’s hard to think about getting an education or starting a business when your roof is caving in, or your children need clothes. Through a two-year long process, Fonkoze helps people find their footing.
Step 2: Little Credit – in this stage, Fonkoze introduces participants to the concept of microfinance through small loans. It also helps them with basic literacy and other trainings so they are ready to move on to Fonkoze’s core program, or Step 3.
Step 3: Solidarity Group – this stage is the heart of Fonkoze’s work. Participants organize themselves into groups of five and borrow a larger sum together. The groups provide accountability and stability. Participants meet regularly at credit centers, where they receive more literacy training and attend business skills classes.
Step 4: Business Development – the last stage of Fonkoze has participants borrowing larger loans to create more formal businesses on the condition that they help create new jobs that will help more people.
What Does Fonkoze Mean?
Literally, Fonkoze is short for the official French name of the organization – Fondasyon Kole Zepol – or Shoulder-to-Shoulder Foundation. But to the Haitian women that rely on it, Fonkoze is so much more.
Mary Denise Auguste is currently working on Step 2 with Fonkoze. She has no doubt that it has changed her life dramatically. Prior to working with Fonkoze, Mary Denise became a victim of loan sharks who charge exorbitant interest rates and have exceptionally unreasonable terms. Now Mary Denise has a small business selling foodstuffs to supplement her teaching income. All of her six children are in school, and they are able to eat much more regularly themselves. Mary Denise has taken a leadership role in her community, serving as a center chief for other Step 2 participants in her area, and helps motivate and improve the lives of her village mates.
Aimee Inffonie Messenat was at Step 4 when the earthquake hit. She already had her own sewing business with four full-time employees. The earthquake nearly destroyed all of her hard work, costing her the life of at least one of her sales representatives and hundreds of dollars in merchandise. Fonkoze was there to support their longtime client by granting her money to take care of her growing family, many of whom became refugees. They forgave one of her existing loans and granted her a new one so she could get back on her feet. Several months after the earthquake, Aimee’s business is booming. She hopes to take out a new loan to hire more workers.
How You Can Help
After the earthquake, individuals across the globe contributed a staggering $1.3 billion in aid to help Haiti. Though, to this day, only 40% of that money has been spent. But people like Mary Denise, Aimee, and thousands of other Haitian women still need your help. By making a direct contribution to Fonkoze, you can be certain they are getting the help they need. They also have multiple opportunities to volunteer or be involved in other ways.
If you would like to learn more about Fonkoze, visit their website.