Category Archives: poverty

Message of Hope: Female Micropreneurs of South Africa

Zanele Mbeki: Founder of Women's Development Businesses in South Africa

Zanele Mbeki, Founder of Women’s Development Businesses (and former First Lady of South Africa). Credit: “Velvet Gloves Iron Fists”

For the final paper in my International Development class this semester for the Virginia Tech Planning, Governance and Globalization PhD program, I took on the topic of microfinance in developing countries. I explored the case of South Africa’s Women’s Development Businesses (WDB) Group to determine whether microcredit empowers or exploits the poorest of the poor. I was awed and humbled by the pioneering work of WDB founder Zanele Mbeki and her colleagues, who refused to stand by and watch their young nation leave behind a significant segment of the population — specifically the impoverished women in rural Mpumalanga, South Africa.

I want to pass on a tidbit of what I learned in writing this paper as my gift of hope, encouragement, and inspiration during this Christmas season.

Much may be wrong in this world, but this is a story of what women can do to help one another.

South Africa squatter's villageThe financial landscape for women in South Africa, an emerging economy in development terms, mirrors much of what female entrepreneurs face around the world. Studies sponsored by the International Finance Corporation point to unequal access to finance, defined by race and gender.

  • Black African women remain on the edge of economic activities.
  • Women comprise 52% of the South African population, of which 91% of white women are banked, as opposed to 38% of black women.
  • 42% of black women have no access to financial assets, with the remaining 20% resorting to informal financial products, including savings clubs, retail credit, insurance, or burial societies.
  • Despite the fact that women traditionally repay loans at a higher rate than men, women entrepreneurs face prejudice and barriers to access to abundant private and public sector financial resources.
  • Black women comprise the largest self-employed segment of the population, with the majority of their businesses in the informal sector.
  • Only one of every four banks considered engaging in more women-owned enterprise programs, and only two microenterprise lenders exist to serve 56,000 primarily female microentrepreneurs.
  • Rural areas remain disadvantaged and neglected.

Image credit: Women's Development Bank of South Africa
South Africa’s Women’s Development Businesses fills the gap in microcredit and financial services for impoverished women in rural areas, and promotes social and economic empowerment.

Following the fall of apartheid and encouraged by the Grameen Bank microcredit strategies, Zanele Mbeki started WDB in 1991 to alleviate poverty and empower the marginalized rural poor. Starting with R20,000, which is the equivalent of little more than $2000, Mbeki gathered together female colleagues with business, financial, and banking skills set out to change the world, starting with a pilot program to meet the needs of 50 unschooled rural women in Acornhoek, Mpumalanga. The first WDB clients received R300 or $34 for their initial loans – a huge sum for women who had rarely had access to more than R10 ($1.10). After three months, the woman repaid 100% of their loans, launching WDB into its current operation with three divisions: WDB Microfinance, WDB Trust, and WDB Investment Holdings. Since its inception, WDB disbursed R36 million (over $4 million) to 35,000 women, meaning 150,000 benefitted – assuming an average five-member household.

Women Micropreneurs in South Africa. Credit: "Velvet Gloves Iron Fists"The initial 50  women formed lending groups that were accountable for the collective repayment of the loans. No additional loans would be disbursed until all the initial loans in the group have been repaid. The women worked together to reach success. WDB taught them basic literacy, book-keeping skills and computer training. The women improved their lives as a collective unit rather than as individuals. The Mpumalanga women weren’t content with just one or two loans to get by, they took out larger loans, diversified, pooled their resources, and built business together – recruiting their children, husbands, and neighbors.

WDB gave these women access to microcredit, training, and education, and broke the cycle of poverty. Women who participated in their microcredit programs gained self-esteem, respect and improved status in the family, better access to nutrition and education for their children, improved home life and lower morbidity rates.

Women Micropreneurs in South Africa. Credit: "Velvet Gloves Iron Fists"

Their story speaks of faith, perseverance, and fierce determination NOT to accept the status quo.

Bravo to the women of WDB and their clients who proved microcredit can unlock entrepreneurship, as well as new avenues for confidence, self-worth, and hope for a bright future.

Women Micropreneurs in South Africa. Credit: "Velvet Gloves Iron Fists"

This is the season of giving. If you’re looking for last minute gifts, consider microloan gift cards from Kiva. It’s the gift that keeps on giving. As each loan is paid off, you can lend again and again.

Merry Christmas. Peace on Earth to all mankind.

May the favor of the Lord our God rest upon us; establish the work of our hands for us — yes, establish the work of our hands. Psalm 90:17

Full text posted on my Virginia Tech blog: “Women Microentrepreneurs: Fuel for Neoliberal Growth Engine.”

Sources:

International Finance Corporation. 2011. “Woman and Business: Drivers of Development.” Telling Our Story, Vol. 5 (2).

Kiva. 2012. “Womens Development Businesses (WDB) Partner profile.” Fundraising information page. http://www.kiva.org/partners/178

Naidoo, Sharda, Anne Hilton and Illana Melzer. 2006. “Access to Finance for Women Entrepreneurs in South Africa: Challenges and Opportunities.” Study by Gender Entrepreneurship Markets (GEM) program on behalf of South Africa’s Gender and Women’s Economic Empowerment Unit of the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) and FinMark Trust.

United Nations. 2011. “Microfinance in Africa: Overview and Suggestions for Action by Stakeholders.” Report by the United Nations Office of Special Advisor on Africa.

Westoll, Hendrina. 2010. Velvet Gloves and Iron Fists. South Africa: Business Century Publishing.

Women’s Development Bank Group of South Africa website. 2012. http://www.wdb.co.za/index.html

World Bank. 2012. “World Development Report 2012: Gender Equality and Development.” Report for World Bank. http://www.worldbank.org/wdr2012

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Touching Lives

“Life is not a path of coincidence, happenstance, and luck, but rather an unexplainable, meticulously charted course for one to touch the lives of others and make a difference in the world.” — Barbara Dillinham

My daughter Steph came home from a year in Africa yesterday. She served as a counselor to young victims of trauma and abuse for Bethany House in Krugersdorp outside Johannesburg, South Africa. She was heartbroken to leave all the children behind who took captive her heart, as well as all the friends and colleagues who made her year so special.

Steph in Africa

Her cat Sammy (my furry grandchild) kept circling around her, sniffing her clothes and hair. She doesn’t smell the same way she did when she left. He wonders if she’s the same Steph who left our house one year ago. He’s right. She’s not.

After a year of living and working in another continent at the bottom of the world in a totally different culture surrounded by ten unique languages and the vestige of apartheid, she changed. As a professional counselor, she listened to stories of heartbreak and horror from children who:

  • lost their parents to the ravages of the creature called AIDS that devours the lives of an entire generation of adults (and may have AIDS themselves),
  • live with their grannies (who can’t afford to feed/care for all the little ones left to them),
  • or an abusive family member,
  • or pretend to live with a family member but instead serve as the child head-of-household for their younger siblings;
  • have very little to eat and too many responsibilities to study,
  • see no hope for the future, and
  • often believe suicide is the only way out.

Steph’s world view altered irrevocably. In a good way — though at times she too lost hope, overwhelmed by the despair she encountered. Many of the children she’s come to love won’t live to the age of 14. AIDS will claim them too. Each time, she had to shake off the weight of the world,  take a breath, and start over again. She’s a plucky little thing, I must say. She touches lives. She changes hearts. She transforms the hopeless by offering tools to deal with their emotions and circumstances.

Many are tempted to give up if we can’t solve ALL the world’s problems. Instead, the answer is for each of us to do what we can to make a difference: one person, one problem, one day at a time.

I may not get to spend my days out in the field helping people, at least I can take steps to make the world a better place through creative programs at NASA, like LAUNCH and Fragile Oasis. My small contribution is helping to inspire citizens of this planet through our space endeavors to take special care of our communities and neighbors — AND sending both my daughters off into the far reaches of this world to help others.

What are you doing to make a difference inside your circle of influence? A smile. A hug. No effort is too small to touch lives in a positive way.

For now, I’m doing lots of smiling and hugging, now that Steph is back!

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Ode to Spring

My mother celebrates her 80th birthday tomorrow. She’s in Zambia with my aunt and uncle. Before she left, she told me that, at 40, she could never have imagined she’d spend her 80th birthday in Africa.

Zambia: Even lions adore my Mother...

Zambia: Even lions adore my Mother...

Mother at the Cowboy Church in Livingstone, Zambi

Mother at the Cowboy Church in Livingstone, Zambia

I wonder where I’ll celebrate my 80th birthday? In a space tourist hotel? Hey, it could happen!

To honor my Mother, I want to share a poem I wrote for her 76th birthday.

Daffodils from my yard

Daffodils from my yard.

Ode to Spring

Grim, gloomy days. Bleary, bleary.

Barren landscapes. Dreary, dreary.

Frostbite on fingertips. Weary, weary.

Oh when, oh when

come warm tidings of Spring?

Compare the beauty of winter white,

reflecting the sun in brilliance bright,

glinting from mountain peaks in morning light.

Nowhere, nowhere better!

Green gardens of Spring.

Snowdrops, daffodils, and tulips. Jubilee!

Hyacinth and crocus. Fragrant potpourri.

Red bud, dogwood, and cherry blossom trees.

Oh joy, oh joy!

Sweet scents of Spring.

Take flight, old man winter! Harsh adversary.

Melt your frozen pathways. Wary, wary.

Be gone, you wretched nightmare. Scary, scary.

Oh now,  oh now!

Come fresh breath of Spring.

A rainbow of blossoms break winter’s rest,

unfurling new colors with unbridled zest.

Fledgelings eager to soar from the nest.

Rejoice, of rejoice!

New life of Spring.

New dawn awakens with birdsong sweet.

Goldfinch and chickadee twitter and tweet.

Fluttering their wings, early morning they greet.

Oh what, oh what?

Melodic offering of Spring.

Bouquets and butterflies. Giving, giving.

Rebirth. Fresh start. Forgiving, forgiving.

Filled with His Spirit! Living! Living!

Oh welcome, welcome!

Glad tidings of Spring.

Spring at Smithsonian Castle

Spring flowers at the Smithsonian Castle

Happy 80th birthday, Mother.

April flowers to you — from my continent to yours.

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Significance Vs Obedience

I’ve been struggling a great deal since returning from South Africa just one week ago. I’m having trouble readjusting to “normal” — as in my daily routine. I don’t think I’ve ever been happier than when I was surrounded by the children of Bethany House — playing, sharing, laughing, snuggling. Just being fully “present” with them felt important to me, like I made a difference in their lives, though even just for such a short time.

Bethany House

Bethany House CourtyardBethany House CourtyardToddler House @ Bethany House

While we were there, we also had an opportunity to serve meals to the homeless at the new Ikusasa Bethany House homeless shelter for boys. Ten boys are now living at the shelter, and over 50 homeless adults come for meals. My contribution: scooping chicken vegetable soup onto a container of pap, a mashed potato looking food. Such a simple act, yet so satisfying.

Bethany House Ikusasa Shelter for Street ChildrenIkusasa Shelter

Serving others puts “self” in perspective. If you’ve ever volunteered to help those less fortunate in disadvantaged areas, you know how humbling the experience can be.

We’re forced to face the contrast between our lives and theirs.

In America, many of us take for granted our giant TV screens, multi-car garages, family cell phone plans. We accumulate the newest, fastest, coolest fad gadgets, and when something breaks, we see it as a welcome excuse for the newer version of our toy. We don’t worry about where the next meal will come from or where we’ll find shelter each night. We’re not faced with decisions that you see described in the Bethany House poster below. Shudder!

Bethany House poster

Returning home to my “normal” existence here feels something like survivor’s guilt. I’m just not sure what to do with myself. Being at work feels like I’m not doing enough to make the world a better place. I don’t know how to put my life in context, now that I’m back.

As I pondered all these things this morning, my eyes fell on a book that Steph sent home with me,I Dared to Call Him Father: The Miraculous Story of a Muslim Woman’s Encounter with God” by Bilquis Sheikh. I picked up the book and read it cover to cover, crying through much of it. Not from sadness but because of how amazing God is! I needed this book on this very day. I feel renewed after reading about the faith of one woman, who yearned to know God and risked her entire existence to follow Him.

In the story, set in the 1960’s in Pakistan, Bilquis Sheikh struggled over her lack of “results.” God taught her to focus on obedience, and leave the results to Him. Yes, I cried at this point in the book too. I realized, yet again, that God placed me exactly where He wants me – to accomplish His purposes, not mine. God didn’t ask me to be “significant,” but rather to be obedient.

Significance is all about me. Obedience is all about God. Huge difference.

Right now, obedience translates for me as being a good civil servant. My NASA salary enables me be a “sender,” allowing others to serve God in the mission field while I stay put here at home.

Over two decades ago, God placed a burden on my Daddy’s heart for Africa. He asked our extended family to refrain from exchanging Christmas gifts and donate the money to charities to help feed the African people. He never got to visit the continent he loved, and yet, look at his legacy: Daddy’s little brother Phil and his granddaughter Steph both serve in Africa. How cool is that? One man’s simple act of obedience reaps rewards even today.

One step of faith at a time.

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Flying South for Winter

The temperature dropped to the mid 20’s here in the DC region today, with the wind chill factor registering in the teens. Brrrr. Biting cold. The heater in my house rarely gets over 64 degrees on cold days like this. As I pack for a Summer Christmas in South Africa with daughter Steph, I find the irony amusing.

Giraffes from Mike Boon's South African Game Reserve

Giraffes from Mike Boon's South African Game Reserve.

Note: For those who don’t know, my daughter Steph works with the Bethany House counseling school children who are victims of trauma. The stories the children tell her keep Steph awake at night. Part of our journey to South Africa is to encourage and uplift her, so that she can pour out her heart to the children who are hurting — damaged by unspeakable abuse and heart-breaking life experiences.

Here is a excerpt from Steph’s blog

Steph talks about her journey in her Blog

Now, let’s talk about our airline-imposed travel constraints:

Jet Blue allows one bag for the DC to NYC leg of the trip. South African Airways allows two.

Here’s what I need to take with me:

  • Steph’s summer clothes (she didn’t have room to take down with her in July  which is winter in South Africa),
  • gifts and goodies for the children of Bethany House,
  • Steph’s Birthday gifts (she turns 25 next week),
  • Christmas gifts for both daughters, and …last but not least…
  • my clothes.

Basically, I’m faced with an over-constrained equation. The only way to make this work –remove variables. Meaning, my clothes!

I spent yesterday trying on summer clothes in an EXTREMELY chilly house in my effort to edit down to the bare essentials for three weeks in Africa.

This little packing exercise got me thinking.

  • What about our space pioneers who pack for six month on Space Station — especially if travel means tucking three humans into a Russian Soyuz spacecraft? What do you take? What do you leave behind on Earth?
  • What was it like for early American pioneers leaving behind family treasures to load up a westward-bound covered wagon for the nine-month journey across mountain passes to uncertainty on the other side?
  • What about families who left Europe to start a new future across the ocean in the Americas?
  • What about refugees who flee violence or poverty or drought in countries around the world today?

The shacktowns in and around Johannesburg are filled with families who left everything behind to build a better life in South Africa. Take Portia, for instance….

We met Portia outside Johannesburg.

We met Portia outside Johannesburg.

My buddy Mike Boon introduced us to Portia last time we visited South Africa. Portia lives in a one room tin shack outside Johannesburg. She welcomed us into her home. No electricity. No plumbing. No running water. (The orange containers in the doorway are for transporting water, which she has to do every day.)

Squatter's Village outside Johannesburg

The shack village where Portia lives.

Yes, I’m spoiled. We live in a land of excess. I’m ashamed to admit my struggle over what NOT to take with me for a three-week trip.

Perhaps I should take a cue from the birds who fly south for the winter: Take nothing, find food and necessities along the way.

Matthew 6:26 comes to mind:

Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?

Last word: After hearing my tale of woe today, Adam and Ben of Jess3 called Jet Blue and discovered I can take an extra bag for only $30. I know. I know. I could have checked myself. Somehow that never made it to my to-do list. Now, I get to decide if it’s worth it to repack and add back my “excess” things.

So, do I fly south like a bird, or like an American?

At least I have a choice.

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LAUNCH: Innovation Matchmaking

Vestergaard Frandsen Lifestraw

Vestergaard Frandsen LifeStraw

On Friday, the New York Times Opinionator blog featured a story about “Green Strategies for the Poorest.” The author, Tina Rosenberg, talks about the carbon credit model used by Vestergaard Frandsen for the LifeStraw products, and how they got the idea from Manna Energy. In the carbon credit market, entities that reduce carbon emissions can receive credits that can be sold as offsets to offending (think polluting) entities.

“Use of carbon markets could be a breakthrough.” Tina Rosenberg

What the Opinionator story failed to point out is HOW Vestergaard Frandsen and Manna Energy connected in the first place — LAUNCH: Water!

Our LAUNCH:Water sustainability forum in March brought together these two great forces for good: Vestergaard Frandsen and Manna Energy. Mikkel Vestergaard served as a LAUNCH Council member and Ron Garan’s Manna Energy was selected as one of the ten LAUNCH innovations. Mikkel liked Manna’s business model and signed them to a contract shortly after the LAUNCH:Water forum.

Ron Garan LAUNCH:Water

I feel like a proud parent. I hope this is one of many success stories that will start bubbling out of the innovation soup pot — LAUNCH.

So what are LAUNCH sustainability forums? What makes them unique?

We think the magic is the process itself.  We created LAUNCH as TED with teeth an innovation mashup.

First, we identify ten innovative, disruptive ideas that show great promise to make tangible progress toward solving sustainability challenges our society faces here on Earth.

The sustainability issues we face on our home planet mirror what we face when we leave the protection of our Earth’s atmosphere. The hostile environment of space forces us to be creative in how we support human life on short and long-duration missions. On Earth, we may take it for granted that our resources will be available when we need them. But can we make that assumption?

We hosted the inaugural LAUNCH:Water in March, and just recently hosted LAUNCH:Health in October. We give each Innovator the opportunity to present a 15 minute overview of their innovation to a diverse group of thought leaders.

LAUNCH Process:

Our LAUNCH team works closely with each innovator prior to the Forum to ensure the presentation tells a compelling story.

LAUNCH team prepping Innovator Dieterich Lawson
LAUNCH team prepping Innovator Dieterich Lawson

We provide each innovator with a slick video to help sell their stories. NIKE brings in a team to film each Innovator’s story, which becomes part of the Innovator’s portfolio, along with the Forum presentation.

NIKE LAUNCH:Health film studio
NIKE LAUNCH:Health film studio

The presentation to LAUNCH Council is U-streamed live so the general public can participate virtually. The U-stream videos are archived on LAUNCH.org.

Innovator David Van Sickle, Asthmapolis
Innovator David Van Sickle, Asthmapolis

Following the presentations, we facilitate small group impact rotations where LAUNCH Council focus on each innovator one-on-one (or ten-on-one, to be more precise).

Impact Rotations where LAUNCH Council delve into Innovations
Impact Rotations where LAUNCH Council delve into Innovations

Streamlined, solution-driven impact rotations are the heart of the problem-solving conversations at LAUNCH.

With five 30-minute impact rotations for each Innovator, our LAUNCH Council give insightful comments and recommendations about where they see each Innovation fitting in the market, and how to best proceed on the path toward success.

LAUNCH:Health Innovator Aydogan Ozcan told me LAUNCH was worth more than a year of technical conferences rolled up in one weekend. He couldn’t believe the thought leaders around the table were willing to focus total attention on him for two+ hours, when he normally had to wait next to an elevator just for the chance to speak to them for a stolen minute at a typical conference.

We’ll keep working hard to improve the process. I look forward to more stories in the news about the difference our innovators are making in the lives of others as the years go by. Through the LAUNCH sustainability forums, I get to be an Innovation Matchmaker. Not a bad title for my business card. Hmmm. Time to reorder….

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World Changers

I’ve been reading “The Blue Sweater: Bridging the Gap Between Rich and Poor in an Interconnected World” by Jacqueline Novogratz, founder of the Acumen Fund. Visionary founder of Manna Energy and Fragile Oasis (and Astronaut) Ron Garan told me about the book.

The Blue Sweater by Jacqueline Novogratz

The Blue Sweater by Jacqueline Novogratz

The Blue Sweater is a heartfelt, heartbreaking story of Jacqueline’s incredible journey to create economic independence for poverty-stricken African women, and her relationships with survivors the Rwandan genocide in the mid-1990’s. I find the story both uplifting and discouraging. Uplifting because of the author’s success in creating innovative investment strategies to help relieve poverty. Discouraging because I don’t feel I’ve done enough in my life to help others.

All my life, I’ve wanted one thing:

To Change The World!

I want to make a difference. To contribute. To make life better for others. Most days, however, I feel lucky just to survive the drama created by others, and smile in the midst of it. I often forget to be thankful for my job, a roof over my head, reliable transportation, running water, electricity, plumbing, and food. Think of all the people around the world who don’t have these basic necessities we take for granted.

Though I always thought I would be a missionary or serve in the Peace Corps or do something noble and extraordinary, I’ve somehow served my entire career as a federal bureaucrat. We bureaucrats take a great deal of abuse in the press, but I see the role differently than most. In my mind, Civil Servant = Missionary for Public Good. No, I’ll never be a Jacqueline Novogratz, but at least I can help create Public Good — even in tiny quantities.

Take our LAUNCH sustainability forums, for instance. We recently hosted the LAUNCH:Health at the Kennedy Space Center.

LAUNCH:Health Group Portrait with Space Shuttle Discovery

LAUNCH:Health Group Portrait with Space Shuttle Discovery

For me, LAUNCH is an opportunity to make this world a better place while demonstrating the relevance between life on Earth and the extreme environment of space.

We created LAUNCH as a problem-solving conversation around disruptive innovations that might make a difference in our world. The LAUNCH forums give thought leaders a venue for evaluating creative ideas among peers and joining in collaborative, solution-driven discussions.

Here are tweets about our LAUNCH:Health Innovators.

LAUNCH Innovator David Van Sickle
LAUNCH Innovator Gijsbert van de Wijdeven
LAUNCH Innovator Erick Toledo
LAUNCH Innovator Ben Reis
LAUNCH Innovator Aydogan Ozcan
LAUNCH Innovator Samuel Sia
LAUNCH Innovator Dieterich Lawson
LAUNCH Innovator Matt Sanders
LAUNCH Innovator Ramesh Raskar
LAUNCH Innovator Jonathan Attwood

One of our LAUNCH Council, Simon Waddington, Entrepreneur-in-Residence at Burrill and Company, had this to say of the LAUNCH:Health experience.

“An extraordinarily productive event where innovators have an intense interaction with a diverse, high level mix of companies, entrepreneurs, agencies, marketers to produce high impact feedback at no cost to the innovators.”

Maybe someday we’ll have a Blue Sweater story of our own about the LAUNCH Innovators we’ve helped propel toward success. Maybe someday we’ll see real change in how we live our lives on Earth because of what NASA brings to the problem-solving conversations. Maybe, just maybe.

And in this very tiny way, I get to help change the world – one innovation at a time!

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