In debt for a better life

With no education Belinda Kekle and Mary Hugly tried to manage best they could. Microloans have though made both women economic independent entrepreneurs with growing businesses.

There is a constant buzz from the old television. Two men are sitting concentrated in the bar while watching the latest episode of a soap opera. They distractedly sip on a drink each. It is still too hot inside despite of all the open windows. The bar owner, Belinda Kekle, takes her eyes off the intrigues on the screen and goes out to the backyard. The outside air is fresher and the wind gentle. Grains of sand crunch under her plastic flip flops but the crackle sound vanish with the traffic nearby. The noise makes it even harder to capture Belinda Kekle’s soft voice. "I only went to sixth grade and then had to quit school," she says.

Belinda Kekle is 39 years old and has lived here in Nsawam, a town south of Ghana. She has lived her all her life. The family survived of their land. Her father is still a farmer and her mother sells the harvest at the market. She one day heard a rumor that was circulating in the neighborhood. An American woman had established an NGO in town and handed out loans to women. Despite of not believing the rumor she went to see if it after all might be true.

Adjwoa Mary Hugly, another woman from Nsawam, also heard the rumor. "I was at home when a friend told me that an organisation was handing out loans. So we went to see if it was real," says Mary Hugley.

It has been difficult for her to get a conventional loan from the bank. "The bank does not give you a loan if you are over 60. They prefer those who are 40 or at least younger than 50 years old. I’m 78 years old." Besides from the laugh lines her face marks no expression of her aging. She herself does not seem worried of becoming older. "When I reach 80 I will have a big party," Mary Hugley says revealing deep dimples on her cheeks and a thin gap between her front teeth.

The rumor was true. An NGO had recently settled in Nsawam and was providing interest-free microloans to women. Microloans are small loans given for a short term. The loans are given with a low interest rate, or can be, as for Belinda and Mary, interest- free.

At first the women were given 170 Ghana cedis (56 USD) to grow their business. Belinda Kekle did not think that the money was sufficient to start a business but thinks that taking the loans was a necessary risk. "You do not have much to lose by taking the loan. Instead you can benefit a lot from it. The bigger loan you take, the higher probability to more production."

Kathleen Gibbs, the founder of the organisation, agrees that the small loan is not much. “The small amount of obey is not enough to start a business itself. The loans were more meant to help women to expand their businesses.”

She founded Joy 2 the World in 2007 and moved from the USA to settle in Nsawam where she hoped to empower women and girls through economy, health care and education. The organisation focuses now only on education and health care since it began to have difficulties with microloans. “It became too big and we are a small organisation. The loans were interest free so the organisation’s budget was not growing. At the same time more and more women wanted to take loans. We were unable to help them, unless we started to put high interests in our loans. It is hard because there are probably many women like Belinda and Mary,” she says.

Belinda Kekle had already some savings but managed to invest more in her business due to the loans. She is now hoping to start another business since the bar is going well. “There are a lot of truck drivers passing on the main road near by here. Many of them come to the bar to rest and have a drink. When the motel is built they will also be able to sleep here before heading out to the roads in the morning again. So the motel will give me more money.”

She directs us behind the bar where the men still are sitting hypnotized. There is an empty cement building with no windows on the back yard. There are no constructors around but the building is almost finished. It looks small but has many rooms inside. It is the motel she is having built. “I am really happy. I wish though that I could do more than this. I started with a single room and am now on the process of expanding. My husband helps me whenever he can. I now have nine rooms. I will continue when I get more money.”

Belinda Kekle was granted higher loans after each repayment. Her business grew so successfully that even the organisation no longer found her to be in need of loans.

Neither Mary Hugley is in need of loans. Like Belinda she quit school at a young age. Her father was a police officer and her mother a merchant. Mary Hugley was also in merchandising. She used to sell maize to kenkey sellers and had to travel far to reach each of them. Business was though going well until some robbers started to target people on the road. She was obliged to quit her livelihood as it became too risky for her to travel. The opportunity of a microloan could not have come more suitable she says. “The loans have really helped me. I now have my own store, God Will provide, Mary Hugley says and points at a food store to her left. She has bought a house in a nearby city for her children with the money earned from the shop.”

“If I feel empowered? Of course. I do what I want and eat what I feel like eating. Even fufu ten times a day,” she says laughing.

Microloans given to women results generally in higher repayment rates. In Ghana women make up to 75 per cent of all microloan recipients. Women are generally considered to be better entrepreneurs than men. Belinda Kekle does not agree with this assumption. For her it is rather a matter of commitment. “It does not matter if you are a man or a woman. There are serious people and people that are not so serious. Yes, some women will use the loan to do well. But there are also some that are not able to. It would not matter how big amount of money you gave her. She would still not be able to work with it.”

Mary Hugley thinks that the loan itself is an incitement to success. She also adds that the support that came with microloan is what encouraged her. “The first loan was not sufficient but I accepted it with happiness. When you are given something with gratitude, you will make it last no matter how small it is. When they gave us the loan, we accepted it. We worked hard. We paid back and took another loan. The loan motivates you to work hard. You do not think of anything else, even when you are sick. You know that you are making profit. That keeps you busy. We do all we have to do to pay our debts, to avoid problems. By God’s grace we are able to take care of ourselves.”

Text by...

Sumbu Temo

27 years old journalist student and dreamer from Stockholm