Empowering Women in the DR Congo to fight poverty!
My dream and passion to empower women economically as the best strategy to fight global poverty stem from my experience growing up in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Africa. I grew up in a society where a baby boy was valued more than a girl; and where women were traditionally considered as being “less” intelligent than men. And yet, as a young girl I quickly recognized that women in my community were the backbone of all our families and they literally kept the community going. Each day I saw the mothers, including my own mother, go out to find food so that we, the children will be fed. I saw that women spent much of their time finding ways to generate income to support their entire families. I acutely became aware of the fact that one woman’s success and/or “failure” affected seven to eight people in that household; because a typical Congolese family comprises of six to eight children. When I came to the United States I came with a passion to make a difference in the lives of women back home. I knew that I wanted to focus my efforts in empowering women economically as well to help them reclaim their voices. Therefore, as a graduate student, I searched for ways to realize my dream and I realized that the best way for me to achieve this end is through microfinance. In order to test this idea, I decided to run a pilot project to see if the concept of microfinance would work in the DRC. I began sending money to the DRC whenever I could, about $50 at a time. With my mother’s help, a lending circle of 10 women was eventually formed, and as the women established their businesses, they moved out of the circle and were replaced by new women. The success of the pilot project exceeded my expectations. The results inspired me to capitalize on our success and expand our services to reach more women. About three years ago, I decided to formalize the organization (First Step Initiative) and we are now incorporated as a 501(c) 3 in the USA and a registered Microfinance Institute in the DRC. The mission of First Step Initiative is empower the world's poorest individuals to lift themselves out of poverty with dignity through access to capital, training and information. Since inception, First Step Initiative has helped 300 launch and grow their businesses and we continue to help more women launch their businesses each month. This year alone, we have been helping on average 60-80 new women each month start and/or grow their existing businesses. Our goal for 2010 is to expand our client base to 1,600 and we are on the path to achieve this milestone.
During my trip to the DRC this past January I witnessed how women in the Congo are making history. Our women clients are now becoming key players in their local markets and communities. It was very exciting to see business women who just a year ago had only a few items to sell, now expanding their businesses to the point where they are becoming suppliers to other start-up businesses in their communities. Some of our women clients who were among our first clients are now at the point where they can purchase and sell their merchandises in bulk. One of clients (Chouchou) dreams of becoming the first Congolese women to run a wholesale business—which I referred to as the potential “Costco” of the Congo, if you can imagine that! Seeing the determination and the accomplishments of our women clients, reminds me of why I strongly believe in empowering women economically as the best strategy to fight global poverty. It is when we put women in position to transform their lives that they are able to change the conditions of their families and their communities. The determination and resilience of the women we work with inspire me and make me realize that we can all help women start their journey out of poverty by investing in their dreams to become self-reliant. So, let's all stand with our sisters around the world as they embark on their journey to overcome poverty.