Jeannette De Wyze and Steven Wolfe are a Bird Rock couple who started traveling to Africa in 2008. Upon witnessing perplexing mass poverty, the two decided to become involved with the San Diego-based nonprofit, Women’s Empowerment International.
Women’s Empowerment (WE) and its umbrella organization in Uganda, the Uganda Granny Project, help roughly 7,300 women, and, in a snowball effect, 43,000 children. These women are then categorized into 98 “granny groups.”
Founded by Leigh Findley and Win Cox, WE became involved in the school system in Uganda, eventually allowing them to expand the school, as well as open two more, and even focus on creating a high school.
After an investment of $20,000 about four years ago, the couple made their second trip to the village of Nayaka in southwest Uganda. While they found great progress since their last visit, the couple feels there is still a long way to go.
“Since the schools cost about $100 a year (per student), a majority of a family’s money is going towards education,” says Wolfe. “This means that the children are attending school tired and dirty, making it nearly impossible for them to learn. The organization realized that ‘in order to provide an education for these kids, we need to find a way for the grannies to be self-sustainable.’”
Enter the concept of Microfinance. Popularized by Muhammad Yunus in Bangladesh, Microfinance involves funding individuals and groups with small loans, typically $50 to $100, at a much lower interest rate than that of a commercial bank or lender. This allows the party to invest money into a business, pay off their interest rates and profit from their business.
In 2007, WE provided each of the 98 grannie groups with loans at a 24 percent annual interest rate. The group then provides loans to individuals within the group to be invested in their business. In Nayaka, grannies have become involved in sewing, coffee trading, and much more. The couple found it fascinating to see the increase in these women’s self-esteem.
“After the WE provided these micro-loans, it’s amazing how much the societal view of the grannies changed,” said De Wyze. “Where they were once seen as ‘drunks and useless,’ with their new business ventures and self-sufficiency, and the ability to support their grandchildren, they are quite looked up to.”
Education of grandchildren is simply one of the countless issues in this verdant, mountainous region of East Africa. Clean water is also a major issue, as both grandchildren and grannies alike must hike countless miles to a village to collect water.
When the idea of rainwater collection is mentioned, the couple says that the organization is making strides in that direction, but also faces many issues. The fact that the collection tanks and jerry cans can be stolen rather easily, and the sheer access to them provide some obstacles.
Aside from fresh water, other developments, such as indoor plumbing, sanitary kitchens, and countless other problems found in developing countries, the grannies’ small businesses provide them with the means to become self-sufficient. And with these communal loans, there is a great amount of peer pressure to repay the interest rates as soon as possible, which tends to happen the majority of the time.
“One granny used a $275 loan to buy a sewing machine,” said Jeannette De Wyze. “While that is a larger loan than usual, she was able to pay off her interest rates quickly with her profits and has begun to teach other Nayaka women how to sew. Also, many women purchase bundles of clothes from Goodwill and sell them at a marked up price at the market. It is truly amazing how sustainable these grannies are once they set out with their loans.”