Little Loans Make Big Differences
Heart and degree take Katie Nienow to Congo.
Photo by Moïse Mwaku
Katie Nienow (Economics, Physics ’01) is a program manager for HOPE International, a faith-based organization focused on poverty alleviation through micro-enterprise development. From Congo, she described her work to Arts & Sciences.
How did you get from U.Va. to Congo?
I thought I might major in math, then pre-med, and I finally landed on physics. That was before my first economics class—Econ 201, taught by Professor Elzinga. I remember suddenly feeling like I had found the subject my brain was made to learn and to know. I called my mom right after I declared my double major and said, “I have no idea why I am majoring in economics—for some reason it simply seems to make sense.” My parents were a bit baffled by what might seem practical—an economics major—from a daughter who at 19 had yet to make a single practical decision in her life! Five years after graduation, I still had no idea why I majored in economics.
One year ago, I took a job in the Democratic Republic of the Congo with HOPE International. I began to realize that U.Va. had given me knowledge and curiosity about economics and planted seeds to show me how my degree might be used in a powerful way to fight poverty in the world’s farthest corners. My first year at U.Va., I went on a student-led spring-break trip to Jackson, Miss., that focused on racial reconciliation and justice. Named the hardest place in the world to do business for three years running by the World Bank, Congo is not a pleasant climate for banking, but HOPE’s mission is to fight poverty in places like Congo using the microfinance tool.
What is microfinance and what are your funding criteria?
Microfinance is the provision of financial services to people in poverty who are often excluded from the formal banking sector. We provide uncollateralized working-capital loans to the entrepreneurial poor, which is possible by making loans in a group setting: Members agree to cross-guarantee each other’s loans. Typically, HOPE loans—which average $123—have a term of four to eight months. Clients make weekly or biweekly payments. The repayment rate is 99 percent.
What enterprises have you helped finance?
In Congo, most HOPE clients are street vendors or have small, roadside businesses or market stalls. Yvan Chamusa has a small boutique with items ranging from food and drinks to household cleaning supplies. Before receiving her first HOPE loan, Yvan saved her money at home where it was always at risk of being used for one need or another—or being stolen. With a HOPE savings account, she saved 10 times what she saved before and started her boutique. With each loan—she’s received and repaid six—she’s grown her business and income. Now her family can eat more, and she pays school fees for her two children. She continues to contribute to her church as well. In addition, Yvan contributed building materials to a rundown church she has never attended simply because, by passing by this church regularly, she saw the need.
How has this work changed your life?
I’m sure it sounds trite, but through my work I am realizing how rich I am. I don’t mean rich in terms of money, although what seemed a sacrificial salary while I was in the U.S. is monetarily rich here, but instead rich in choice, in opportunity. I grew up in a country, a community, a family, all of which echoed the same dream: You can do whatever you want. You can achieve whatever you put your mind to. Working with HOPE International, I can be a part of ensuring that others will be given opportunities to achieve their dreams to build a business and improve their quality of life through access to capital, business training and savings accounts.