In the weeks prior to the first microfinance meeting, the other Duke Engage students and I had met with the Farendé students at the school to introduce ourselves and our projects. Sadly, no one understood my French when I told them that I was doing microfinance and would work with them to budget and finance their projects. A couple days after that we had sign-ups for our projects. Not surprisingly, a, majority of the students signed up for computer and English classes, but microfinance got about 13 sign ups which was an expected number. What was surprising was that a number of those who signed up for microfinance were older men in their late 20s to early 30s. This was decidedly unexpected considering I had expected to be working with youths in their teens to early twenties. When I had asked Charlie if we would fund these older men, he explained to me that it was a case to case basis and that because people were getting married later, the term ¨“youth” was being redefined. Therefore, an older, unmarried man could technically still be considered a “youth.”
For the first meeting with the applicants I had to work through an example budget with them so that they knew how to properly fill it out. I had previously devised an example budget of my own using sulum (local beer) as the project (even though Charlie advised me to tell them that we wanted more innovative projects) the night before. However when I got to the Centre Sociale Cyril already had an example handout ready using toffee as the project which was what I ended up presenting. We ended up going through yet another example using a yam field as the project which led to a big argument over prices and valued labor. The discussion eventually led us to talking about the proper use of the loaned money. Cyril and the others had to emphasize to them that they couldn’t give the money to family members, even for dire situations such as illnesses. All in all the applicants were very inquisitive and took an active part in the discussion. The meeting ended up lasting some three hours. Towards the end, Charlie suggested that the applicants meet with us that Friday afternoon with a rough draft of their budgets for me to look over before they handed it in that upcoming Monday.
That Friday I was unsure how many applicants would come in with their budgets in hand so I was pleasantly surprised to see that people were already at the Centre Sociale before the scheduled time. The first person Cyril and I talked to was a young girl making traditional couscous who was a former applicant from last year. She made an error that I would come to realize is quite common amongst the younger female applicants. She had failed to calculate the revenue properly so that instead of showing a profit, she showed a loss. The profits were there, it was just that she had failed to tally up everything that she would be selling. Here was where I encountered one of my bigger obstacles. It was difficult for me to understand how couscous was divided up and how many plates would be rendered from a certain number of bols.
After the girl, came the men. They were all working on essentially the same project: corn or rice. This worried me considering I was told that we wanted a number of innovative projects, and a plethora of the same project didn’t seem to me to be innovative. However, when asked why they were all doing the same project, one man explained that because they need fertilizer (which is expensive) for planting rice and corn, you wouldn’t find many people selling them at the market, which was sound reasoning. In fact for all the budgets concerning rice and corn, the applicants for the most part only asked for money for the fertilizers themselves. Naturally, I knew that we couldn’t fund all of these projects due to money constraint. The upcoming interviews will have to decide which amongst them were the most serious and should be funded.