Going Beyond the Call of Duty to Assist the Poorest of the Poor

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When a group of women arrived unannounced at the head office of the Foundation for Women Liberia (FFWL) in Monrovia one sunny afternoon in March 2013, they had heard about FFWL’s loan program to help women grow their small businesses and they had come to beseech FFWL to extend the program to their town.  

The staff of FFWL could have told the women that they needed to first set up an appointment or that they should present their request in writing and or even dismissed them saying that FFWL only made such decisions based on fiscal and operational considerations. And they would have been right.

However, they did none of that. The staff of FFWL, led by its CEO, Emily Peal, sat down with the women and listened to their requests. The women had come all the way from Modowhea, a town located 200 miles from Monrovia in the boondocks of Rivercess County. But, even by Liberian standards, a country only beginning to find its footing after decades of a devastating civil war where basic amenities such as electricity and running water are a luxury even in Monrovia, Liberia’s capital city, Modowhea was a town caught in a time warp of an olden period.

With no communications network readily accessible in the town, residents have to scale a 12-foot tree in the middle of the town or walk two hours through the forest to reach a high peak before they can get a signal to use their cell phones to reach the outside world.

But the FFWL staff decided nonetheless to make a trip to Modowhea to independently review the situation in the town to see if they could find a means to extend their loan program to help those poor rural women claw their way out of poverty. The 200-mile trip from Monrovia to Modowhea over unpaved pothole-riddled roads is grueling even during the dry season, but it is even more treacherous during the rainy season when the roads are transformed into a quagmire of thick soggy mud that literally swallows up vehicles up to the tip of the tires.

In Modowhea, FFWL found that there was not even a banking institution in the whole county of Rivercess, and only one money transfer agent in Cestos City, the county’s main city. That notwithstanding, and even when the sole money transfer agent demanded to be put on FFWL’s payroll to wire the women’s monthly loan payments to FFWL account in Monrovia, FFWL still found a means to extend their loan program to the women of Modowhea. After considering other options including monthly commercial travel to Monrovia which was not cost effective, FFWL entered into an agreement with the only nurse in the town who made monthly trips to Monrovia to act as a courier to deliver the women’s monthly loan payment to FFWL.

Why did FFWL literally find a way out of no way to extend their loan program to the women of Modowhea to help pull them out of poverty?

“The operational and logistical costs to extend our loan programs in Rivercess as well as other leeward counties are enormous and no amount of interest on those loans can defray the costs of managing.  But when we decided to open up shop in Liberia in 2006, we were driven by one motivation: to uplift the women and people of Liberia from the destitution they were experiencing after decades of civil war. It is a mission we have remain committed to and this is more than just a job for us. It is something that we are passionate about and fully committed to achieving,” said Mrs. Peal, who was a speaker at the 2012 TEDWomen Conference, where she used the opportunity to share FFWL’s poverty alleviation success story with the world.

The story of FFWL’s tenacious resolve to extend their loan program to the women of Modowhea to uplift them from poverty despite the challenges is one that is being replicated in many manifolds all over Liberia.  In only seven years of operation in Liberia, FFWL has already extended its microcredit program to 14 of Liberia’s 15 provincial counties. And this against the backdrop of daunting infrastructural, logistical and operational challenges that in some instances make the complications FFWL experienced in Modowhea seem rather moderate.

And, despite the tremendous success of FFWL’s microcredit program which has so far disbursed over 7000 loans to impoverished women in urban and rural communities across Liberia, helping to raise recipients’ incomes by 50%, FFWL is engaged in a holistic approach to poverty alleviation in Liberia.

Not only does FFWL also offer loans to disabled individuals, but believing that education is a critical facet in its efforts to eradicate poverty in Liberia, FFWL also provides adult literacy classes for its members and offers education scholarships for their children. FFWL also recently launched a new loan program called The School Loan Program to support Liberian schools. Working in partnership with Edify, a Christian non-profit organization in San Diego, California, FFWL has started disbursing loans to Liberian schools to help them improve existing infrastructures, construct additional classrooms, setup computer labs and other educational technology, acquire school buses and school equipment.

With 80% of Liberians living below the poverty line, and despite the efforts of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, a Havard-trained economist and Africa’s first woman head of state, to attract investors into the country, it is certainly not a stretch to conclude that it is only through the complementary commitment of an organization like FFWL that a greater number of Liberians will finally be lifted from poverty. And, it is a task the staff of FFWL has set their hands on the plow to achieve through innovation and compassion.

 

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