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August 2, 2011

My Inspirational Meeting in Malawi with Microfinance Client Mary Jackson

By Cynthia Greenwood

Recently, Opportunity International staff members traveled to Malawi, seeing firsthand how technology enables us to deliver microfinance services to rural people living in extreme poverty. They met with Opportunity Malawi clients and local staff to capture the stories of entrepreneurs who are working hard to break the cycle of poverty. Below, read staff member Cynthia’s account of her meeting with client Mary Jackson.

Mary Jackson and her husband Humphreys with their three-year old son in Malawi.At first, Mary was very shy, and wouldn’t look me in the face when I sat down to hear her story. Later, when she took me to see her home and meet her family, her whole demeanor changed. It’s obvious that she is so proud of all she has accomplished since she became an Opportunity client. She is truly an impressive young woman who works hard and uses her innate intelligence and business skills to create a better future for herself and her children. When I think about how little she started with, and what she has been able to accomplish against all odds, it is very humbling to me.

Mary, 25, was orphaned at five years old, and had to drop out of school after sixth grade because there was no one to pay her school fees (education is free only through sixth grade in Malawi). She started doing what she called “casual labor” — project work like cleaning and sewing — until she was married at 15 years old. She and her husband Humphreys have three boys aged eight, six and three. They live in a very poor rural village a half-hour away from Opportunity’s bank branch in Mulanje, which in turn is an hour away from Blantyre.

Mulanje village, which is visited each Monday afternoon by Opportunity’s mobile bank, is filled with red brick houses, most of which do not have indoor plumbing or electricity, and consist of a sparsely furnished main room and a kitchen. When we were there, the children were on winter break and followed us everywhere. One of the boys asked me for a ball, and I dearly wished I had one to give him. In a way, the extreme poverty here feels less overwhelming because of the villagers’ joy over our visit, as well as because of the beautiful landscape with the towering Mulanje Mountain in the distance, set against acre after acre of bright green tea plants, and palm and banana trees. Nonetheless, the poverty is palpable.

Mary and her husband started a used clothing business six years ago but it didn’t produce enough income to meet their needs. The family struggled to put three meals on the table, and lived with relatives because they couldn’t afford a home of their own. Then Mary heard about Opportunity International on the radio and from other Opportunity clients, and applied for her first Trust Group loan of 30,000 kwacha (US$200) to buy more used clothing to sell in the market. She was able to repay her loan within five months.

She is now on her fifth loan of 30,000 kwacha. Today, she purchases new clothing in Blantyre, loads it onto a bicycle and then crosses the border with an employee to sell it in Mozambique where there is less competition. She has also diversified into selling her home-grown maize and produce in the Mathambi Trading Center, and rents out 10 two-bedroom homes that she owns.

Now also a savings client, Mary has received training in savings and vision building so that she will eventually not need loans to grow her business. Mary says she didn’t know how to save before. With credit life insurance from Opportunity, Mary says she feels more secure — a “free spirit” — knowing that her relatives will not be burdened to repay her loan should she die.

Every week or two, Mary visits the mobile bank five minutes from her home. She says that saves her a lot of time and money, which she can invest in her business. Otherwise, she would have to pay $2 each way to go to the Mulanje bank branch. She uses the mobile bank to deposit and withdraw cash and to make her loan repayments. Mary says she is treated well by her loan officer, Antoni Musonzo.

The family now has four meals a day (including tea), fashionable clothing, and can afford school uniforms and books for the children. Mary is very proud that she was able to build a four-bedroom house with an indoor bathroom, a kitchen, sitting room, and their very own well, and the family plans to move to a house with electricity soon.

Mary’s social standing in both her family and her community has increased, and she is considered prosperous by local standards. Now she can help provide for the family, and she and her husband help each other more. Mary receives many visitors and is able to offer them food – something that is very important in the Malawian culture. She serves as secretary of her church, and she also loans money to other community members at no interest and advises them on their businesses. Her business goals are to have a shop in Malawi so that she doesn’t have to travel to Mozambique, and to start a tea farm. Her personal goal is for her children to receive a college education.

It’s always an inspiration to me to meet clients like Mary who have worked so hard and used Opportunity’s microfinance services to improve life for their families and their communities.