This essay is a selection from the special edition of UnPoverty by Mark Lutz. The new edition will release this fall in celebration of Opportunity International’s 50th Anniversary, featuring new chapters from leaders throughout Opportunity’s history.
When we first met Elda, she was living in ultra-poverty. She had two children and no income. But a lack of income does not adequately describe the deprivations and dangers that families living in ultra-poverty face. Many are unable to send their children to school. They spend their nights in shacks, little more than straw-covered tents that cannot shelter them from tropical rains. Unable to keep themselves or their few possessions dry, and with no latrines or access to clean drinking water, they are subject to avoidable sicknesses that drive them to seek healthcare. And healthcare costs just make them poorer, if they can access healthcare at all.
Such families also live without food security. Though they are better off during mango or avocado season, they spend much of the year hungry. They might gnaw on sugarcane or eat leaves boiled in salt water to feel less hungry, but at times they go for days without a meal. There’s an expression in Creole for going without food. They “ret konsa,” which means they “stay as they are.”
The vision of our foundation, Fonkoze, included serving Haitians living at all levels of poverty. Using the tools of microfinance, like credit and savings, we reached out to many families on the island. But women in ultra-poverty had a hard time joining the five-woman solidarity groups we set up, and even if they did get into these groups, their businesses often failed. Microcredit typically adds capital to an existing business, but women like Elda start with nothing. They have no margin for error and no way to respond to hard luck. Any small setback can lead to failure. We had to look for other options for these women.
We found an alternative in Bangladesh. BRAC had created what has become known as the “graduation” approach, designed for women who lack economic activity. The BRAC program started with a careful selection process. Women were provided grants, both in kind and cash, to establish new businesses. No loans were involved. The program also included a range of measures designed to help families protect their health. Most importantly, the BRAC team assigned each woman a coach who gave her individualized advice and encouragement over an extended period of time. The goal of the program was for each woman to graduate to a stable, sustainable livelihood.
Fonkoze adapted this approach for Haiti in 2007 with extensive help from BRAC. The Haitian version of the program is called “Chemen Lavi Miyò” (CLM), which means “The Pathway to a Better Life.” Opportunity International has been supporting CLM since 2016. Families stay in the program for 18 months, and evidence from a handful of studies has shown that more than two-thirds of graduates are able to sustain or to build upon the improvements the program helps them make. Many, including Elda, now run their own businesses.
Elda was born in Byeneme, a heavily farmed hillside overlooking Haiti’s largest river. Her parents hadn’t been able to send her older sisters to school, but Elda was their youngest girl. They sent her and her brothers downhill to the school in Lonsi. The kids started schooling late because the hike was too much for small children. When Elda was a sixth grader, in her mid-teens, her parents moved the family to Lonsi.
Within a year, Elda was attending a better school in the next large town. Her brothers had to stop because their parents could not afford to send them all, but Elda was able to finish primary school and go on to secondary. She began hiking back up to Byeneme in the mornings to work as a first grade teacher in a small, new school, and she spent her afternoons working on her own studies in town.
She was in her early 20s when she crossed paths with Berto, a man from Southern Haiti. When Elda became pregnant, Berto moved her into his family’s home for a few months. From there, he brought her and their little boy to Petyonvil, where he rented his own room.
But Elda didn’t like the way that Berto was treating her. She recalled, “I was busy taking care of our boy. I didn’t have a way to earn money. So even if I needed just a little change, I had to ask him for it. But when someone is giving you everything, he can start to think he’s more than you are.” Berto became abusive. “I was three months pregnant, but I left him,” Elda said. She went back home to Lonsi with a young toddler and a baby on the way.
Back home, Elda’s lack of income affected her family deeply: “I returned to my parents’ home, but it wasn’t the same. I had the kids with me, and I depended on my parents for everything. I had to ask them for the soap to wash my kids’ clothes. They didn’t treat me with respect.”
In 2014, when we were selecting new participants for the graduation model, Elda easily qualified. She had nothing: no assets, no income, no home of her own — just her two little kids.
Members of our program receive training that helps them manage new businesses and the assets they need to get businesses started. Elda chose goat-rearing and small commerce, and Fonkoze gave her three small female goats. Elda learned the basics of goat care, and her small herd grew.
But Elda wanted to focus on commerce. We made 1,500 gourds, about $30 at the time, available for her to start a second business and deposited it for her in a savings account until she could leave her baby with her sister. By that time, Elda had chosen her business. Some women she knew in Lonsi were selling mabi, and she thought she could succeed with it, too: “I decided to sell mabi because you can start with only a little money.” Her case manager encouraged her plan.
Mabi is an herbal drink, popular in Haitian markets. It’s made from the bark of a tree and then flavored with cinnamon and vanilla extract. Mabi merchants come to the market with the concentrated liquid. They then dilute most of it and add sugar and ice. The final result is bitter and brown. The merchants carry a bottle of the concentrate for customers who want theirs extra bitter. Haitians find mabi refreshing on hot days.
She was ready for the challenge, but selling mabi is a difficult business. Sellers are constantly on the move because the drink sells best in the markets themselves. A small cup goes for just five gourds, so merchants need to make many sales to turn any profit. Without an established client base, they must move around the market, shouting their wares. Their piercing voices can be heard throughout even busy markets, “Mabi, mabi, mabi!”
At first, Elda rotated through five different markets throughout the week. None of these markets were especially close to her home, so she lugged her product for several miles each day, either on foot, in the back of a truck or on a motorcycle taxi. Electricity in the region is irregular, so she would sometimes have to travel extra miles to a town with reliable electricity to buy her ice. Elda worked through every obstacle and started selling enough mabi to support her family.
In addition to an income, Elda needed a place to live. Many of the women in our program lack their own home. Others might have one, but in such poor condition that it offers neither security nor protection from the elements. We help families repair what they have or build something new. Elda received roofing material and money to pay a local builder. She gathered the other materials she needed. She found hardwood posts and planks for its basic frame. She also bought palm trees and had them cut into additional planks to make the walls. She paid to have hardwood doors made and installed. Well before she graduated from the program, Elda and her children were living in their own two-room house with a new pit latrine behind it.
Meanwhile, Elda’s business took off. She kept her children fed and paid their school fees. We offer additional training sessions for our graduates every three months. Through these sessions, Elda learned about saving, and with help and encouragement from her case manager, she applied what she learned. She used some of her profits to buy more livestock — a traditional way of saving in Haiti — and put some into her savings account. Within a couple of years of graduating, she had purchased two cows with her profits and still had money in her savings account. She also bought a small piece of land for 75,000 gourds, which was probably worth more than $1,000 at the time.
Elda continues to sell her mabi, but she has also expanded her business. She has settled on a disjointed array of products: baking soda, C batteries, disposable diapers, fried hotdogs, and bleach. She takes note of which products sell best in each market and plans her week accordingly. She has also joined a sòl, a traditional Haitian savings club, at each market where she works. Members of a sòl make a set contribution every week, and each week one of the members collects the whole pot. Elda is saving to build a new, bigger house on the land that she bought: “I need four rooms. My kids are getting older, and I have a girl and a boy. They should each have their own bedroom.”
Elda’s hopes for the future include the community around her family. She knows that other women still need help. So, she formed “Oganizasyon Fanm Vayan Pitifon,” the “Organization of Valiant Women of Pitifon.” She recruited other women to lead with her, and they offer advice and training based on lessons learned from our program and from running their own businesses. Elda also established a small, semi-formal savings and loan association within the organization. Members meet every week to discuss their problems and to collect savings.
When Elda thinks of the ways her life has changed since joining CLM, she mainly thinks of respect. She puts it this way: “People respect me now. They come to me looking for advice. Thanks to what I learned in the program, I have things I never thought I would have. I can take care of my children on my own. I don’t have to ask for what I need.”
When most people think of graduation, they picture their child with a flat, brightly-colored cap, tossing the tassel from one side to the other. For Elda, the graphics aren’t the same. But the sentiment is. She has achieved a status in her community she could hardly have hoped for. She used to wonder where her children’s next meal would come from, but now people call her on the phone, asking for business advice. She doesn’t even always know where these callers found her number.
Elda has recently talked of coming to Fonkoze to ask for a loan. When her business consisted of making and selling mabi, a loan didn’t make sense. More capital would have helped her produce more mabi, but it would not have increased her sales. But her newer business, selling odd products, requires capital. She sees the value of diversification and speaks of expanding her inventory. Taking that bold next step is a decision she alone can make. But for Elda, the mere recognition of new possibilities, and the consideration of owning a respectable enterprise, is graduation.
Informal savings groups and lending programs have likely been around in one fashion or another since early civilization. It has been only in the last few years that Opportunity has embraced them as an onramp to our standard microfinance programs and as an essential addition to our arsenal in our war on extreme poverty. Another such program that meets those two criteria is Opportunity’s most recent initiative, providing financial services to refugees. Our very first partnership with an organization in a refugee settlement was not formalized until early in our 50th anniversary year. This truly embryonic pilot is showing early indications of probable success and, if so, scalability. Who knows what its reports will reflect at the time of our 60th anniversary — or what latest innovation we will be announcing at that juncture? Thank you in advance for your partnership as we continue to speak out on behalf of the voiceless and strive to end extreme poverty.