Microfinance in Kibwezi

Long-timers at BPC know the story behind the church’s connection with Kibwezi, Kenya. It is decades old, and rich in travel tales and personal friendships. It led to the creation of a primary school, a trade school, an orphanage, and a small business program, on literally what had been an overgrown field of brush.

But many do not know the story, particularly newer BPC members and friends. So here is a short version, with a special emphasis on that small business program, which is on the cusp of something exciting.

The Rev. Beth Braxton, BPC’s senior pastor from 1984 to 2011, had been a Peace Corps volunteer in Kenya. She had seen the poverty in and around the village of Kibwezi.

So when she came to BPC and the church expressed interest in developing its international mission program, she knew where to turn.

Through a partnership with the Nairobi Central Presbytery of East Africa, BPC developed a mission base closer to Kibwezi. This allowed BPC to set some priorities. Our partners told us that an educational system was needed most, so the primary school went up first.

BPC member James Munthali first went to Kibwezi in 2004; he wanted to join in on one of the regular BPC mission trips that had developed by this point. This particular trip was to focus on the orphan care program, which had developed in part because of the area’s HIV/AIDS epidemic that left many children parentless.

“The first thing that smacks you in the face is the breadth and the depth of the poverty.
It just kills you,” James said.

James was an economist who had worked for 20 years for the International Monetary Fund. He was trained to study the production, consumption and transfer of wealth, and it was clear this corner of Kenya wasn’t seeing its share.

He spent three months in Kenya, talking with financial experts there and getting a lay of the
land. And he decided that he needed to do something.

Starting a bank for this community was not an option; it would have taken millions. Many existing loan programs in Kenya refused to loan to older people, women, or people who were HIV-positive, which meant many of those in Kibwezi who needed help the most could not qualify.

Microfinance seemed to be the logical solution, James said. 

So what is microfinance? It’s a way to provide loans, traditionally offered through banks, to people who don’t have access to such financial systems. It’s a way for people to build small, sometimes very small, businesses, using skills or resources they already have.

James discovered that the equivalent of 20 American dollars could create a business in Kibwezi. “What was pocket change for me could change somebody’s life,” he said.

James partnered with another BPC member, Ed Parker, whose background was also in money; Ed
had managed finances for the Pentagon. The two returned to Kenya together, in 2008, to figure out how to make this microfinance concept work—and legally—in Kenya.

Meanwhile, they created something called the Walking With Africans Foundation (WAF) here in the United States. This group started with 10 members, most of whom were from BPC. Fundraising events were held in people’s homes, with the help of Kenyans from around the Washington area. They raised $12,000 in seed money.

“It was a very good start,” James said.

That was in 2009. Working with local Kenyans, they created a business plan and hired a wellqualified
microfinance organizer. The repayment rate for this loan program is very high, because there’s a tremendous amount of social pressure to follow through. “If you don’t pay your loan back, everyone else is put on the spot to pay it back for you,” Ed said.

Here’s what has happened in the seven years since this program started: Dozens of loans have been given out, most of them in amounts smaller than $100.

  • One woman used her loan to buy large bags of charcoal, which she then broke into smaller bags to sell and enable families to cook their suppers.
  • One man used his loan to buy bicycle parts which he then repairs and resells.
  • One woman rides a “matatu” minibus from village to village, with a battery powered keyboard on her back. She teaches church musicians, and she needed seed money for the music she sells them.

“So how do we assess progress?” Ed asked.

Every loan recipient receives a survey they must fill out. “Initially, when we asked about children, they were working on farms because their parents couldn’t afford tuition and uniforms,” Ed said.
Today, more people are reporting that they have children enrolled in school.

“So even if we don’t make a dent in poverty for the current generation, we probably are going to
make one for the next generation,” Ed said.

So what now? 

This microfinance program is on the brink of a new chapter: “We are very close to breaking even,” James said, meaning that the initial capital invested in the venture has been repaid. The program has an organizer and an accountant, and both need better salaries, Ed and James agree.

Now they hope to expand their donor base, from that original 10 who made the program possible.
And they would like to draw support from outside BPC as well, in the hopes that even more resources could be made available for the families in and around Kibwezi.

“Even $5 or $15, that can start a new life for someone,” James said