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Women transform small loans into progress and purpose

Ethiopia, May 17, 2012

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    Students at Dasash Debebe's school in Ethiopia. Her Yeweket Berihan Academy started with a $28 loan from Mercy Corps and local partner WISE. Photo: Melissa Waggener Zorkin for Mercy Corps Photo: l1050335-715x378_blog_1.jpg

Like clockwork, every time I visit the Addis Ababa, Ethiopia-based Women in Self Employment (WISE) organization, my very first impressions are of the wonderful hospitality of the Ethiopian people. Last week, as we drove up to the building, we were met with the delicious smell of freshly ground, roasting coffee beans. And we could hear vibrant music coming from a wedding taking place in one of the halls — we peeked in and immediately were pulled into the crowd of celebrants to share a few dances.

WISE, a local Ethiopian organization dedicated to eliminating urban poverty and realizing sustainable livelihoods among poor urban women, is an ideal partner to support the Mercy Corps efforts here. They focus on economic, social and political empowerment of women and the attainment of gender equality. And one of the great things about my repeated visits to WISE is the progress I’ve been able to see in each woman’s story.

As a Mercy Corps board member and supporter, I was first introduced to the WISE organization, have kept in touch directly with them and was visiting again to see the breadth of work in action. Mercy Corps partners with WISE to offer small business trainings to women through our PROSPER program. The program has many components that address health, sanitation, education and income-generation needs, but they all have one purpose: to empower Ethiopian women and girls to create better lives for themselves.

Only the poorest of the poor are able to join WISE, so the stories are ones in which huge changes take place. These entrepreneurs — seamstresses, restaurateurs, school owners, urban gardeners and designers of many beautiful products — transform their lives and the lives of those around them starting with loans as small as $30.

Dasash Debebe completed the business skills training and then took out a 500 birr loan (about $28 U.S.) so that she could teach 15 neighborhood children. She charged 3 birr per month but allowed the very poor to learn for free. WISE then paid for her further education, and she used consecutive loans to build a school, adding classrooms along the way.

When I first visited her school, Yeweket Berihan Academy, she was teaching kindergarten through 4th grade. During my additional visits, I learned that she added grades and was recognized by the government. When I spoke to her last week, she told me she has added up to 8th grade, employs 17 people and is opening another school.

And Dasash has been able to provide an education for her beautiful daughter so that she can one day replace herself —succession planning at its finest!