My week visiting inspirational women in Tanzania

I’m just back from Iringa, Tanzania, travelling with a small team of volunteers and trustees from Five Talents, to find out more about the work of the Mama Bahati Foundation (MBF). FT is the main donor of MBF whose footprint is huge. MBF gives loans to over 5,000 very poor and marginalised women in isolated rural areas as well as small towns.

Tanzania is one of the poorest countries in the world and trying so hard to develop. The population of 50 million face so many challenges: low incomes on average US$1500 per capita, fertility rate of nearly 5, birth rate 37/1000, infant mortality rate of 44/1000, life expectancy around 60. Nearly 2.5 million (5%) of the population have HIV. Girls have their first babies on average at 19 years old. How can this country progress and raise the standard of living? Only 27% of the population live in towns so that makes it even more challenging to improve the quality of life of such a large population of rural dwellers. Many millions of people live in rural areas with only the most basic of tarmacked roads; travel is slow on rough unsurfaced roads. Farming is often the responsibility of women and many are too poor to buy fertilisers, or cannot afford to travel to a local market with their produce. While the government can try and provide the basic infrastructure, people also need support to help themselves.

Tanzania is vast. Communications are improving slowly: China is helping to invest in the road network; Airtel and Vodafone adverts are everywhere; MPESA mobile money transfer is expanding. However, many rural areas still wait for access to new technologies.

We visited several women who had borrowed small sums from MBF. Their way of life is very humbling. The women work incredibly hard to provide enough money for their children’s education, to build a home (and even a toilet) with bricks rather than mud walls, or invest in more equipment for a small business. Women begin with very small loans from MBF, and as they save and repay the loans, they become eligible to borrow more a second time. And third, fourth or fifth.

Education and Bricks

Sohakina Wisiko joined MBF in March 2012 with a loan of 50,000TZS over 6 months (that’s about £18). She went to MBF because the interest rates were low and she couldn’t afford a loan from anyone else. She was worried about repayments and found it hard, but although she had no growth from her business, she managed to repay the money. She learned from this experience and took further, larger loans for a second, third and fourth time, at which point she borrowed 200,000TZS. Sohakina used her compulsory savings money to send her two children to school and buy bricks to improve her house. The loans were used to help her business selling drinks, and her farm. By setting up irrigation she managed to harvest and sell Irish potatoes. These are very profitable at 4,200TZS a bag. During the farming season she also sold maize and with the profit bought 38 sheets of corrugated iron, wood and nails for the roof of her house. Within two years Sohakina has been able to improve the living conditions for her family as well as build her confidence, self-esteem and pride in being able to achieve so much.

We have heard and been inspired by many such stories. The resilience of the women was so encouraging. They value MBF because of the training which is provided in book-keeping and running a business. Sometimes it’s challenging for the women to keep control of their income because husbands demand to take it from them. Often the women keep the loan a secret until it is spent, but there are cases of domestic violence as the men demand to spend money themselves. How brave and determined are these women, supported by each other in their small groups.

The Bigger Picture

And what of Mama Bahati Foundation?  It is guided by the inspirational Bishop Donald, and led by an articulate and professional banker and businessman, Japhet Macau. Both men have a heart for the poor and desperately want to expand the availability of funds so that many more women can borrow small amounts, to begin to save and develop a business. Japhet is building a committed team of Christian men and women as loan officers, and in IT and administrative roles. They understand the challenges facing poor women in Tanzania and earn their trust, so that the women are empowered to improve the livelihoods of families and households. This is very real and practical Christian love in action. A highlight of our visit was the opening of the new MBF centre in the Mufindi district of Mafinga town. MBF is held in such high regard that this event even made the national Tanzania TV news!

I know we can do ‘aid’ from the West, but local people want to help themselves. What a great way for us in the West to share our ’wealth talents’ by supporting Five Talents UK, to enable the poorest women to develop their business talents in some of the poorest and most vulnerable communities in Tanzania.