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Opportunity International Says Microfinancing Blooming in Congo

  • Drew Hinshaw

A non-profit that helps people climb out of poverty says microfinance - the practice of giving entrepreneurs very small loans to help their businesses - is flourishing in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Less than one percent of the Democratic Republic of Congo's 68 million people enjoy that most basic of financial services: a bank account.

But the personal finance picture is changing in the country's major cities. There, the number of short-term, tiny loans distributed to impoverished entrepreneurs is growing.

On January 7, A.T. Tshibaka opened Opportunity International's first microfinance center in the country. Just five months later, the non-profit organization counts 2,000 clients, according to Tshibaka, who serves on its board.

That's not unusual, he says, and Opportunity International isn't even one of the country's major micro-lenders. Tshibaka says more than 500,000 Congolese businesspeople now hold microloans, up from less than 60,000 five years ago.

"I can tell you that in the next decade, if you and I can talk again, we will be talking about millions of people being served by microfinance institutions in the Congo. I can have no doubt," said Tshibaka.

That's no small change in a country whose formal economy has effectively disappeared. A century of brutal colonial rule, followed by three decades of equally brutal rule by military leader Mobutu Sese Seko decimated this country, leaving it with a broken economy, and decaying infrastructure.

Whole flanks of the nation remain cut off from the capital, Kinshasa, and much of the commerce is conducted by men pushing homemade bicycles through woods.

The increase in microlending, Tshibaka says, could be the first spark of a true economy in this nation in the heart of Africa.

"It's really really huge. First, those who are entrepreneurial and want to start something, but did not have means to do that, we are giving them the opportunity to start that small business," said Tshibaka. "Those who already have small businesses and have the capacity to grow the business, but don't have any financial means, we are providing them possibilities to expand their businesses. And our aim really is first and foremost to make sure that people can feed themselves, that they can clothe themselves, that they can send their children to school, that they can have adequate, decent shelter, and that they can afford medical care."

Yet if this economy is to really take flight, Tshibaka says, the country's microlenders need to reach beyond Congo's major cities, and into its farmland.

Congo's rural countryside, which is as large as Western Europe, has the potential not only to feed itself, but hundreds of millions more in Africa and far beyond.

But first, Tshibaka says, microlenders have to find away to reach those remote areas so that farmers can borrow money to buy fertilizer, seeds, and plows.

That will happen in this decade, he says, as smart phones show up in rural Congo, giving some of the world's poorest farmers a way to wire money back and forth from the capital.