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Microfinance Loans Help African Child-Run Businesses Survive - 2003-09-05

Eleven million children in Southern Africa have lost one or both parents to AIDS-related illnesses, often in areas where poverty is so extreme, their lives now hang in the balance. Food aid is an immediate concern for these kids. Their long-term survival depends on learning how to care for themselves. That is why some financial groups in Sub-Saharan Africa are training children to be entrepreneurs.

At fairs and small markets around the world, people make a living with thousands of small businesses, such as selling roasted nuts.

As he tends to his roasted nut machine, this vendor says that his business requires good timing and professional skill. "You have to learn to deal with people of course, but first, you have to learn how care for the nuts, get them roasted. Timing is extremely important to them, in fact, I need to attend to these right now, or I'll lose the whole batch," he explains.

Timing is also essential for communities. This is proving a painful lesson for the world community, which has lost precious time in helping Africa with the HIV-AIDS pandemic. In Zimbabwe, for instance, poverty, high rates of the infection, and lack of affordable treatments have dropped life expectancy from 56 in the 1970s down to only 33 years today.

The loss of people in the prime of their lives has made countries such as Zimbabwe vulnerable to social unrest and the deaths have left millions of children without parents to look after them. The United Nations predicts that within the next decade, 20 million children in Sub-Saharan Africa will have lost both their parents to AIDS-related illness.

"This is the reality. You have child-headed families, and now you are going to have child-headed enterprises, and you create them out of these children," says Constance Sekete, who works for a banking group in Zimbabwe that believes there's an urgent need to help the nation's children. Her division of Kingdom Financial Holdings focuses on business development assistance. Ms. Sekete explains that her group gives small loans to families in which one parent has already died from an AIDS-related illness and the other is showing symptoms of disease.

"A family, it's almost breaking apart. Nothing is happening. And it's amazing, what even a $40 dollar loan. It changes their whole life. They're able to keep the children, to take them to school, to feed them. It's a stress reliever," she says.

Relieving that stress and concern extends the lives of parents, according to Mariam Dao, a financial expert from Ivory Coast. "You give them dignity, and this is very important for someone to survive. They feel that, 'I'm still a human being, and they can grant me a loan,'" she says.

Sometimes, these loans and other interventions come early enough for a surviving parent to build up a business, to provide an ongoing source of income for the children. Unfortunately, both parents frequently die before this can happen, which is why Ms. Sekete says her banking group is taking on a more active role directly helping kids.

"It's a sad reality," she stresses. "We've got a typical family that we have adopted as a financial services group. initially we started off paying school fees for them. There's three of them. The oldest is 17 or so."

After the trio's parents died, Ms. Sekete says that an aunt cared for the children, while Kingdom Financial assisted with small loans, such as for school fees. Then the aunt became too ill to care for the kids. So Kingdom Financial officials decided to take a new step and help the children grow a business, in the same way they often help adults.

"The first thing was to move in and see their natural inclination," says Ms. Sekete. "What is it that moves them? Where do their natural passions lie?"

When Kingdom Financial approached the children, Ms. Sekete recalls they got a welcome surprise: the kids, on their own, had started a small business that is popular at fairs and markets around the world. "They were selling roasted nuts. They come, they roast the nuts, they sell. And this keeps them going," she says.

With a business already going, the bank provided loans and helped the children identify equipment to improve the efficiency of their nut-roasting enterprise. It found them business mentors and technical training as well. Ms. Sekete points out that the bank has also connected the 17-year-old with social workers trained in HIV prevention. "We also had to go out and look for specialists in AIDS counseling because this is a girl," she says. "Chances are she will be infected, if she doesn't get the necessary backup."

Constance Sekete emphasizes that the goal of all these interventions is to allow the children to grow up with the skills to help not only themselves, but also the economic health of Africa. "We are actually creating business people out of them. It's a very life-touching experience, but you know, there are a lot of child headed families out there, where we can make a difference," she says.

Ms. Sekete hopes that other organizations will learn from her bank's example, in their efforts to make a difference for children who have lost their parents to AIDS-related illnesses.