Robyn Nietert is helping improve the lives of East African women, one loan at a time.
Nietert is president of the Women's Microfinance Initiative, a Cabin John-based nonprofit that offers small loans to women seeking to launch businesses in rural Uganda and Kenya.
"There is no lack of financial institutions in east Africa," Nietert said. "They line the streets of every city. The problem is that they don’t lend to rural women. We want to bridge that gap."
Loans of up to $250 are distributed to women who use profits from agricultural and other businesses to buy more nutritious food, pay school fees, and upgrade their mud and dung houses. After two years, borrowers are eligible for bank loans, Nietert said.
Before receiving loans, the average borrower’s income was 19 cents per day, according to an August 2011 report from the initiative on nearly 200 borrowers in Uganda. After receiving a loan, borrower income increased to $1.27 per day.
The organization was established in October 2007 by seven businesswomen in the Bethesda and Washington, D.C., area. It has a zero percent default rate on more than 3,500 loans, according to the report.
WMI has loaned nearly $800,000, using capital raised since Nietert provided the $10,000 startup.
Women usually start in agriculture and then branch out, said Nietert of Cabin John. Businesses range from hair braiding to carpentry.
Loans are administered through local organizations in groups of 20, to women who guarantee each other's loans. Recipients also receive business training.
They can borrow up to $250 over two years, before graduating to a bank loan, thanks to a partnership the nonprofit has with local banks. Nietert said the feature is unique to their program.
“I think that's a really important step that a lot of microfinance programs miss, because they never assimilate borrowers into the local economy,” said Jackie Vourthouris, an associate analyst at KSA MidOcean, a New Jersey-based hedge fund, and a former intern with the initiative.
WMI accepts college interns for its locations in Bethesda and Buyobo, Uganda. It also has an internship program in Buyobo for Walt Whitman High School students.
The intern house in Buyobo, which is upscale by local standards, features brick walls and a tin roof, she said. Electricity and water supply are unpredictable.
"In the United States, even if you have not used a computer you most likely know what it is," said Alex Meyer, 18, who interned for the organization two years ago before starting his senior year at Walt Whitman High School.
The same could not be said of rural Ugandans, who drink Coke and occasionally use cell phones, but live in mud huts on dirt roads, he said.
"You could feel like you were in the same village 1,000 years ago," he said.
During his three weeks in Uganda, Meyer helped build a school and a small internet cafe, and taught computer skills.
The training was made more difficult by a language barrier — the English spoken in Uganda is different from what the interns are used to.
Dana Max, 19, interned in the Bethesda office last summer, after her mother discovered WMI on the Walt Whitman listserv.
She spent most of the summer doing data entry for WMI’s annual reports.
Top priorities for spending income were buying food, expanding businesses, paying medical expenses and school fees, according to the 2011 report.
"I feel really weird saying this, but there were no cases where the women weren't improved," Max said. "The way [Nietert] has structured her organization, it really benefited people.”