The World Council of Credit Unions' three-year "Serving Communities in Crisis" project works to mitigate the financial impact the HIV/AIDS pandemic has had on Kenyan credit unions, or SACCOs. Executive Vice President Brian Branch returned from Kenya's Kisumu region late last month, where a WOCCU team introduced low-water and low-maintenance crops to AIDS-affected communities.
AIDS drugs have spared lives, but the infected are nonetheless sick, unable to work or support their families. Additionally, many African households have taken in AIDS orphans. Those two factors have created a situation for many villages in which there are more mouths to feed than healthy adults to provide for them.
As if that wasn't enough, drought years-more common than not-make it a challenge for even the able-bodied to feed their own families, much less produce enough commodity to take to market.
In response, WOCCU consulted with the Kenyan Department of Agriculture on soil and climate conditions and researched crops that required as little water and maintenance as possible. WOCCU also conducted a product market study to determine demand for potential crops.
The research revealed a few winners. Branch said his team discovered Nerica rice, a newly developed variety that can be grown on dry land, as opposed to rice patties, which require standing water.
According to the United Nations' Web site (www.un.org), Nerica rice, which stands for "new rice for Africa," was a major agenda item at the 2008 Tokyo International Conference on African Development. The variety combines hardiness of an ancient African variety with the high yielding properties of Asian rice. Nerica represents a major advance in the African production of rice because, despite being a West African pantry staple, the majority of it is imported.
Meanwhile, WOCCU discovered an underutilized rice mill that was looking for new crop sources. A deal was made with the mill to purchase the test crop, dwhich will be ripe and ready for harvest later this month.
Discussions with the Kenyan government turned up a program searching for lentil crops to serve in school lunch programs, providing another crop contract opportunity. Finally, several banana trees, a new variety developed by the Kenyan agriculture department, were planted at an orphanage dedicated to AIDS orphans. Not only will the children receive better nutrition, Branch said, but the trees should produce enough fruit to take to market for a profit.
It's a far cry from the American credit union experience, researching crops and brokering deals with rice mills. Why is WOCCU doing it?
"We looked at this from the perspective of how credit unions were being affected by HIV/AIDS epidemic and were very distressed to find very high mortality rates among credit union members," Branch said. "From a purely credit union perspective, that means members aren't repaying loans because they're ill or they've passed away; or, members have their savings depleted because of illness."
Branch said WOCCU and Kenyan SACCOs are also helping members make the leap from sustenance farming, in which they only grow enough to feed their families, to surplus farming, which generates income.
"It's a natural human response to leverage the resources of credit unions and farming groups to address this issue," Branch said. "The problem is so immense, you find affected persons and communities that aren't being supported by any program at all. If local institutions can find ways to meet those needs, we'll try to provide them with the tools."
Credit unions are the catalyst that get the new programs going, said Janette Klaehn, vice president of communications. Klaehn accompanied Branch and seven other WOCCU employees on the trip, which not only served the purpose of supporting Kenyan SACCOs, but provided ground-level, real-life training in international credit union development.
"In developing the business relationships along the value chain, WOCCU has helped poor HIV/AIDS-affected farmers access much needed financing through the local credit union, cut out the intermediaries and contracted directly with a large government-owned rice mill that has been sitting for years with unused capacity," Klaehn said.
Klaehn said that while most HIV/AIDS related programs focus on the disease itself, WOCCU and Kenyan SACCO efforts attempt to drive structural change in the local economy that will enable farmers to better provide for their families and people suffering from the virus and provide economic opportunity for both men and women, so that they don't have to engage in the kinds of risky behavior that spread the disease.
"Frankly, it's a pretty daunting and tough environment," Branch said. "We went into one village of about 3,500 people and found a care-giver group that was taking care of about 20 orphans, so we helped them set up a garden plot and a flock of chickens. We asked them if these were all of the orphans, and they said no, there's at least another 20 fending for themselves in the community. They'd take in more, but they're already overwhelmed."
"It's a natural human response to leverage the resources of credit unions and farming groups to address this issue," Branch continued. "The problem is so immense, you find affected persons and communities that aren't being supported by any program at all. If local institutions can find ways to meet those needs, we'll try to provide them with the tools."