Today I went to the Mohawk Valley refugee center to meet with Stephanie Wolter (works for the Hamilton Levitt center) and Emily, a Hamilton College Senior currently working on a project with some of the refugee women. Emily has received one $1000 grant and is waiting to hear about another $40-60000 (for three years) grant to support her project to help some Thai and Burmese women begin weaving again now that they are here in the United States. In their home countries these women worked on the looms for pleasure, but did not sell their items. Emily sees a market for their goods in the area. They make bags, shirts, dresses and scarves.
Unfortunately, the women did not make it to the meeting because of some miscommunication. A thought I had might be meeting earlier in the week because on a Friday afternoon most people are excited to get home. There are about five women involved in this project and the goal is to rent them a space, buy capital including thread and looms, and allow these women to make and sell their goods at will. Although Emily’s vision for the project is mostly to give these women the opportunity to pick a hobby from home back up, I see it as a Microfinance project at the same time. This would be different than the traditional Microfinance project in that it is starting with grants (that do not need to be paid back) instead of loans. The Grameen bank applied for a received many grants (such as from the world bank) to build the capital to take it to the next step. The grant will act in place of the loan to buy the initial capital for the women to create products for sale. Depending on how the income from these products is used, will determine whether this project turns into more or a Microfinance project of a charitable project,
Should be a microfinance project: using the grant to buy initial capital and rent a space for the women avoids the problem of women with no credit and no income getting money to start their project. The money earned from sold products should then be used to buy more capital and perpetuate the small weaving business. I think it would be impressive and most beneficial to use the grant money as start up and then set the business up so that it is self-sustainable. That way, in three years when the grant money is no longer coming in, the women can continue their work and a. don’t have to wait to receive a new grant or b. move onto something else/ give up what they had been building for years.
If this could be achieved it would be a great example of Microfinance applied in the US. It is difficult to apply many of the principles used initially with the Grameen bank in Bangladesh because their communities are so different. ACCION int’l is a microfinance bank in the United States who after trials decided to abandon the group method of loaning used by the Grameen Bank because they believed the lack of community in the US would not facilitate group loaning. I think the group of refugee women would be ideal candidates for group loaning or group business of any sort because they have a very strong community and are really all one another has. There would be great support, encouragement and incentive not to let one another down in this group setting.
Concerns: Stephanie and Emily have expressed concern that the women are losing interest because little progress has been made in the past few months, despite many meetings. Emily explained that the women do not understand that Emily is interested in helping them soley for their benefit. They have asked her questions like “how much will we have to produce?” and “what if we get tired?” Emily explained that this was just an opportunity for them to do a enjoyable activity.
Solutions: Bringing something tangible to the meeting next time may bring back some of the motivation the women previously had. Showing them that thread has been bought, or progress has been made on constructing the looms will show them that the project is real.
Next Step: apparently the thread the women need is only available in their home countries (specifically Thailand) so it needs to be ordered. Maybe this could be found over the internet?
Also, they are going to have their own looms built. One of the refugee men (Paul) knows how to build them. Materials (wood or bamboo and PCV pipe) need to be purchased. I would like to note that purchasing these materials or taking the women to pick them out may re-motivate their involvement in the project. Paul does not have materials to build these looms, but Hamilton may have available supplies in list or the rented space that the women are going to work in apparently has a wood shop in it.
Finally, and for me most importantly, I would like to develop a plan to turn this pastime that will be aided through grants into a sustainable business to last after money from grants has been used up. Even if the women just want to keep their weaving an enjoyable pastime and not a profit driven business, they can still benefit by recycling their profits back into new capital.
I would like to research more into the refugee population of Utica. The women of this weaving group are students at the refugee center, but what money do they live off of? Do they need a source of income? Maybe this weaving business would be a great way to give them some financial independence or just some money to supplement whatever they are currently living off of to improve their living standards. Working with the refugee population could be the ideal population because many of the principles that worked in the undeveloped third world countries that the Grameen bank was founded in. The strong community aspect that supported the group loaning method for the Grameen bank is unlikely to work in the US because our ties to our neighbors and communities are not the strong enough. However, the refugee population in Utica is different than the rest of the US. When asked if they wanted to work alone or together, it was unanimous that they all be together. These refugees have a strong sense of community and ties to one another causing them to be the ideal participants for Microfinance. I would like to further look into the population and their working habits to learn whether Microloans to help begin small business would be beneficial.