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Can This African Program Provide a Lifeline to America's Unemployed?

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MICRO FINANCE UNEMPLOYMENT
AP

Could a program that was developed to help lift African women out of extreme poverty also help lift America's long-term unemployed back into the workforce?

Seven years ago, Torkin Wakefield, a psychologist from Colorado, who was in Uganda with her husband, an AIDS doctor, was walking through a slum area when she noticed a woman sitting on the side of the road rolling bits of paper trash into beads for a necklace. She bought one. The next day, she returned and bought some more. "She was turning trash into something beautiful," says Torkin. "When I asked her about them, she told me that she had over 400 necklaces but no one to sell them to, and that there were 30 women in the village who also made similar beads."

Torkin had been touring Uganda thinking about setting up an orphanage somewhere in the country. Instead she decided to meet with the women. "At the meeting, 30 women and 75 children came toward us singing and dancing. They asked us to sing songs from our culture, and so we did. " What emerged from this joyful meeting was an organization that has lifted more than 1,000 women from $1 a day wages in the stone quarry to $8 a day as bead makers, and ultimately micro entrepreneurs.

Although there is no clock hanging on the wall, each of the 300 women currently participating in the BeadforLife program knows that she has only 18 months to produce enough jewelry to make a financial transition from bead making to life as a micro-entrepreneur.

As each woman learns how to make the beads, they are also learning how to become entrepreneurs. Each month they are paid $240 a month for the jewelry they make, and the money is placed into a savings account in their name. They can withdraw money at any time for family needs such as school fees for their children, health care and food.

The jewelry is then sent to the BeadforLife nonprofit organization in Boulder, Colorado. From there it is repackaged and sent out to 100 volunteers nationwide who host house parties for the sale of the jewelry. Ninety percent of the money is returned to the women.

Over the 18 months, they will be given training in literacy, and basic business skills such as record keeping, location scouting, and inventory management. As their savings account grows, they are counseled on various types of micro enterprise they might want to start.

Their accumulated funds might go to buy a flock of chickens, or a sewing machine, or cook stove for a small restaurant or refreshment stand. As they pass the one-year mark, a portion of their savings is automatically set aside for the day they will leave the program and start their own business. Surplus funds might go toward a down payment on a small house. The remaining loan is paid off from profits from their small business.

Recently, BeadforLife invested in land in Uganda and trained local villagers how to build simple homes. Over 132 homes were built, and some of the 1,000 women who have gone through the program now live there with their families. Over 350 of their children are now enrolled in school.

New projects include support for women farmers in northern Uganda to grow beans and make shea butter for export to a world market. And, curriculum materials for teachers on the topic of extreme poverty and how students can make a difference. To date, more than 2,000 teachers in the U.S. have downloaded the curriculum.

Could this model of wrap-around employment linked to business skills development work for America's long-term unemployed?

At the local level, for example, the unemployed who chose to enroll in a micro entrepreneur program could select from several hands on occupations. It might include working in rural areas, on farms, to learn how to grow food for local stores restaurants, and farmer's markets; or building weatherization products for home purchase and use.

Like their African counterparts, those who chose the route of the micro entrepreneur, would be given a wrap-around 18 months training in business skills development, marketing materials, and a booth to test out their business at a local farmer's market, or business to business fair.

Each year small businesses in America generate 80 percent of the new jobs. Add in support for the micro entrepreneur, and the U.S. may be able to erase those long job lines. Over time, a project begun in a small village in rural Africa could provide long-term hope for Americans who have lost hope of ever finding work again.

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