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Surviving Cancer on $1.58 Per Day, From 'Venture: A Collection of True Microfinance Stories'

11/30/2012 04:35 pm ET | Updated Jan 30, 2013

Venture is a rich and readable collection of true microfinance stories. It is written for anyone who would like to better understand the realities faced by the the aspiring middle class in the world's least developed countries, the range of factors that affect their prospects for working their way out of poverty, and how microfinance can impact their lives.

The entrepreneurs featured in this book are all members of Zidisha Microfinance, a web-based crowdfunding platform that allows low-income, computer-savvy entrepreneurs in developing countries to share their stories and negotiate microloans directly with individual lenders. As the world's first person-to-person lending service to eliminate intermediaries and connect individual web users and entrepreneurs across the international wealth divide, Zidisha is uniquely positioned to offer an undistorted depiction of the variety of individual stories and circumstances that come to play each time a microfinance loan is disbursed.

Each story paints an unforgettable picture: A 70-year-old goat farmer who relocates his home to better care for his ailing father, carrying the sticks and metal sheeting it was made from across the mountains on his back. A plump, beaming detergent saleslady who lives in a home no larger than an ordinary bathroom but has adopted five orphans. A cancer survivor who supports herself and two children by pounding millet for $1.58 per day. An irrepressible lady who supplies half of her neighborhood with much-needed IVs and other medical supplies by day, and by night checks into the local cybercafe to chat with Facebook friends on the other side of the world. A young man who has no arms but insists on working to support his able-bodied parents out of filial duty. An accounting student who pays for his university tuition by purchasing a taxi and splitting proceeds with a hired driver. A bright young lady who renounces college to care for her orphaned siblings and overcomes gender stereotypes to launch a thriving construction business.

At its heart, "Venture" is a tribute to the remarkable community of Zidisha Microfinance entrepreneurs and countless others like them -- a tribute to their grit, ambition and indomitable spirit in the face of overwhelming obstacles. We hope this book will help translate the statistics about poverty and the opportunities afforded by microfinance into human terms, and inspire readers to reach out and connect with their counterparts on the other side of the international wealth divide.

Story 8: Surviving Cancer on $1.58 Per Day

At the time she received her first Zidisha loan, Aida Sow was a robust young mother, full of ambition for the future of her two preschool-aged children, Ndeye Marie and Ousseynou. She raised $765 to grow her small but flourishing business of marketing seafood products from southern Senegal in the capital city of Dakar.

Soon thereafter, she began experiencing stomach pain and was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She used her loan funds to pay for surgery to have the tumor removed - a life-saving intervention that is often out of reach in a country where most people earn less than a dollar per day and health insurance is almost nonexistent. Aida then spent months recovering while drawing down all her financial resources to pay for her ongoing medical costs.

By the following year, she had recovered physically, but not financially. Her husband had left, and she lived alone in a tiny apartment with her two children. Lacking the capital to return to her former long-distance trading business, she managed to feed her small family by selling millet porridge: each morning she would purchase two kilograms of raw millet for $1.19 and pay 20 cents to have it ground at the local mill. She would cook this into a porridge which she sold to passersby each evening. If the entire bowl of porridge was sold she would earn $2.97 in gross revenue, leaving an income of $1.58 per day. She would use approximately half of this to buy rice for herself and the children, and the rest she put aside for savings.

Much of her savings went toward paying her Zidisha loan: in March 2012 she made a payment of $9.86, the first she had managed since July 2011. When asked why she chose to make a payment to Zidisha instead of using the money for her own, obviously pressing, financial needs, she seemed surprised at the question. "Because that money, it doesn't belong to me, other people gave it to me to work with and then repay, it is not my own money! I have the obligation to repay it," she replied.

Aida had every intention of repaying the entire remaining loan balance, and even of qualifying for another loan which would allow her to return to a more lucrative business activity. Her daughter, Ndeye Marie, was now five years old and would normally enroll in elementary school next year. As there is no public school in Aida's neighborhood, she hoped to send Ndeye Marie to a local private school which costs about $50 per month - an amount she could have managed to afford before her bout with cancer derailed her progress toward a better economic life for her family.

Zidisha's director visited Aida in March 2012 and shared the details of her situation with lenders. The story sparked an outpouring of generosity: Not only did many lenders forgive her loan outright, but one donated some of her lender credit balance to cover the amount remaining to repay, and another made a separate donation to pay for Ndeye Marie's schooling. Aida was so happy, I've never seen anything like it - saying "God bless them" over and over. More than the money itself, the fact that individuals on the other side of the world took an interest in her life and reached out to help seemed to make an enormous impression on her. She had not expected anything like this.

With her past debt forgiven, Aida opted to apply for a smaller second loan of $418 - just what she needed to turn her millet porridge sales activity into a proper restaurant. With her loan she built an addition to her house for the restaurant, and was able to furnish it with several sets of tables and chairs so she may serve more customers at a time.

I visited Aida and was very happy to see that her restaurant is enjoying a great deal of success in the neighborhood. Her restaurant, "Le Plat du Jour," is very popular among her neighbors, and I had the opportunity to chat with two other local residents while I enjoyed the plate of fish, couscous and rice that she absolutely insisted I accept. She explained that the restaurant is more popular during the evening than at lunchtime, and in between meals she serves beignets and delicious homemade juices from hibiscus, baobab and ginger. Aida's future plans include buying more chairs and tables and eventually expanding her seating area. She has only been open for one month but the amount of traffic she has already is encouraging. She said she sells about ten plates at lunch time and around twenty at dinner time.

More clients and increased profits will allow her to send both of her children to private school, something important to Aida because of the continuing strikes in the public schools. In the future Aida mentioned wanting to expand even more and hopefully to be able to buy more in bulk, because as of now she must go buy supplies between every meal, which takes up a large amount of time that she could remain open.

Aida has allowed her five-year-old Ndeye Marie, who seems to have quite an artistic talent, to cover the walls of her otherwise spotless home with her creations: idyllic scenes featuring dozens of traditional mud huts in the typical Casamance style, sketched out boldly with bits of charcoal from the stove. Madame Sow explained that Ndeye Marie still remembers traveling with her to the Casamance to buy seafood in the days before Madame Sow's illness. The future looks bright for the family to return to that life again.

Aida's Words:

I am very happy that I can host a restaurant in my home. I have started selling about a month ago. I sincerely thank you. I am ready to start reimbursing the loan to have a second one so I can expand the restaurant.

You may view the latest news and photos of Aida's business at her Zidisha Microfinance profile page.

From Chapter 8 of Venture: A Collection of True Microfinance Stories by Zidisha Microfinance.

Next time: The story of a simple shop that became a lifeline of hope for an ambitious Kenyan family...