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On the Road in Rwanda

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Heading out of the university town of Huye, which is still known by its former name of Butare, a taxi winds along a wet and rugged road past banana groves and coffee trees. Thirty minutes later, our jostled crew arrives in the town of Karama, high on a rainslicked hill, to tap into the early progress of the Tubeho HIV Association's community project: an apiary and beekeeping operation.

In Rwanda, I'm tagging along with a group that includes Sasha Fisher of Spark MicroGrants, a Kigali-based NGO whose inventive approach to development is making inroads into improving some still-harsh realities in several rural areas. In Karama and twelve other Rwandan villages, a micro grant - not to be confused with it's spiritual cousin, the micro loan - is providing the early scaffolding on which self sufficiency may ultimately be built. "Micro granting uniquely provides support to under-resourced communities enabling them to design, implement, and manage their own social sector development," says Fisher, 23, originally from New York City. In other words, rather than a small microcredit loan which typically bankrolls one entrepreneur or one sole business, a micro grant seeks to benefit the entire community, and interest-free to boot. In addition, ideas are identified and proposed from within, and are then executed by the people from start to finish, as opposed to other NGO models which often dictate a project it believes would improve citizens' lives. "Opportunities for communities to design their own projects and access funding simply don't exist right now, yet locals know best how to improve their living conditions," says Fisher.

In 2009, then-Fulbright scholar Teddy Svoronos and mobile health innovator Neal Lesh were in Tanzania, working to address the large number of maternal and infant deaths caused by home births. The challenge was to convince more women to deliver in health facilities, and when the local nurses were consulted, they came up with a distinctly low-tech idea: to offer soap and diapers to women who gave birth in clinics. After raising $615.00, the micro grant was born, and with it, a tripling of in-clinic births in the village. According to Lesh, what Spark has tapped into is community enthusiasm for the ideas they generate themselves. "People will champion and drive their own projects to success, more than anything that was given to them," says Lesh.

Here in Karama, the Tubeho Association, which consists of 76 women and 34 men all afflicted with HIV, decided on honey as not only a logical high-return commodity indigenous to the fertile hills of Southeast Rwanda. Due to the simple logistics of breeding bees, as well as producing and selling honey, it was a practical measure as well. Beekeeping requires a lower physical output than other agriculture or construction endeavors, so they in effect designed their grant proposal with absolute, site-specific precision, the kind that can only come from inside the walls of the community. "Grants make the start of projects possible and are group based, so they benefit a large number of people directly," says Fisher. "This is greatly needed."

Shouts from a soccer game erupt from the makeshift field in the middle of the village as Joseph Mukasa, the secretary of the cooperative, leads us on a treacherous and very muddy walk to the apiary. It's hard to believe that a person sick with HIV can make this trek without reaching the limits of exhaustion, but Mukasa assures me otherwise. "The normal path is too wet from the rain," he says; apparently we are going the long way. "On a day like today, we have to go all the way around."

The beekeeping structure is built of clay and straw bricks fabricated from local materials. Mukasa indicates where the hives will be kept - one for each member of the association, each of whom will assume responsibility for his or her own production. The building shows promise, but because of a slight delay in funding - this $13,000.00 grant was provided by PEPFAR out of the U.S. Embassy in Kigali - it is also unfinished. The group is animated as they gather back in the village, in a bright room with pew seating that is a combination chapel, meetinghouse, and classroom.

Because of the financial holdup, stones and materials have begun to disappear from the construction site, which is causing some consternation in the ranks. "We need some temporary doors," says Marguerite Niyonshuti, the leader of the association. The group's excitement for the project has also ushered in a slight impatience for the rest of the funds to finish it. "We don't want to have to re-do what is already built."

In spite of the snag, the atmosphere is optimistic. Financial snafus are common occupational hazards of any development project dependent on donors, even loyal ones with deep pockets. This is particularly true when the money comes from bureaucratic sources (which have their own timelines) rather than individuals. "Unfortunately, this is part of it," says Fisher, with the equanimity of the truly committed. "The money doesn't tend to arrive exactly when you want it. But it does come." The urge is to have the inevitable glitches further promote self-sufficiency, and to have the community members themselves devise solutions to preserve their efforts until the next phase is ready to be bankrolled.

The profits from the sale of honey are earmarked for the purchase of individual health insurance, required by Rwandan law. The toll exacted by HIV is everywhere as four men, unfazed by the downpour, carry a woman away on a stretcher. Similarly, as in all of Rwanda, the 1994 genocide against the country's Tutsi minority is always within tragic and immediate grasp. It's difficult to know how and when people were infected with HIV, but it's safe to assume that systematic rape during the time of violence is largely to blame.

The following day, on a visit to another Spark project in the Cyabingo sector in the north-central part of Rwanda, the Duhuguke Bagore (Women, Let's Get Up) Association meets in a packed room in the town center, not far from a small and newly-erected genocide memorial. The group's members - all women infected with HIV - range from nursing new mothers to grandmothers. Today, they are passing papers to take ownership of a plot of land to form a farming cooperative of their own design. The crowd overflows onto the street, and when a curious - male - onlooker tries to poke his head in, he is waved away, accompanied by howls of laughter.

This community meeting, where grievances are aired, needs are enumerated and enthusiasm is routinely expressed are another hallmark of the Spark model, as is the use of journalism students from the University of Kigali who act as facilitators, translators and official documentarians of the proceedings. The students, who average 22 years old, are attached to SparkVoice, an organization that dovetails with Spark MicroGrants to report on and monitor the twelve ongoing projects throughout Rwanda. "These kids are learning a lot and gaining expertise," says 28 year-old Justine Esquivel, originally from Seattle, who heads up SparkVoice's reporting efforts, "Not least of which is how to be leaders."

Furthermore, says Lesh, the reporting brings proof of the significant role poor communities can play in their own development, by bringing up-do-date evidence of a project's efficacy to a global audience. "It amplifies the positive effect of each grant by helping communities gain confidence and motivation from what they've accomplished," he says.

As the micro loan has surged in popularity, the concept has also begun to garner some criticism. In May 2008, James Surowiecki pointed out in the New Yorker that, though it may help the individual entrepreneur, micro loans were so far doing little to create jobs and boost the economies of developing nations. The micro grant won't replace microcredit, and nor should it. They accomplish different things: engaging the beneficiaries in community-generated social sector-projects, versus targeted loans to build an individual business, or to send children to school. It is the grant, however, that will build the schoolhouse. Fisher believes that in the interest of lifting people up from poverty, the models should not necessarily be at odds. " Micro granting and micro-loaning done in the right way will actually complement each other," says Fisher.

Six years ago, the U.N named 2005 the International Year of Microcredit. As a new model enters the development vernacular, perhaps 2012 should be given over to the micro grant.