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Thinking Small

UA students aim to help alleviate poverty in Ghana with microloans

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When most Americans go to India, they come back with lots of pictures. So did Alisa Basila. But along with her photos, she and a few of her friends brought back an idea.

Basila, a senior in the UA's Eller College of Management, went to India with a study-abroad group in the summer of 2012 and spent three months witnessing a level of poverty that she had never seen before. When the group came back, all the members felt like they should be doing more.

"We saw poverty up close," Basila said of the experience. "It was kind of at that point that we wanted to do something."

As summer drew to a close and the fall semester started, a colleague presented the idea of starting a club that reached thousands of miles to people living below the poverty line in developing countries such as India. Following a two-year development process, Loans Across Borders targeted Ghana, where it aims to help women become entrepreneurs.

The club has partnered with Village Exchange Ghana, a nonprofit in the country's Volta region that empowers women to be entrepreneurial. It's a trait that many women there are unable to nurture, said Christiane Milev, VEG's founder and director.

"These women don't have salaries and don't fulfill the conditions to get a loan from a bank," Milev said via email from Ho, a city in southeast Ghana. "Many are illiterate or went to school only for a short time and they are much too shy to enter a bank and ask for a loan."

The Loans Across Borders loans began with the club working directly with Milev's organization to "adopt" four women and give each of them about $200 for their businesses. The club holds weekly meetings with the women via Skype to check on their progress. Loans Across Borders, Milev added, has also been fundamental to VEG's progress.

"Without LAB, we could not have afforded to take this new group on board," Milev said, referring to the four women.

For many of the club's members—especially those who went to India—knowing how far what seems like a small amount of money can go for some people is what the club is all about.

"It is really hard for people to understand how $100 or $200 could affect somebody in a Third World country," said Jonathan Alden, the club's director of loan management. He said that a $200 loan amounts to more than 25 times the annual income of most people living in poverty in Ghana.

Once the loans are disbursed, the money is invested in things that offer long-term returns. "When you give them money, it goes toward buying a cow to sell milk. It goes toward buying chickens," Alden said.

In Ghana, the loans have helped each woman that the club has adopted transport her handmade jewelry from her village to the nearest city, where it is offered for sale.

With the project with VEG in full swing, Basila said that Loans Across Borders has ambitions to get involved in the Tucson area.

Basila said she has already connected with people here who have expressed interest in similar initiatives. "I think the club really does want to see how we can help locally. ... We're here, so we can do field work here."

An Indiegogo campaign which launched on April 4 (https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/loans-across-borders-microfinance-project) aims to get the Tucson community involved with the club's efforts. If the campaign raises the $5,000 the club's leaders are hoping for, Loans Across Borders will be able to fund another 12 loans for women in Ghana.

The project in Ghana has been a testament to what microfinancing is all about, said Adrienne Dillard, the club's president.

Microfinancing "allows us to put our business skills to use," she said. "But it also helps the people that we're working with because we're not only giving them a meal for the day, we're giving them the money they need to start a business. And we're showing them how to start a business."

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