One of the older members of the Qubayet community pauses before the village’s roadside fields. (photo: Armineh Johannes)
Residents of Qubayet tend crops in the Akkar valley. (photo: Armineh Johannes)
A young participant in CNEWA’s micro-credit program. (photo: Armineh Johannes)
Jean Khoury operates his own tractor. (photo: Marilyn Raschka)
Hanna Bitar displays some of the products available at Hanna’s Place. (photo: Marilyn Raschka)
Martha El-Bourj adorns one of her cash cows with decorative beads. (photo: Armineh Johannes)
Ghazi Elias prepares nuts for sale in his store. (photo: Armineh Johannes)
For the time being, Jean Khoury only smiles on the inside. Jeans rural upbringing included plenty of fresh air and green grass, but very little dental care. So he keeps his smiles tucked inside.
But hidden as they are, those smiles and more to come are there thanks to the Micro Enterprise Credit Program, run by CNEWAs operating agency in the Middle East, the Pontifical Mission.
To fulfill its goal to assist reconstruction and revitalization of postwar rural Lebanon, CNEWAs Beirut office implemented a micro-credit program in Lebanons Shouf, Aley and Baabda regions as well as in poor or underdeveloped areas like the Akkar valley. The program, launched in 1997, aims at providing micro-enterprise loans from $1,000 to $5,000.
In addition to the loan, CNEWAs staff in Lebanon provides technical assistance to the beneficiaries. By the end of the year 2000, 99 loans totaling $462,400 had been distributed to individuals and groups working in agriculture, construction, trade, handicrafts and services in 15 villages.
Qualified applicants are defined as either residents living in the areas or those wishing to return to the area on a permanent basis.
Experienced leaders from CNEWA and Misereor, an aid organization of the German Catholic bishops active in Lebanon, spent long hours organizing a workshop for a dream team of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). In addition to their own staffs, the workshop was offered to those working with the YMCA, World Vision, Caritas, Mercy Corps, UNDP (United Nations Development Program) and USAID.
The goal of the workshop was to introduce the concepts of the micro-credit program with its revolving funds concept and its inevitable challenges.
Maps were tacked to the walls to show where needs were the greatest, where needs were already met and by whom.
The bottom line was a workable list of criteria. At the top was a concern that the project could negatively affect economic activity. The planners wanted to ensure the projects would be profitable, but at the same time not alienate local business people who might view the new enterprise as competition. Another stipulation was that the projects be economically feasible and environmentally friendly.
At the end of the workshop the NGOs were smiling. They all agreed that this was doable.
Beneficiaries had to be credit worthy and willing to accept interest rates. They had to have some experience in operating a viable business or activity. The details payments and repayments, loan durations and grace periods and, of course, follow-ups were then agreed upon.
At the end, everyone was smiling from the original committee to the participating banks to the beneficiaries themselves. This program was going to be a winner.
The link between the individual recipients-to-be and the NGOs were local committees. They acted as bearers of the good tidings and posted information fliers around the villages. Municipalities offered their village halls for meetings and helped with filling out applications.
Today, many families manage to earn a living thanks to these micro-credit loans. Many have found employment and have developed projects for further expansion of their businesses. CNEWA was never far away: one staffer has even become a pro at driving two and a half hours so he can be on the scene to explain and encourage each loan recipient.
A new concept worth listening to was the catch phrase in the Akkar valley. And listening was something that women, 20 percent of the beneficiaries, were good at, too.
Andeqt, a small Maronite village in the Akkar, has 4,000 residents, the majority of whom work in the Lebanese Army. Roughly 8 percent of the population works in agriculture. In Andeqt, 55 individuals have benefited from the micro-credit program.
Martha El-Bourj sings a song for her cows as she milks them. I love my cows, Martha declares. Martha is one of Andeqts beneficiaries of the micro-credit program. Marthas husband is unemployed, bedridden after heart surgery. To make ends meet, Martha must provide for her husband and two children.
When I got the loan in 2001, I bought two cows, Martha says.
I used to earn about $150 a month raising hens, turkeys and ducks. Now I also sell milk, cheese and butter. My income has reached $350 per month.
I pay $135 toward my loan. When I finish paying it, I will think about how I can expand my business, she adds.
Jean, our man with the smile on the inside, used to operate someone elses tractor. His monthly salary was $300. He approached CNEWAs Beirut staff, hoping that if all went well he could buy the tractor outright, thus becoming his own boss and the owner of a business.
His application was reviewed, he was interviewed, perhaps even the tractor in question was examined, but his acceptance in the program made it all worthwhile. He bought the tractor with a loan of $5,000 plus $3,000 of his own savings.
Today Jeans hours are just as long, but he makes $700 a month and feels an immeasurable sense of pride. He has already repaid 39 percent of the loan.
Through field visits, CNEWAs Beirut staff members are in continuous contact with the programs beneficiaries. CNEWA also provides technical assistance, bookkeeping and marketing advice. Through these contacts they can detect problems, answer questions and offer support and words of praise.
The program requires CNEWA to negotiate the details with committees, banks and NGOs that are pitching in with substantial seed money. But the human touch is never far away: CNEWA staffers still drive to the villages on a regular basis to check on the progress of each project usually over a cup of coffee and a plate of homemade sweets.
Hanna Bitar, a wife, mother and homemaker, is a convenience store owner as well. Though she started her business, Hannas Place, seven years ago, Hanna applied for the micro-credit loan two years ago, when she needed to purchase a refrigerator, increase shelf space and add to her inventory.
Hannas store is located on the ground floor of her house. The shop is freshly painted, the shelves are well stocked with dry goods, produce, even toys; the eggs are fresh and the scale is up to date.
Hanna has a little of everything and is always ready to add new items upon demand. When housework or the kids call, she puts a sign on the door and tends to what needs tending. With five children and a husband who teaches middle school, a second income is most welcome. There are seven smiles in the Bitar family, plus those of happy customers who do not have to drive far to buy the basics.
Before receiving the loan, Hanna earned $120 a month. Now her monthly earnings reach $250.
I left school at the age of 12, but when I decided to start a business, I enrolled in a program for illiterate women and learned how to calculate and run a business, Hanna says.
Today I feel very proud. My husband and five children are proud of me too. When I finish paying off the loan, I will have some pocket money for myself. That is a good feeling.
Later, she plans to apply for another loan to purchase a grinding machine for cracked wheat and expand her activities.
The Akkar valley is not the only region in Lebanon where the micro-credit program is reaping success. Applications came from residents of 15 villages around the country. By the end of the year 2000, 160 applications had been evaluated; 99 made the cut. The majority 44 loans saw their way into services and 37 went to men and women working in the agricultural sector.
These figures are likely to be the norm in the future but loans also are available to the smaller categories of construction, crafts and commerce.
Marie Nehme, a married woman with two school-age children, conducted a little market research in Andeqt. The village is home to a beautiful old church dedicated to St. Chalita. The village has its share of children whose birthdays, baptisms, first Communions, graduations and weddings provide a lot of Kodak moments in this church. But in Andeqt there was no shop to sell film and nothing nearby for film development.
Enter Marie. With her $5,000 loan she opened a camera shop that does it all. Her family is very impressed with her success; they all lend a helping hand when they can.
Nizaar Shaar is another happy micro-credit beneficiary. Nizaar, who runs an auto-body repair shop, was the first person to benefit from a micro-credit loan five years ago. With some marketing help from CNEWA, he saw the possibility of expanding his services to include painting and waxing cars as well two services not available in the area. With an increased monthly income, Nizaar was able to add these to his list of services and employ four mechanics in the shop.
Nizaars move paid off. His income jumped 60 percent. In two years he had paid off his entire loan. Who would doubt the smile on his face?
Hard-luck stories also have their place.
Boutros Youssef had a herd of 25 dairy cows that were stolen. In this area of Lebanon, often compared to Americas Wild West, sometimes it is simply smarter to not inquire just where the cows went. But disappear they did, leaving Boutros without his cows and without an income.
Fortunately, Boutros had some background in construction. He applied for a micro-credit loan and bought construction equipment and materials.
In this case there were multiple smiles; Boutros has a family of 10. His income has been good enough to repay his entire loan in 25 months rather than the scheduled 36.
Ghazi Elias lives in the nearby village of Qubayet. With his $4,000 loan he opened a business roasting nuts and seeds.
With one employee Ghazi keeps a number of shops well stocked with Lebanons favorite hors doeuvre. He works overtime and produces, literally, a ton of roasted nuts and seeds each month. He smiles a ton too.
Thanks to the Micro Enterprise Credit Program, prosperity and smiles abound for small-business owners in northern Lebanon. Thats the part of the repayment process that looks and feels the best for everyone.
Marilyn Raschka and Armineh Johannes are frequent contributors to CNEWA WORLD.