In Benin, economic empowerment born out of tragedy

Jan 19, 2015 by and

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COTONOU, Benin — It took the death of a child to create a community bank that brings more abundant life to many people in Benin.

A client of PEBCo, a job promotion and community bank in Benin, prepares food on a charcoal burner. — Lynda Hollinger-Janzen/MMN

A client of PEBCo, a job promotion and community bank in Benin, prepares food on a charcoal burner. — Lynda Hollinger-Janzen/MMN

In the early years of the partnership of Mennonite Board of Missions, a predecessor agency of Mennonite Mission Network, and the churches of Benin, Bethesda Hospital supported a program to train primary healthcare workers in congregations.

Women studied topics such as nutrition, malaria, intestinal worms and the importance of clean drinking water, then took an oral examination before getting permission to be health extension workers.

One year, Akpavi Godonou (not her real name), received 18 out of 20, the highest score.

But the joy of being honored faded quickly when, two weeks later, Godonou’s 2-year-old child died of malnutrition. Although Godonou knew what her children needed to eat to grow strong, she and her husband couldn’t find work to pay for adequate protein for their family.

“We learned that knowledge alone was not enough,” said Raphaël Edou, then director of Bethesda’s department of community development, Développement Communautaire et Assainissement du Milieu. “Knowledge needs to be supported by economic empowerment.”

Edou found employment for Godonou’s husband in a project he had put in place to clean up city dumps and create healthier places to live.

Not satisfied with improving the life of a single family, Edou proposed a community bank to lend money to help women begin small, home-based businesses.

PEBCo, an acronym for Promotion d’Emploi et Banque Communautaire (Job Promotion and Community Bank), was born in 1995 with a $1,000 grant from Mennonite Board of Missions.

Because of Bethesda’s credibility, many people preferred depositing their savings in PEBCo rather than the conventional banking system. These savings grew the bank, allowing the number of loans to increase.

Plans to increase

People like Christiane Dovi (not her real name) have been PEBCo clients for many years. Dovi gets up early six mornings a week to make sorghum porridge. She sells it at schools and along the main road from a container carried on her head.

In 2013, PEBCo generated nearly $500,000, now used to expand lending. The bank has 17 branch offices throughout the country that allow 75 percent of the country’s population access to its services with a walk of five miles or less. Plans are in place to increase coverage to 100 percent by the end of 2015 with the addition of six new branches.

Along with banking, PEBCo assists its clients in record-keeping, cash-flow management and reinvesting income to grow their businesses.

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