October 14, 2006 in Business

Small loans transform lives in Angola

Michelle Faul Associated Press
 
Associated Press photo

Ana Helena Domingos, an Angolan wholesaler, gives a customer change in Luanda. Domingos used a $1,000 loan to double her income in 10 months. Her loan came from a microcredit bank modeled on the one that won the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday.
(Full-size photo)

LUANDA, Angola – With just $1,000, Ana Helena Domingos is transforming her life. She used the loan to buy goods in bulk and graduate from street vendor to wholesaler, doubling her income in 10 months and spending the proceeds to send her daughter into a better school and start building a house that will get them out of a one-room hovel.

The source of what she calls “my salvation” is a microcredit bank modeled on the one in Bangladesh that won the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday.

“It’s changed my life, and my daughter’s,” said Domingos, 27, standing behind stacks of canned sardines, corned beef, cooking oil and condensed milk on Rua Parque, an unpaved street where vehicles, bicycles and carts maneuver around goods spilling from street stalls.

The only freshly painted building on the block is NovoBanco, the source of Domingos’ loan of 80,000 kwanza, or just under $1,000.

Inside the bank, bright red, green, orange and yellow piggy banks line a counter promoting a campaign to get poor people to open savings accounts. It’s the only bank in Angola that does not require a minimum deposit.

It is also the only bank offering small loans in this southwest African nation that is rich in oil and diamonds but where most of the 14.5 million people get by on incomes of less than $2 a day.

NovoBanco is one of 19 banks in Latin America, eastern Europe and Africa started by ProCredit Holding AG, which started in Brazil in the late 1970s and is now based in Frankfurt, Germany.

Stefan Wolff, general manager of the Angola branch, said NovoBanco was inspired by the pioneering work of Bangladesh’s Grameen Bank, which won the Peace Prize along with its founder, Muhammad Yunus. The Nobel committee said working to eliminate poverty can result in a lasting peace.

In Africa, NovoBanco operates in Angola, Ghana, Mozambique and Congo.

“We want to provide access to those who have been excluded from the banking system, and provide access for small businesses which cannot grow because they don’t need large loans and the (ordinary) banks refuse to work with them,” said Jorge Antonio Trula, manager of NovoBanco’s Rocha Pinto branch.

Wolff said giving poor people loans can help them more than gifts of money, but he added that the loans must be administered on a commercial basis to ensure the banks don’t fail, as have many microcredit projects.

NovoBanco is grounded on making a profit to sustain itself, something Wolff estimates can happen within two years. Hence the push to draw in savings accounts.

“There’s a lot of cash running around in Angola,” Wolff said. “More than 80 percent of the population has no link to a commercial bank and still have their money under a pillow. We know a lot of business people with $20,000 in their pockets.”

ProCredit’s holdings doubled this year and it boosted its capital to $270 million, by selling shares to its first American investors, Wolff said. They include eBay, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, academic retirement system TIAA-CREF and Tufts University’s Omidyar-Tufts Microfinance Fund.

In Angola, the bank is steadily growing, Wolff said, with its latest figures showing that August brought in 324 new borrowers with loans averaging $5,000.

He said it might sound high for a microcredit bank, but that amount buys only what $2,000 does in many other African countries. Angola is expensive because most goods are imported following a 27-year civil war that ended in 2002 with infrastructure and agriculture devastated.

Banking in poor nations requires special skills. Angola’s life expectancy of just 40 means borrowers can die young, so NovoBanco spends a lot of time checking prospective customers.

Still, 5.3 percent of its loans are in arrears, lower than commercial banks but higher than the 2 percent and below posted by the company’s microcredit banks in eastern Europe, Wolff said. Grameen, which started the microcredit movement, says only 1 percent of its loans aren’t repaid.

As is the case with microcredit operations around the globe, most of NovoBanco’s customers are women and, like Domingos, sellers or importers of goods.

Domingos looks forward to paying off her loan in November and getting a new one. Her first loan of $1,000 had a 5.9 percent interest rate, and she’ll be eligible for a $2,000 loan at 4.2 percent.

“I used to sell about 20,000 kwanza of goods a month. Now I sell up to 50,000,” she said. “Just think what I can do with twice as much money.”

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