Natalie Sherman | KF 17 | Cameroon
What do you get when you combine service learning, microfinance and the enthusiasm of youth? Well, at the American School of Yaoundé (ASOY), you’d have yourself a pretty innovative and well-organized microcredit program… and the 12th grade Global Issues class of Mrs. Kelly Vaughan Owens has done just that.
For the past several years, Kelly and her students have developed and managed AMFO: the American School of Yaoundé’s Microfinance Organization. The program emerged out of Kelly’s hope to initiate a service learning project more sustainable than those of her predecessors (i.e. electronics donations to orphanages). While speaking with a friend, Kelly learned of Kiva and its model of providing microcredit loans to small businesses.
Kelly has extensive experience living and working in Cameroon; seven years before starting her teaching career at ASOY in 2009, she served as a Peace Corps volunteer in the village of Bankondji. Kelly’s appreciation of local customs and culture runs deep, as does her wish to contribute to a more connected, economically vibrant community.
And so, using Kiva as an inspiration to inform their processes, Kelly and her students have created AMFO. The program’s interest-free loan operation runs through four main stages:
- Loan disbursement
- Follow-up visits
It has been quite interesting to learn how each of these steps came about. The eye-catching advertisements and application forms, for example, are written in multiple languages so as to reach a broader demographic in Yaoundé. The application also requires borrowers to list, through a rough budgeting exercise, estimated costs for starting their business. Once borrowers present their business proposals and are approved, they meet with the class and AMFO administrators for a disbursement ceremony. Detailed repayment schedules are signed, which also include information on penalties for late repayment. The class has implemented a follow-up questionnaire as well, to assess the impact of loans recently ended- quite similar to Kiva’s journaling activity. And, like any good learning organization, the AMFO program has reflected on its past challenges to inform changes and make its current operation all the more successful.
I stopped by the school a few weeks ago to talk to Kelly’s class about my own experience with microfinance, highlighting recent work here in Yaoundé with Kiva and ACEP. Walking into the classroom I felt strangely nervous, but after sharing photos and a few stories about the (sometimes awkward) lessons learned in my own journey, the mood relaxed. Many questions posed by the students were excellent, and I was a bit taken aback by their critical thinking around the issues that microcredit programs face. One student, Tiffany, has been especially involved with AMFO over the past two years. Here’s a quick video interview illustrating her participation:
(music credit: Broken Social Scene, 2005)
When I was Tiffany’s age, the concept of service learning wasn’t at all emphasized in school (well, at least not in my suburban Atlanta public high school). We had a few student groups oriented towards community involvement, but these were all extracurricular. Is it commonplace nowadays for students of this age group to have exposure to such interesting, practical curriculum? And if so, is it a result of an individual teacher’s initiative or might school-wide administration be involved? More broadly, are microfinance and international development studies (apart from the quintessential Model United Nations club) a focus?
For certain, the benefits of the AMFO program in the greater Yaoundé area are multifaceted. Borrowers are able to realize certain opportunities for new business, while students are engaged in a hands-on project that not only teaches certain basic economic principals but also provides a meaningful contribution to their community. Sustainability of the program is, however, one concern that I see. As student makeup of the class changes from year to year, how can AMFO ensure that it continues to effectively serve current and future clients? Also, AMFO receives its funding through an international foundation; will this source of capital be available in the long term? Regardless, sustainability of AMFO’s impact is promising, and I’m inspired by teachers like Kelly and students like Tiffany who dedicate their curiosities and skills to a greater cause. Man, I wish I had learned this stuff as a high school kid!