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December 29. 2012 10:12PM

Volunteer launches 'Investing for a Better Life' in Africa drive


Joyce El Kouarti 
A Peace Corps volunteer serving in the Republic of Cameroon in Central Africa is asking her New Hampshire friends to help save the world - or at least help women in her service area.

Joyce El Kouarti, formerly of Dover, in partnership with a Cameroonian nonprofit organization, needs to raise $3,300 by Jan. 15, 2013. That money will establish 10 new Village Savings and Loan Associations (VSLA) that will help local impoverished women become more financially self-sufficient.

"I'm gonna just put it out there: I'm writing to ask for money. I need to raise $3,300 by Jan. 15 to save the world and stuff. I could really use your help," wrote El Kouarti. Residents in southern New Hampshire may know El Kouarti through her work as a communications specialist with the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests and Moose Mountain Regional Greenways.

How VSLA initiatives work

"Here in the Peace Corps, I'm working with this African nongovernmental organization called SAIMED, which specializes in microfinance. The employees and I ride around in the jungle on motorcycles setting up these Village Savings and Loan Associations (VSLAs) in different villages to help people learn how to save money and manage credit. It's a good system that has worked really well, not only here in Cameroon, but also in India, Bangladesh and other developing countries.

"How a VSLA works is you, Cameroonian woman living in the jungle, cultivating your peanuts or plantains or manioc to bring to the big village market to sell each week, get together with 15 to 30 of your most responsible friends to form a kind of savings club. You all meet a couple of times per month and set aside an agreed-upon amount of money at each meeting. After a few months, you can take out a loan of up to three times the amount of money you've saved, which you pay back with interest. At the end of a year, you and all the other members of your group share the money saved and the interest accrued in proportion to how much each member has contributed," she said, adding that this is an effective way to teach people how to manage credit.

El Kouarti proposes to teach members of the newly created VSLAs basic business management skills - simple accounting, marketing and how to conduct a business feasibility study.

The donation is 100 percent tax deductible, she added.

The quickest way to donate is to go to peacecorps.gov/donate and type in "El Kouarti" in the "search" box. For more information, email her directly at jelkouartipcccam@gmail.com.

The call to service

El Kouarti, who is in her 40s, decided to join the Peace Corps a couple years ago, after working for many years in the nonprofit sector. With her only daughter in college and a yearning for travel and to serve those in need, the Peace Corps beckoned.

The application process was thorough, but her assignment took some time to come through. Last spring, she finally got the word she was off to Africa.

"I know it sounds corny, but I like helping people, making myself useful," she replied in an email interview last week.

"I also like to travel, but not just visiting for a day or two and hitting the beaches. I like setting down roots and getting to know a people and a culture; what they eat, how they live day to day, how they support themselves. So the Peace Corps offered what, to me, seemed like the perfect opportunity to get to know a country and culture, while making myself useful in the process," she said.

She speaks French with some of the Cameroonian women who can, but others speak a local dialect she doesn't know. However, SAIMED trainers assist as translators.

So far, her initiative has gained support from local friends like the Nancy Spencer-Smith of Wakefield.

Smith, too, used the power of email to spread the word about El Kouarti's "Investing for a Better Life" initiative.

"I recently learned that a friend of mine, Joyce El Kouarti, has joined the Peace Corps and is working with impoverished women in Cameroon. Joyce and I worked together for a number of years on multiple land conservation efforts and I can testify to her strong work ethic and commitment to improving this fragile earth. After discussing with her the plight of the women in Cameroon, I realized that monies are needed to be loaned out to these women. The amount of monetary contribution requested from us is modest."

Spencer-Smith suggests friends donate in memory of a beloved woman or women in our lives, such as a mother, a sister, a daughter, a classmate, a relative, or a friend.

"Personally, I have decided to make a donation in the memory of the women and children killed in Newtown. (Conn.) With this donation, I realize that something good will come out of that tragedy," she stated.

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Larissa Mulkern may be reached at LMulkern@newstote.com.

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