08/21/2014 12:09 EDT | Updated 10/21/2014 05:59 EDT

If You Give Women in Poverty the Right Tools, They Will Flourish

Matt Finlin

One small cup of corn porridge for breakfast. One small cup of corn porridge for dinner. Day after day, the same inadequate meals fuelled the hard labour of Daisy Barengetuny, her parents and seven brothers and sisters. The farming family had always lived on the knife edge of poverty, made worse by several years of drought in their native Kenya.

Meanwhile, world leaders convened again and again to discuss the cycle of poverty in Africa. Most recently, U.S. President Barack Obama hosted a landmark summit to discuss potential economic growth for African nations. But while the president and an assembly of African leaders dealt with lofty ideas, his wife -- the irrepressible Michelle Obama -- had her feet firmly on the ground. Joined by former first lady Laura Bush, she held meetings with the leaders' spouses to talk about realizing the economic potential of women and girls, a means to fix the very problems the president and his peers were struggling with.

Daisy Barengetuny is just one example.

Although she attended primary school, Barengetuny's family couldn't afford the fees to send her to high school. As she started a family of her own, it looked like she would have no choice but to scratch a living out of the dry, barren earth, as her parents had done before her.

But when Barengetuny was 19, development workers began travelling from village to village by motorcycle, including her community of Motony, introducing women to the micro-finance "merry-go-round."

Participating women made regular contributions of just a few schillings into a common pot. Each month, one woman received a lump sum to invest in her own business idea.

Barengetuny leapt at the opportunity. Having watched the thirsty farmers working the fields -- having been one of them -- Barengetuny spotted a lucrative demand. With her first round of funds, she purchased tea leaves to make milky masala chai to sell to farmers. She sold a lot of tea.

The bike-bound coordinators also taught Barengetuny and other aspiring entrepreneurs financial skills like budgeting and basic bookkeeping. The most important aspect of the merry-go-round is empowering women to drive their own success. They learn to save and invest using their own money, so it's not a handout that creates dependency.

With her profits, Barengetuny diversified. She purchased a duka -- a small shop that sold a selection of goods, in addition to tea. She sold a lot of goods.

Profits from the duka bought milking goats. With that revenue growth, Barengetuny upgraded to a dairy cow. She and her husband purchased three acres of land to farm corn.


Daisy Barengetuny with one of the goats purchased by her expanding business. Photo credit: Matt Finlin

Now an established businesswoman, Barengetuny is also a member of a Village Savings and Loans Association. A VSLA is an advanced version of the merry-go-round, where participants pool their money and loan it out to their membership. The loans are repaid with interest.

Merry-go-rounds and VSLA programs have proven wildly successful in boosting the fortunes of vulnerable women around the world. In 2013, the Rockwool Foundation in Copenhagen conducted an intensive case study of VSLA programs in Malawi. It found that participating families significantly improved their household income and food security. These initiatives tap into the inherent strength and inventiveness that runs like a vein of gold through women in developing communities.

The benefits then accrue to the whole family, community and economy.

With her earnings, Barengetuny, now 23, is giving her two younger sisters the opportunity she never had -- she is sending them to high school. She hopes her three-year-old daughter will one day go to university. A Barengetuny girl in university would be unprecedented.

In an open letter published in Seventeen Magazine, Michelle Obama held up the women and girls of the developing world as role models for North American teens. But they are more than that. Every woman in a developing community is a potential engine for economic growth.

Brothers Craig and Marc Kielburger founded a platform for social change that includes the international charity, Free The Children, the social enterprise, Me to We, and the youth empowerment movement, We Day.