SIFE team begins microfinancing program in Nicaragua

A Northwestern College Students In Free Enterprise (SIFE) team is piloting a new microfinancing program in Bluefields, Nicaragua. Team members recently returned from the Central American country, where they have begun Christian Investment Action Outreach (CIAO!) to provide opportunity to low-income entrepreneurs who have no access to regular banks or financing.

SIFE team members Angela Jiskoot and Alla Miroshnychenko taught over 40 economically disenfranchised women about free enterprise, marketing and budgeting. The women were then encouraged to form peer groups to develop ideas and receive group training. Representing the groups formed, eight entrepreneurs were given low-interest loans to bring their ideas—most of which involve the manufacture or sale of food products—to the marketplace.

The Northwestern students and faculty adviser Dr. Mike Avery also hired an on-site manager in Bluefields. The manager, a university student, will offer weekly training to the women and oversee group accountability and community building, two cornerstones of the CIAO! system of economic development.

The roots of CIAO! began two years ago when Avery participated in a Northwestern College Spring Service Project in Bluefields. Becoming aware of the area’s high unemployment rate and low standard of living—the average person of working age makes significantly less than $1,000 per year—Avery talked to a group of women to gauge their interest in working together in entrepreneurial endeavors.

“I tried to find an organization that would go to Bluefields and begin a microfinancing program, but the impression I got was that it wasn’t a big enough market,” says Avery. “I decided we have a vested interest in Bluefields since we’ve been sending service projects there for five years, they have really good people there, and we should try to do something ourselves.”

Avery, developing the program in conjunction with students Jiskoot and Miroshnychenko, chose CIAO! as the organization’s name because it is an international term of either greeting or farewell. He says the CIAO! motto of “Hello to new business. Goodbye to poverty!” may be directly translated in most languages.

CIAO! is modeled after the Grameen Bank concept of 2006 Nobel Prize in Economics winner Muhammad Yunus, and adapted to area cultural considerations. The project is funded by private donations and intended as a pilot program for other Latin American sites.

“This is an opportunity for the women and their families to participate in a dream,” says Avery. “Not one of them has ever been to a bank. We feel confident that through these loans, the women can increase their standard of living, attain dignity through work, gain a sense of hope and build up their community.”

Avery says the loans will be repaid on a weekly basis and will be completely paid off within a year. CIAO! will award more loans as the original ones are repaid.

The SIFE representatives were part of a group of 15 Northwestern students and staff members involved in a Spring Service Project in Bluefields during spring break, March 3–13. The group also painted part of a clinic, poured concrete for a new well and conducted six Bible schools for children. The work is through a partnership between the Reformed Church in America and the Moravian Church.

Northwestern College is a Christian liberal arts college in Orange City, Iowa, affiliated with the Reformed Church in America, and a member of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. Students In Free Enterprise is a nonprofit free market leadership opportunity for students at over 900 U.S. institutions and in more than 40 countries. Northwestern’s SIFE team has received national recognition in five of its six years of existence.