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We spent today around Mutare, a Zimbabwe city of 170K just across the border from Mozambique. Our partner for the day was ASAP Africa — ASAP stands for A Self-help Assistance Program — who let me meet with two groups of their cluster facilitators. Each CF voluntarily oversees 5-20 Village Savings and Loan groups of 5-7 people each. Which is to say that the 25 women I spoke with today represent more than 1,000 of their peers. In ASAP lingo, the program is locally known as Kufasa Mari — and the women all have matching Kufasa Mari shirts they proudly showed me.

I learned a lot today, but one thing strikes me. Even the ASAP staff were surprised by how interested the women were about leading business literacy sessions for their groups. Clear enthusiasm. This is something I’ve encountered elsewhere — a failure to recognize how much microentrepreneurs want to learn business knowhow.

There’s something about microenterprise that arouses convictions in us First Worlders toward microfinance, but not as much towards spreading business literacy or the operations of the microenterprise itself. It’s not scientific, but Google turns up 4 times as many results for “microfinance” as for “microenterprise.” Phrases like “microentrepreneur” and “business literacy” fare even worse.

It seems to me — though if you’re reading this blog, I’ve probably said this to you a lot — that it should be the other way around. Business knowhow should be the lead product, with microfinance the complementary cross-sell.

A resourceful, savvy business owner can make do without much credit, while a simple-minded business owner with a plump line of credit won’t just spin his wheels, he’ll be a danger to himself and his bank account.

There’s also the issue that the gospel of microfinance operates under a set of assumptions, credit=investment=net profit=additional wealth, that don’t often carry all the way through. Microfinance is great, but it’s great because it helps recipients smooth their volatile income and deal with emergencies — a bit different than the stories that end so sweetly, “And that loan let Maria buy a sewing machine and now she’s not poor.”

How did Maria know to buy a sewing machine? How did she know she’d be able to pay it off? How is she selling more than her competitors, and how does she plan to keep this advantage?

Credit is a tool, I think; it matters more whether you know what to do with it.

As for the title of this post, it comes from a conversation today. My translator and the ASAP program manager, Joseph Miti, asked the women to describe their businesses. One said she had 8 goats, 4 pigs, and “brellas.” I thought, “Well, that’s a funny thing to buy elsewhere and sell in your community, but if there’s demand for umbrellas, go for it.” After all, on the way to this remote town of Sherukuru, I saw a few women blocking out the midday sun with large golf umbrellas, so perhaps they were in vogue, a la urban China. Also — shortening umbrellas to ‘brellas, how ‘mazing!

As I was asking a question later about challenges, I used umbrellas as the example business. A couple weird looks, but nothing crazy.

Though the next time she mentioned raising “brellas,” I stopped her.

“You mean umbrellas?”

“No,” she laughed. “I raise broilers. Like chickens.”

So if you visit Sherukuru and are asked if Americans really do grow umbrellas, I–I may be at fault.

May 5, 2010

You headed to Africa University whilst you are there?

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