Our History

View a video of the loan program launch and expansion through 2009



The Beginning: In the spring of 2007, Robyn Nietert and Betsy Gordon, residents of the Carderock Springs neighborhood in Bethesda, MD, discussed ideas for organizing an initiative that would allow local women to reach out to their counterparts in developing nations. Graduates of George Washington University law school and business school, respectively, they discovered a common interest in microfinance.

The Founding: One advantage of a microfinance initiative is that unlike conventional aid organizations, microfinance preserves the capital base of an organization by providing loans rather than subsidies. Ms. Nietert and Ms. Gordon decided that a microfinance initiative would allow them to assist impoverished communities in a sustainable way. They called on other colleagues with professional experience to form a non-profit corporation, the Women's Microfinance Initiative (WMI). A colleague practicing at Baker & McKenzie in New York persuaded the firm to provide pro bono legal counsel.

The Uganda Network: Through a global service project of Bradley Hills Presbyterian Church, Ms. Nietert had learned about the women of the Bulambuli Widows Association in Buyobo, Uganda. Another church member, June Kyakobye, had spent childhood vacations in Buyobo with her mother. Ms. Kyakobye immediately endorsed the idea of providing business loans to the women of Buyobo, and she joined the WMI Board.

WMI's Board members pooled their resources to fund WMI. Through Ms. Kyakobye, they entered a dialogue with the Bulambuli Widows' Association and reached an agreement making the widows' association a local lending partner. In order to provide follow-up services and training to borrowers, WMI forged an alliance with a local Ugandan charity, Foundation for the Development of Needy Communities (FDNC), which provides extensive outreach services to the villages in the Buyobo area. With the help of their newly created Advisory Board, the WMI directors drafted loan documents and training materials for the credit program.

The Journey: At the end of December 2007, Ms. Nietert, her husband Malcolm Stevenson, also an attorney, and their two daughters, Montana, 19, a sophomore at UVA, and Victoria, 16, a junior at Walt Whitman High School, departed Dulles Airport for Africa. They reached Uganda on December 31, 2007, and journeyed to Buyobo. There, they met up with Ms. Kyakobye, and were ready to launch WMI's micro-lending program.

The Welcome: The entire village of Buyobo turned out to greet them. The women of the BWA, dressed in handmade gowns, led a three-hour program of singing, dancing and speeches. Local politicians were on hand to offer their words of thanks, and the youth of the village drummed and step-danced. The welcome ceremony was held in a small outdoor arena with a banana-leaf roof. In a building packed to capacity, dozens of wide-eyed children stood on tiptoe to catch a glimpse of the pageantry.

When it was WMI's turn to speak, Ms. Nietert explained that WMI is not a big bank or large corporation, but just a group of businesswomen on one side of the globe helping their counterparts on the other. She handed out pictures of the WMI Board, pointing to each member and naming her. The Buyobo women repeated each name carefully and clapped long and hard for the women across the ocean that were reaching out to them.

The Program Launch: After New Year's Day celebrations, the work began. Ms. Kyakobye teamed with Ms. Nietert's daughter Montana to interview prospective borrowers and write simple business plans. Meanwhile, Ms. Nietert and Olive Wolimbwa, the Chair of the BWA, formed a second team. Many of the applicants understood English, but Ms. Wolimbwa and Ms. Kyakobye provided Lugisu translation as needed.

For two days the teams vetted business ideas to raise chickens, market bogoyas and open small shops. Chatting quietly on a bench, women waited patiently for hours for their turn to meet. Loan applications were completed, and 2 days of training began. Ms. Nietert explained simple marketing, operations, and management concepts. Materials were handed out, and the lesson on "income minus expenses equals profits" drew cheers. Although many of the women had operated micro-businesses before, no one had ever explained the benefits of record keeping. WMI supplied notebooks and calculators, and the women vowed to keep track of their business finances.

Montana was in charge of keeping tabs on WMI's documents, and on the last day she handed out the Loan Agreements. Twenty initial borrowers were selected, and they signed their names carefully to the documents, calling to their best friends to come over and witness their signatures. The loan amounts of $50 - $150 were distributed and 20 additional borrowers were pre-qualified for the next round of loans, which were disbursed in March 2008. The borrowers celebrated with an impromptu conga line that snaked its way through fledgling businesses. Victoria was in charge of video and photos of the trip. And, Malcolm was the good will ambassador to the vilage elders - all men!

The Return to America: The following morning the WMI team collected its belongings and headed out to Kampala, loaded with good-bye gifts of local coffee beans and homemade dresses.

Surrounded by widows chanting a thank-you song, the WMI mini-van pulled out onto the dusty road as the widows held up the cell phone WMI had purchased for them. Back in Bethesda, MD, WMI initiated weekly telephone calls with the Widow's Association every week, and Ms. Wolimbwa reports that the borrowers are doing great and have begun a joint savings program.

The Borrowers' Businesses: Borrowers of the first loan issues started business ventures in raising chickens, tailoring, buying and selling vegetables and bogoyas, selling cold drinks and biscuits, grinding maize, operating small shops, and growing coffee. Upon receiving their loans, the women indicated that they would use their business profits to pay school fees, improve family meals and for medical care.

Expansion: In July 2008, WMI Advisory board member Robert Israelite and WMI summer intern Hart Wood, a junior at the University of Mary Washington, traveled to Buyobo to hold a graduation ceremony for the first group of borrowers, who made their final loan payment in July. They also issued follow-up loans for larger amounts to the alumni and made loans to 40 new borrowers.

In October 2008, the final 40 loans of the year were issued, with 40 more women added to the waiting list for 2009. Ron Cordes of San Francisco, whose family foundation provided a grant to cover a 5-year salary for WMI's Local Director, Olive Wolimbwa, traveled to Buyobo and met with the borrowers. It was a thrilling experience for the women of Buyobo.

2009: WMI raised over $100,000 and completed construction of a shared community building to provide offices for WMI and meeting space for borrower support groups.

The WMI building in Buyobo
The WMI building in Buyobo

Over 200 initial and 320 follow-up loans were dispersed with no late payments. In partnership with PostBank Uganda, WMI developed the Transition to Independence Program (TIP) to transition WMI's experienced borrowers to independent banking.

Summer interns in Bethesda analyzed the borrower data collected through regular surveys and prepared the first WMI fact book, documenting the extensive impact of the loan program in improving household living standards.

2010: In January of 2010, WMI's most experienced borrowers entered the transition-banking phase with PostBank and began receiving loans directly from the bank that were 100% guaranteed by WMI.

14 interns from Walt Whitman High School traveled to Buyobo
14 interns from Walt Whitman High School traveled to Buyobo

WMI began a summer high school intern program in July of 2010. 14 students from Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, MD, traveled to Buyobo, where they set up an Internet café and taught computer skills to women and children in the village. Summer interns in Bethesda again analyzed the borrower data collected the previous year and developed three fact books and research papers on how WMI loans are improving lives for impoverished families. Two recent college post-graduates, Montana Stevenson and Ainsley Morris, started a 10-month stay in Buyobo to direct program expansion, develop borrower tools and prepare a banking manual.

After raising over $170,000 in donations, the loan program expanded to five new loan hubs throughout Kenya and Uganda.

2011: WMI hosted ten summer interns in Bethesda, who were responsible for writing grants, updating the website and inputting borrowers' survey data to analyze to gauge loan program impact.

Montana Stevenson and Ainsley Morris help automate WMI loan records in Buyobo.
Montana Stevenson and Ainsley Morris help automate WMI loan records in Buyobo.

Eight more High School students, three college graduates and one adult intern traveled to Buyobo during the summer. Their stays ranged over 2 months and they contributed a multitude of talents to paint classrooms, update the Internet café, shoot video footage for a documentary film, automate loan records, train borrowers in advanced business skills, prepare a banking manual, interview borrowers and village elders to prepare a history of the region and the WMI loan program.

The loan program expanded to new hubs in Konokoya, Uganda and Shikokho, Kenya. Ten borrowers in Kenya were trained in a World Bank training-to-train program and now provide mentoring to new WMI borrowers in Kenya. Additional trainers were added in Buyobo as that loan hub continues to expand geographically.

2012: WMI expanded the program to new loan hubs in Tanzania, so that WMI now covers the three main countries in East Africa. A new position of Resource Fellow was added in Buyobo and is filled each year by a college graduate with community development skills to assist the local staff in building human capacity in the villages where they work. Another small WMI building was added in Konokoya, Uganda. Loan groups in the original hub of Buyobo were expanded through the establishment of sub-hubs so that there are over 30 loan groups now in the districts surrounding the town of Mbale!

Konokoya Head Administrator Betty Bigale at new WMI satellite office
Konokoya Head Administrator Betty Bigale at new WMI satellite office
2013: This year WMI almost doubled in size, adding over 1,850 new borrowers and issuing 4,900 loans amounting to $707,000 (an average of $150 per loan). WMI assisted 11 additional groups of women in their transition to independent banking in Uganda, providing them support and working with PBU to ensure a smooth graduation to the formal economy.
WMI meeting pavillion in Buteza, Uganda
WMI meeting pavillion in Buteza, Uganda
Expansion-wise, WMI added 3 new village hub locations: Buputo, Uganda under the auspices of the Matuwa Microfinance Women's Group, Ngarendare, Kenya, in conjunction with the Naibala Self Help Group, and Tloma, Tanzania was added under the leadership of the Tloma Community Organization, a sister program to the Alailelai, Tanzania program. WMI funded construction of an office and meeting hall for the Blessed Watoto loan group in Atiak, located in northern Uganda near the South Sudan border. And a meeting pavilion was constructed in Buteza, Uganda to accommodate the concentration of borrowers there.

BWA Staff
BWA Staff
2014: Olive Wolimbwa, WMI's Local Director, and her team of 20 rural women (also borrowers) at the Buyobo Women's Association (BWA) provide leadership and supervision for all of the loan hubs and are breaking new ground in developing strict fiscal protocols. They are bringing a high level of control and oversight
Grace Mangali, WMI office manager
Grace Mangali, WMI office manager
to rural loan program systems operations. This year they prepared an end-of-year profit/loss statement and balance sheet for headquarter loan hub operations. This gave the ladies enormous insight into program operating efficiency and provided a valuable planning tool for future growth. It sparked discussions on how to cut cost, consolidate functions and improve operations.

Over 50 hub administrators and local coordinators from our programs throughout East Africa travelled to Buyobo to attend a series of week-long training sessions in how to operate the loan program, train new borrowers, and improve record keeping. The women were also able to share experiences and knowledge with their sister hubs.

The first loans were issued in 2008 and the first 120 women graduated from the loan program in 2010. In 2014, we decided to go back and see what had happened to the borrowers from 2008 and their businesses. We conducted a survey that found 95% of businesses are still in operation! Report