Dr. Hill and students
Wofford project provides micro-loans for Haitians

By SUSANNE M. SCHAFER, Associated Press  

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Students at Wofford College in South Carolina are getting lessons in high finance while helping poor women and peanut farmers in Haiti.

The Wofford students manage an investment fund as a financial learning exercise, according to their finance professor Philip Swicegood.

Last year, the fund had done well enough over a five-year period that the students decided to turn over some of the profits to support a small loan project in Haiti, Swicegood said in a recent interview.

"The students learn money management skills, and they focus on long-term wealth creation," Swicegood said. "But this also allows them to develop a vision of philanthropy at the same time."

The fund was created through a $100,000 contribution to the college by Wofford alumnus and trustee Mike James, who directed the money be used for such a student-led project, Swicegood said.

A physician helping coordinate the effort on the ground in northern Haiti said profits from the James Fund are supporting loans of several hundred dollars to about 30 women and 50 peanut farmers.

Dr. Eugene Maklin said the loans run about $300 for each woman and about $100 for each farmer. They are repaid in increments over time and so far, the loans have been repaid on time, the physician said.

The women use the loans to buy produce to resell or make consumer items. The peanut farmers sell their crops to an organization that helps feed undernourished children.

Maklin said the great majority of the Haitian women use their profits to pay for schooling for their children. Many farmers choose to invest in their farms or tools. He said the Wofford program is centered in a village about 45 minutes outside of the northern port of Cap Haitien.

Only 20 students are chosen to participate in the extracurricular program every year, Swicegood said.

The fund has grown to about $180,000, and the students have about $13,000 to use on the Haiti project, the professor said.

"We wanted to do something really unique with it," said Wofford 2012 graduate Martin Huff, who is working in Spartanburg for a financial firm and handles auto loans. Huff, 23, traveled to Haiti the day he graduated and helped interview the initial loan recipients.

"Some of the women used their money to buy supplies and sew tapestries to put over their doorways. Others were buying produce, meat, candy or raw goods to sell in the marketplace," said Huff, who added that he'd like to return again for such work.

Maklin, who coordinates the group known as NH4H, or New Hope for Haiti, helps administer and manage the Wofford micro-loans along with those of other groups. The Wofford group chose to work with a loan program established in 2006 by the Providence United Methodist Church in Charlotte, N.C., Swicegood and Maklin said.

Swicegood and Maklin said the project makes a commitment to work with its loan recipients for a three-year period and may renew the existing loans.

They added that the 2 percent interest earned from the micro-loans is divided up, with one-third returned to each person at the end of the loan cycle. One-third goes for the administration of the loans, and one-third is placed into a fund for the local community.

Swicegood said the women decided to use part of the funds that were set aside for the community to purchase a fresh water system for their village.

"We can't thank Wofford enough for doing all this for our fellow Haitians," Maklin said. "The cost of living is becoming more difficult nowadays. We receive thousands, thousands of calls from many groups of women and men asking for that kind of help every day. But we're very sorry we can't provide loans to everyone."

Gabriela Salazar, who is the agriculture manager for the nonprofit Meds and Food for Kids that works with the peanut farmers, said the Wofford program has worked with a total of 50 peanut farmers from five communities.

"Wofford's micro-loans have been enough for the average peanut farmer to purchase seeds and prepare their land for planting, costs which are often significant barriers to entry for peanut farmers," Salazar said. Her group buys the peanuts the farmers produce.

The program "is a step toward helping farmers to sustainably grow more peanuts while also increasing their incomes," Salazar said.

Susanne M. Schafer can be reached on Twitter at http://twitter.com/susannemarieap.