Four students from The University of Arizona are heading to Africa next week for the trip of their dreams. For a group of Nigerian villagers, the UA visit may open up their dreams of a lifetime.
The students, all members of the UA chapter of Students in Free Enterprise, or SIFE, have been collaborating with UA law professor Leslye Obiora for the past two years to introduce entrepreneurship and business practices to women in the town of Oguta in southeast Nigeria.
The project also provides the women with microloans of $50 to $150 to finance their business startups.
The SIFE team includes Jacqueline Lemieux and Lauren Quigley, who graduated on May 17, and doctoral student Taryn Kong and first-year student Melissa Seifert.
SIFE is an international nonprofit organization that promotes leadership through entrepreneurial projects. The 10-year-old UA chapter is housed in the Norton School of Family and Consumer Sciences in the UA College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.
Obiora started the nonprofit Institute for Research on African Women, Children and Culture, which provides African women with basic reading, writing and community rights training.
The SIFE team worked with Obiora to create educational materials to teach financial literacy and accounting to women small business owners in Oguta. A Financial Literacy Grant from the Hong Kong Shanghai Banking Corporation, a SIFE corporate sponsor, provided funding for the materials and some microloans.
With SIFE’s involvement, the Institute for Research on African Women, Childen and Culture has grown from 70 to 173 women. The women also have an impressive 100 percent repayment rate on their loans. The popularity of the program has resulted in a waiting list, with both men and women wanting to sign on.
The businesses these women have created – quilting, used clothing, fragrances, produce stands – are modest, but provide an infusion of capital and economic activity many in the community need to break out of poverty.
Lemieux and Quigley said their team has been working since last fall to put the 10-day trip together. Lemieux said communications were a constant problem. Establishing a conference call often took up to 45 minutes due to the problematic telephone infrastructure in rural Africa.
Culturally, rural Nigerians' views of best business practices vary somewhat from those in developed nations. For example, getting people to cooperate on projects can be difficult, Quigley said.
She and the others will use part of their time to run a summer camp for a group of high school girls in Oguta. This project has two primary objectives. One is to provide the girls with an interactive education in entrepreneurship, financial literacy and fundamental business practices. The other goal is to supply them with microloans that will help them start a self-sustaining business. The students will compete to create business plans for the microloans.
The SIFE team also will work closely with the high school students’ advisers to make sure they know what they’re teaching to students.
Lemieux and Quigley said aside from their trip to Nigeria, their reward is seeing their project come full circle and leaving a legacy for other SIFE students.
“I joined SIFE three years ago because my parents wanted me to get involved with something,” Lemieux said. “And now we get to go to see firsthand what women there are doing with what we created.”