In 2003, at age 60, I founded WomensTrust, Inc. (“WT”), a private, non-profit organization headquartered in the U.S. and Ghana, with the goal of lifting African women—and their families and communities—out of poverty.  In the intervening years, we have created a new model of economic development, which we hope will be replicated around the world.

Dana and Pokuase Program Director,
Gertrude Ankrah

WomensTrust works to address the root causes of poverty: lack of capital, lack of educational options, and lack of basic preventive healthcare services.  For decades, microfinance institutions (“MFIs”) around the world have been providing desperately-needed capital to the poor in developing countries through uncollateralized loans to fuel entrepreneurship and economic development. 

By scaling vertically, however, many of these MFIs are limited in their ability to address and support the other facets that promote economic stability. WomensTrust works differently.  At WT, personal relationships develop between borrower and lender, borne of mutual trust as we work together.  Over time this trust fosters a sense of well being and a capacity to improve one’s life, one’s family, and one’s larger community, far exceeding the contribution made simply by the loan.  By asking questions, we’ve learned what else the women need to break poverty’s hold.

WT has found a similar resonance in its approach and response to volunteerism and giving.  In the U.S. today many people are reaching for a way to give back on a personal level.  WT taps  into a growing pool of people who are ready to help – with time, expertise, money, and more.  Retired executives travel with us to Ghana to teach small business classes.  MBA professors accompany us to learn how to start similar projects of their own in other towns.  And college students come to help and learn.  With this model, WT provides a conduit between the resources of the developed world and the needs of the developing world—one village at a time. 

The WomensTrust logo is a Ghanaian adinkra symbol that translates to 'help me and let me help you’.  What has emerged in the past five years is a model that can build lasting change at the village level and lasting impact for those who join in the work.

Our Program
The program was first established in 2003 in the village of Pokuase, Ghana – a community of 12,000 located twenty miles outside the capital city of Accra.  Today, we have affiliated programs in three adjoining villages in Greater Accra and more than 1,000 women increasing the incomes earned from their small businesses through the support of WT loans.  Education support is provided to more than 250 women and girls through scholarships, enrichment courses, and skill-building workshops.   And nearly 800 women and children have improved access to diagnostic and preventive healthcare, medicines, and education to address critical health issues with a focus on maternal mortality rates that are among the highest in the world.

In the past five years, WT has broadened its network of support, engaging the help of a wide range of contributors – from professors who are replicating the WT model in a contiguous Ghanaian village to successful money management entrepreneurs who are funding the first Women’s Resource Center in Pokuase.  By building a continuum of support at the local level and tapping a rich lode of in-kind resources, WT provides access to capital as well as health and education resources. 

Microfinance Program 
As with most MFIs, WT targets women because, as studies show, when women succeed they pull their families and communities up with them.  WT’s program, like MFIs worldwide, is designed to be self-sustaining – generating income through interest on loans to cover local staff and overhead, while continuing to grow both the number of clients and size of loans.  From an initial group of 72 women receiving a total of $1,500 in loans ranging from $20 to $30 each, WT has expanded to more than 1,000 clients and has made loans over the years totaling more than $150,000.  Interest rates are 13 - 15% and each loan has a four-month cycle.  Repayment rates have been above 80%, with many repeat clients.  Borrowers in the WT Entrepreneur’s Club, who qualify through successive increases in loan amounts and reliable repayment, can access loans of up to $3,000.  A number of WT clients today employ other villagers (both women and men), and this year a small number of these will be encouraged to apply for their first collateralized loans from a local bank.

Research definitively shows that educating girls dramatically improves all social indicators in a developing country.  WT provides scholarship funds annually – more than $20,000 to date – to more than 116 recipients so that girls can stay in school.  After-school support includes computer training and other enrichment programs that assist girls in transitioning from primary to secondary school and beyond.  For our MFI clients, 66% of whom currently sign their loan applications with a thumbprint, adult literacy classes provide instruction in reading and writing basic English and simple sums.  And small business development training assists borrowers as they progress.

WT works to improve access to effective healthcare for women throughout the villages.  Our efforts include:  1) providing essential equipment and materials, such as thermometers, stethoscopes, baby-weighing scales, malaria nets, analgesics, and more; 2) partnering with a collaborative of U.S. nurses that provides diagnostic and preventive care, medicines, and education for nearly 800 women to address critical health issues, with a focus on maternal mortality rates; and 3) providing borrowers with free enrollment in Ghana’s new National Health Insurance Scheme.
After five years, our integrated program is directly impacting 20% of the population of Pokuase.  The capacity of our clients has grown as well:  women who once accessed $50 loans to purchase raw materials for their enterprises today successfully borrow and repay loans of more than $1,500 and meet a weekly payroll for their stable businesses.

Our educational programs now support 116 school-age girls (up from just 11 in 2004) who are receiving scholarships.  Our adult literacy program and small business development program has served over 150 clients to date.

Our health initiatives have led to the discovery that, for village women, very simple interventions of vitamins alone can dramatically reduce the threat of hemorrhaging during labor and delivery, a major factor in the soaring mortality rate of pregnant women.  And we are underwriting enrollment for WT clients – 75 to date – in Ghana’s new National Health Insurance Scheme.

Our expanding corps of college volunteers has grown to include teams from Dartmouth College, Seattle University, the University of Massachusetts/Worcester, and Colby-Sawyer College.  Nearly 40 active and retired professionals – business executives, educators, healthcare professionals, and others – serve as advisors and hands-on staff for WT programs.  And more than 1,500 contributors – from participants in local Ghana Circle lunches in the U.S. to attendees of WT events across the country – are providing financial support.

Founder's Story traces how Dana traveled to Ghana in 2003 on the occasion of her sixtieth birthday to find a village and start a microlending program. 

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© 2008 Dana Dakin, All Rights Reserved