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A Macro Ride for Microfinance,
Kerri Roche, The Daily News Tribune, April 25, 2008

 

WALTHAM, MA — Three soon-to-be graduates of Bentley College are going to cycle across the country this summer with a message and a plan that many are rallying behind as a solution to worldwide poverty.

Pegged as the sustainable and proven answer to poverty, the concept is called microfinance and is gaining momentum through recent college graduates, socially-conscience corporations and a newly awarded Nobel Peace Prize, said Bentley senior and economic finance major Tyler Heishman.

The solution to poverty, said Heishman, is almost as simple as the old adage of teaching a man to fish - give the world's poorest a small loan with which they can secure the equipment or goods necessary to start a small, sustainable source of money.

Fred Piumelli, also a senior and finance major, will join Heishman on his nine-week trip, dubbed MicroBikeUSA, across the middle of the country.

The pair will be accompanied by a third Bentley senior, Bryan Stinchfield, and four other friends from Fordham and Bucknell universities.

"The poor have never had access to capital," Piumelli said. "Essentially, what the old practice was, is lend money to the poor and charge extremely high interest rates."

For example, Piumelli said, a money lender in a poverty-stricken village might loan a woman enough money for materials to make baskets, but the woman would owe the equivalent of nine baskets in interest.

With microfinancing, he said, "you're not working as an indentured servant."

The purpose of the trip, said Piumelli, is to raise awareness about microfinance and Boston-based ACCION International, which works with institutions around the world to administer the loan programs.

Since 1973, ACCION has pioneered microfinance, said Heidi Norris, the organization's director of major gifts.

"We started experimenting with small loans and found this was a way to really help people help themselves out of poverty," said Norris.

The support for microfinancing is rapidly gaining a following from college graduates and young philanthropists after the Grameen Bank and its founder, Muhammad Yunus, won the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize for extending microcredit to the impoverished areas of Bangladesh, said Norris.

"This is the hot new thing with international relations. It's this whole concept of social enterprise. Businesses do not have to just have to have a profit mission, they can also have a socially driven mission," said Norris.

Loans for as little as $100 are offered at affordable interest rates, Norris said. The loan officers have frequent and face-to-face contact with the applicants, and that - coupled with the life-changing effects the money creates - means repayment rates average 97 percent, Norris said.

Since its inception, ACCION has helped administer loans to more than 3 million people in 25 developing countries, said Norris.

As for the mission of the three Bentley College students, "We're honored. There are many organizations they could have chosen," said Norris. "We're really hoping to build on the momentum they've developed."

The three seniors, said Heishman, have been cycling whenever they can to gear up for their nine-week adventure. However, with a full course load and part-time jobs, squeezing in practice runs before their June 9 departure is nearly impossible, said Piumelli, who has been biking to work in downtown Boston.

The cyclists, who will pay for their gear and camping equipment, hope to raise $50,000 for ACCION by the time they reach San Francisco. They plan to solicit money from businesses, family and friends.

Facing their graduation and introduction into the "real world," Heishman said, the opportunity is a "now-or-never situation."

For more information about the students' trip, visit www.microbikeusa.com.

The Daily News Tribune