Television presenter and campaigner Stacey Dooley has just returned from Bosnia and Herzegovina, where she met women supported by the micro-lending site Lendwithcare.org- an initiative that sees ordinary Brits loan money directly to entrepreneurs in developing countries.
After meeting women whose small businesses have been funded by British people via lendwithcare.org, Stacey is championing lendwithcare.org gift vouchers this Christmas.
Last week I travelled with the charity CARE International UK and The Co-operative to Bosnia and Herzegovina to see the brilliant micro-lending initiative Lendwithcare.org in action. Lendwithcare.org lets people in the UK lend small amounts of money to entrepreneurs running their own businesses in poor communities around the world. What's great about it is 100% of the loan, typically £15 or £30, goes to the entrepreneur.
I lend to people in Togo, Ecuador, Cambodia and the Philippines. As a lender, the loans are repaid back to me, and once it has all been paid back, I get to pick another entrepreneur to invest that same money in, or choose to donate the money to CARE or just withdraw it for myself.
On my second day in Bosnia and Herzegovina I spent time in and around Srebenica. Srebenica is significant in Bosnia - this is where the genocide took place in 1995. At the Srebenica memorial, we heard first hand about the thousands of men and boys who lost their lives, from someone who managed to survive - his father and twin brother didn't make it.
Seventeen years on, the war has finished, but the problems created by the war are still visible. Lives were destroyed then and people are still trying to rebuild them now.
Just outside Srebenica we met Sefika, who's 21 and married with a 20 month-old son, Adnam. It was a real pleasure spending time with Sefika. She was able to explain very clearly the benefits of being involved with Lendwithcare. She told me if it wasn't for the opportunity of a loan, her husband's wage would be sufficient in supporting the whole family.
Sefika used her loan to buy a cow. Initially the cow was used to feed her baby and now the plan is to sell the calf, which will enable her to continue supporting her family, including her young son Adnam.
Sefika lost her father during the war and her brother soon after. She tells me her, and all of her girl friends who are of a similar age - early 20s - have no real hope of becoming employed any time soon, which unfortunately I'm learning is a massive problem here - youth unemployment.
The unemployment rate currently stands at around 43% of the working population. Almost half of women, around 48%, of working age are unemployed. The lack of economic opportunities has increased the vulnerability of many women and human sex trafficking is a major problem. Almost one fifth of the population, 18%, lives below the poverty line.
Despite being up against it, Sefika was so welcoming and incredibly positive about the future. Sefika wanted to thank lenders in the UK. She said she was very grateful for the loan and had invested it wisely.
In the capital Sarajevo I met Mediha, who runs a tailoring and craft shop, a business she started when she lost her job after the war.
Starting from home, Mediha worked hard to move her business into small premises. And now with help from Lendwithcare.org, she has a thriving business with the equipment she needs. I could tell how much the loan had meant to her. She said it was the only way to get her family back on their feet after the war, and she broke down when she talked about the journey she'd been through.
Although I was only in Bosnia and Herzegovina a short time it became very apparent, very quickly, just how important these loans are, with one of the entrepreneurs telling me she literally sees this as the only option for women in Bosnia to make a living.
Lendwithcare.org is a fantastic opportunity for people who ordinarily would have no other option. And with Christmas around the corner I guess there's no better time to check out Lendwithcare.org and maybe buy your pal or loved one a gift voucher.
Charity gifts have been around for years but lendwithcare.org gift vouchers are different because they keep on giving, year-in and year-out. Not only does the recipient get to choose an individual entrepreneur in the developing world to help but, when they have used their voucher to lend £15 to a poor entrepreneur, they can go on to re-invest the same loan, once it has been repaid, in someone new.
Get lending! Merry Christmas :-)
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