Power of Love, Executive Director Dr. Alka Subramanian on microloans program and its impact on women in Zambia

Dr. Alka Subramanian is the Executive Director at Power of Love since founding it in 2002. She is a strong advocate for empowering women and caregivers and including “love” in caring for the children. Alka evaluates and manages the partnerships with the grassroots organizations as well as coordinating all financial, legal, and reporting work.
Alka has over fifteen years of experience in the field of international economics and development. Her specialization is in building business channels and small businesses. Before founding Power of Love, Alka was a tenured Professor of Marketing at the University of South Dakota where she taught for seven years.
She is married and has three wonderful children who are all very supportive of her work. She has a Ph.D. in Marketing from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln

How did you start your venture and with what goals in mind?

We firmly believe that our happiness and well-being here in the US is linked to the joy of all children irrespective of where they live. This implies that all children should have access to high-quality healthcare and education and that we should do our best to achieve that state. We believe that as with my three children, every child should have access to good health care.

Our goals, therefore, was to provide high-quality health care to children living with HIV, empower women impacted by HIV and AIDS, and prevent HIV and malaria. Before we founded Power of Love, we worked with several community-based organizations in Kenya and Zambia. We discovered that there is a need for an organization that is run more like a business and that can provide impact metrics to potential donors. We built a three-tier model of pediatric HIV care that incorporated the home-based model of care prevalent in Africa with the help of volunteers from the Harvard School of Public Health.

Why did you choose Zambia?

Zambia is a mineral-rich country. However, 64 % of its people live below the poverty line, and 42% are extremely poor. Over 1 million children have been orphaned in Zambia – mostly due to AIDS. Due to high poverty and unemployment and a high incidence of HIV, it is hard for families to care for its orphans. Many orphaned children live with grandmother who has little or no education and few marketable skills. Grandmothers need support to provide proper care to their orphaned grandchildren. Despite the county’s high HIV prevalence rate, there is significantly low knowledge among the general population. Malaria transmission is also high in Zambia.

Tell us something about the initiative on microloans to women in Zambia?

We started this initiative in 2006 in Matero, which is one of the poorest and largest compounds in Lusaka, with a population of more than 250,000 and a high incidence of HIV and malaria. Most residents are poor and live on less than $2 per day – defined as extreme poverty by the UN.

We are working with around 400 women and around 2400-2800 adults and children benefit from our micro loans program.

We have grandmas, widows, single women impacted by HIV, older siblings of child-headed households in our program who have no source of income and have tough time paying for even necessities such as food, rent, medicines and school expenses.

The provision of microloans along with training in income-generating skills is one of the most effective ways of alleviating poverty and breaking the vicious cycle of low income and education.

The goal of our micro loans program is to equip women with tools they need to run a successful business and to create conditions for women to be socially, and economically empowered.

Our women clients are identified based on need, and their ability and willingness to run a business. Selected women are required to participate in and complete five-day business training. After successful completion of training, the women receive their first loan. They receive three loans throughout 20-24 months. Loan recipients meet weekly to make repayments and discuss issues of concern such as challenges of running a business, caring for HIV+ children, HIV prevention, voluntary testing for HIV, the importance of keeping children in school, etc. Also, ongoing support is provided via business mentoring, refresher training, and on-site business monitoring by loan officers. As a result of this ongoing support, repayment rates are around 92-94%.

Loan capital is a revolving fund; once the women graduate (after receiving three loans), the same loan capital is available for a new set of women.

What has been the impact of your program?

Training, education, and loans to start a business have a multi-dimensional and multi-generational impact as it ensures a brighter future for the next generation. Besides, the important indicators such as health, attending school are improving. Families are more knowledgeable about HIV and malaria. These program activities can make families self-reliant in 12-24 months.

We are working for the overall social and economic empowerment for the women and families

Cathy lives with her husband (both are HIV+) and two orphaned children in a two-room home. She is the sole provider as her husband has been sick for the past two years. Her children (one is HIV+) are studying in grades nine and ten respectively. She also helps one orphaned nephew with school expenses. Cathy completed business training in April 2017 and started selling fish and sausages. Earnings from this business helped her pay for food, rent, and school expenses. After a few months, she diversified her business by adding rice. She feels that rice is a profitable product as she can sell it all year round.

In January 2018, Cathy’s business suffered a setback due to the cholera outbreak, but her business recovered by April, and she is on track with repayments now. She has now added soya chunks, and spaghetti to her selling business in addition to rice, sausages, and fish.

Gertrude is a 27-year old orphan who is the sole caregiver for her grandmother and three younger siblings. She was not able to provide even two meals for her family until she was introduced to our micro loans program by one of her friends who is a loan recipient. Gertrude received business training and a loan with which she opened a salon in March 2018. She is a good hair stylist, works hard, and her salon is doing well. She is now able to take better care of her family and has been able to move from a relative’s place to a rented place of her own. At present, she is on her second loan, and on schedule with repayments. Now, she has added a used clothing business to her hair salon.

We help loan recipients in acquiring new skills and increasing their financial literacy levels. Many women have started mobile banking which is essential for financial inclusion.

With women bringing in an income, the men come forward to help, and this leads to improved gender equity.

What difficulties/challenges you are facing in your work?

Our funding organizations sometimes find it difficult to understand why our non-loan capital costs (compensation paid to staff and loan officers, and operational costs) are high. These are program costs and not ‘overheads’ as interpreted by some funders.

Most of our staff and loan officers live and work in the community. We have gained the trust of community residents, and we are embedded in the community. We rely on our local staff for the effective functioning of our programs. If they are lured away by other organizations, we will have a hard time replacing them.

How do you balance between the profit and the goal of helping the women?

We work for family sustainability and not program sustainability. We target the whole family as a unit, so the family is economically stable, has health care, and supported (partially) for school expenses.

Our programs are comprehensive and families can benefit from multiple programs such as pediatric HIV care, microloans, malaria prevention, school support, PMTCT, etc. For example, a loan recipient is provided with mosquito bed nets and education on malaria prevention, training in HIV, and can enroll her children in our pediatric HIV care program. This increases the probability of success of a loan recipient and her business especially since many women are HIV+ and HIV or AIDS impact almost all.

Our goal is ‘social profit’ via poverty alleviation, prevention of HIV, caring for HIV+ children and malaria prevention and not ‘economic profit’

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