Giving credit where credit is due

African women farmers, who produce 75 percent of the food grown and eaten on this beleaguered continent, are finally getting credit where credit is due. All over Africa, banks are beginning to cater to the credit needs of women farmers.

These women are usually too poor to buy seed, fertilizer, tools, or pesticides. Thus, their farm productivity has been dismally low. They could not borrow money to buy the things they needed to boost output, because in Africa most women are not allowed to own land - which is often required of borrowers as collateral for a loan for agricultural endeavors.

Now, a handful of banks - such as Kenya Women's Finance Trust and Barclay's Bank in Nairobi - have begun offering loans to women farmers without requiring land as collateral. Instead, the bank guarantees the loans.

Sometimes the women must promise to repay the loan within 12 to 18 months; sometimes they borrow against the proceeds from the next season's crop.

At Women's World Banking (WWB), a New York-based women's banking group with 15 affiliates in Africa, the local bank and local government jointly guarantee women's loans by issuing letters of credit. They also advise the women on where to market their goods, and how to advertise their products.

So far, not a single one of their female borrowers has failed to fulfill her obligations to them.

The women's 100 percent repayment record is the result of their concern for their reputations, says Christine Hayanga, WWB regional coordinator for Africa.

``Women are not like men,'' she said. ``When women borrow money, they pay it back. Women don't want to spoil their names, or to burden their families with a bad reputation.''

The demand for no-collateral loans is high. The commercial bank of Uganda, for instance, borrowed about $15 million from the African Development Bank at the end of last year so it could make no-collateral loans available to women farmers.

Already, says the officer in charge of the project, women are ``beating down the door'' to apply for loans. He says he doesn't have enough staff to handle all the requests.

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