What We Do

What We Do: Grants to Merry-Go-Rounds

With other sources of capital nearly nonexistent, women in sub-Saharan Africa have traditionally relied on each other to finance their micro-businesses. It is common to join together in informal collectives called merry-go-rounds. Each week or so when the merry-go-round meets, every member contributes a small sum of money (often less than $1), part of which is used to make loans to members. The rest of the dues are given to one of the members – a different member each time – who can use the lump sum to buy supplies for her farm, pay her children’s school fees or invest in a sewing machine.

Merry-go-rounds in Lubumbashi can apply for a larger grant from First Step Initiative to support a collective business. Rather than give the money to one woman, we help the entire collective make an investment in its members’ economic future.  With a grant of up to $5,000, a merry-go-round can make substantial purchases, whether they be a generator and a refrigerator for a meat market, or dairy cows and a land lease for milk production. Cash infusions help grant recipients significantly improve their businesses – and those businesses then positively impact the communities they support with fresh food and better services.

The Situation in the DRC

The Democratic Republic of Congo is slightly less than one-fourth the size of the USA and is widely considered to be one of the richest country in the world in terms of its natural resources. These include silver, gold, diamonds, zinc, coal, petroleum, hydro power, cobalt, copper, manganese, tin, uranium, niobium and tantalum. Of particular note, the value of and competition for the tantalum, tin, and gold, key ingredients in the manufacture of digital devices, has increased significantly since the mid-1990s.

Despite this abundance of natural resources and the nation’s relatively sparse population (just over eighty-one million), citizens of the DRC are among the poorest in the world. Decades of mismanagement, corruption, and war have disrupted the nation’s ability to establish an environment in which its citizens prosper. The civil strife of the two last decades caused the death of more than 4.5 million and possibly as many as 6 million people. Over 1.7 million Congolese have been internally displaced, largely in the eastern provinces. At the same time, nearly 400,000 refugees have entered the DRC, fleeing from the fighting primarily in Rwanda, South Sudan, the Central African Republic and

Tenuous peace accords in the recent past have allowed slow economic progress. However, as The World Factbook notes, “An uncertain legal framework, corruption, and a lack of transparency in government policy are long-term problems for the large mining sector and for the economy as a whole.”

The absence of reliable systems means that the available statistics must be understood as approximate. However, taken as aggregate, they illustrate the conditions under which most citizens live.

  • Per capita GDP is $800, just over $2/day
  • 63% of population lives below the poverty level
  • Life expectancy is 57.3 years
  • Child labor – 42% of children 5-14 are working
  • Median age is 18.4 years with nearly 65% of population 24 or younger
  • Literacy – total population 63.8%; men 78.1%; women 50%

Despite all this hardship, the people of the DRC are very enterprising. Their entrepreneurial spirit presents a great opportunity to help people help themselves.

Where We Operate: Lubumbashi

Lubumbashi is in the southeastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), near Zambia. It is the nation’s second largest city, with a population of nearly two million. Only the capitol Kinshasa is larger. The city has a humid subtropical climate although its elevation, about 3000 feet, gives it a cooler climate than much of the

Settled as a Belgian copper mining town in 1910, it was originally named Elisabethville, after Princess Elisabeth of Belgium. With independence, the name changed to Lubumbashi, after a local river.

Lubumbashi is the nation’s mining capital and the hub of many of the nation’s mining companies. In relatively prosperous Katanga Province, the area produces more than three percent of the world’s copper and half of its cobalt. The city also is a transportation hub for mineral products and an important commercial and industrial center.

The official language is French, although Kiswahili is the lingua franca. The population is largely Catholic and Protestant, with a small number of Muslims.

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Where We Work

Learn more about the Congo by visiting The World Factbook or reading a wonderful non-fiction book on the history of the Congo titled King Leopold’s Ghost.

Our Direct Impact

  • Enhanced economic status
  • Expanded employment opportunities
  • Transformed lives


Our Indirect Impact

  • Reduced malnutrition
  • Increased school enrollment
  • Decreased school drop-outs