​Send a child to school for one year for $50.  Buy 12 bags of beet seed at wholesale prices to boost the agricultural production of 50-60 farmers. Plant 40 fruit trees or 67 forest trees for $25.

These are just a few examples of projects supported by Zafèn, the Vincentian microfinance program helping communities and small- and medium-sized businesses in Haiti. Since April 1, Zafèn ("it’s our business" in Haitian Creole) has raised over $175,000 and funded more than 300 projects.

Zafèn enables anyone, anywhere, to partner with the people of Haiti in support of sustainable projects that spark economic development. To receive funding through Zafèn, a Haitian business must show how it will positively affect the community by hiring more employees, operating more efficiently, becoming more environmentally friendly, or many other possibilities.

Contributors have sent 1,500 children to school and enabled more than 50 businesses to survive and grow. One of these, and the first loan recipient, Ile-a-Vache Development Group used the money to recycle coconut husks and other organic waste into charcoal as an alternative fuel for the deforested country. The Group’s co-founder, Jean-Patrick Lucien, acknowledges the impact of the loan: “We are hiring young, educated people who were leaving the island, and now they see a reason to remain.”

Much of the money coming to Zafèn is from individuals in amounts of $100 or less. At the same time, teams of families, friends, organizations, and businesses have pooled their contributions to fund larger efforts. For example, a team led by Chicago photographer, Jennifer Girard, raised more than $5,000 for several projects, including the purchase of a water pump to irrigate cropland supporting the people of Boucan Carre, a city of 48,700. Girard is now focusing on the One Village Planet Women’s Development Initiative, which is starting a nursery to feed local residents, most of whom are undernourished.

“Each donation or loan — no matter how small — has a big impact,” says Laura Hartman, Vincent de Paul Professor of Business Ethics, Department of Management and special assistant to the president for Haiti initiatives.   “Following a micro-lending model, Zafèn focuses not on charity but on recurring, sustainable partnerships that allow lenders and borrowers to work together to foster economic growth and alleviate poverty.”

Collaboration, global and local

Zafèn was founded by four organizations: the International Vincentian Family; DePaul University; Fonkoze, Haiti’s alternative bank for the organized poor, serving more than 200,000 clients; and the Haitian Hometown Associations Resource Group, which represents the Haitian Diaspora (Haitians and Haitian descendents who live outside Haiti). After a loan is made, Fonkoze visits the project to ensure the money is used as intended. This process assures accountability that many other ways of giving do not, giving donors and lenders confidence that their money is really making a difference.

Zafèn is structured around the website zafen.org, which was built by a team from the College of Computing and Digital Media — including David Miller, professor and dean, Marty Kalin, professor and associate dean, and William Banks, a Web application designer. On the secure site, companies present their proposals, people make contributions, and lenders get progress reports. The website provides a reliable, easy way for Haitian entrepreneurs to reach out to individuals and groups all over the world, without being hindered by illiteracy, language barriers, and a lack of technology.

All projects, no matter how small, are cleared by a steering committee before being posted on the website.

Here today, here tomorrow

The intent of Zafèn is not to provide short-term disaster relief in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake. Rather, it’s a long-term solution to help the people of Haiti.

The inspiration for Zafèn is Kiva.org, the world’s first online peer-to-peer micro-lending platform which has loaned more than $120 million since 2005, and Grameen (Village) Bank in Bangladesh, founded by Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus, which has loaned more than $6 billion since 1976.
“Zafèn represents an attempt to put the whole world to work at ensuring that viable businesses have access to the credit they need to grow,” says Anne Hastings, director of Fonkoze. “The Vincentians have a long history of assisting the poorest in Haiti. Zafèn shows their commitment to a sustained and prolonged effort to empower all Haitians to participate in the economic development of their country.”