There's a lot you can do with the equivalent of 50 cents in Togo, a small country in West Africa. You can buy a tasty lunch of corn meal and meat, purchase a roll of toilet paper, or get a motorcycle taxi ride across town.
Katy Todd, a Forestville native, 25, is teaching women in the Togolese town of Dapaong the value of saving that small amount every other week, in a community-run savings program she started there as a Peace Corps volunteer.
The group of 28 women collects the funds in a box with three separate locks, and one woman who holds none of the keys stores the box in her home. Once the savings group gathers enough money, its members start dispersing loans to women.
"It's a really good process that they've done all over the world, and it has really high success rates," Todd said. "They get an average of 35 percent on their loans at the end of the year, which is better than what any bank is going to give you."
Borrowers pay a 10 percent interest rate on their loans, and the fund also grows because women who are members pay a fee if they miss a group meeting. No one defaults, because it's a small community, and they don't want to be ostracized.
Todd, a graduate of UCLA, learned about the community lending model, called Village Savings and Loan Association, as an international economics major. In a country where family decisions are generally made by men, building up a small savings enables women to have more choices, she said.
Men are typically the main breadwinners, and their money goes to housing and food for the family. Women raise money for their children's schooling, which is free until the equivalent of sixth grade.
For that reason, every woman in Togo is a business woman, Todd said. They raise what they can by selling vegetables from their garden or "fast food" that they've prepared.
"It's really hard to be a woman in Togo," Todd said. "They are the backbone of the family. They do all the hard work. ... It's the woman's job to go get the water, which is a really hard task, because it's so heavy."
Todd's goal is to empower women with the knowledge and belief that they can transform their lives. She is co-organizing the third annual Women's Wellness and Empowerment Conference in Togo, a five-day affair that will draw 30 women from throughout the country.
"Women are the best agents of change, because they have control over the kids and the family," Todd said. "So by teaching them different skills, they pass it on to everybody."
Leaders at the empowerment conference teach women about family budgeting, stack gardening, health, nutrition and family planning. Togolese women who participated in the conference in the past will lead some of the workshops.
"We also teach self-confidence and women's rights," Todd said. "We tell them that they're beautiful, and that we believe in them."
Todd, who began her Peace Corps work in Togo in June 2011, will continue there until the summer of 2013. Aside from living for a half-year without plumbing, and missing dairy products, she misses her family the most.
"Before, I thought that I wanted to live abroad and travel and work completely outside the U.S," Todd said. "Now, I appreciate everything we have, all the opportunities. I still want to work with an international focus, but I want to be stateside and close to my family."