That same year Peter Greer, now president and CEO of Hope International, had started working for Urwego Opportunity Bank in Kigali, Rwanda. “Someone came to her, a staff (member) of Urwego, and offered a loan in one hand and hope in the other,” Greer told LNP recently.
Today, Iribagiza owns a wholesale handicraft business with 19 employees.
“With her hard work, the support of Urwego and God’s grace, she was able to rebuild her life in a beautiful way,” Greer said.
Iribagiza’s story and others like it are part of the reason Lancaster-based Hope International is purchasing a majority share in Urwego Opportunity Bank.
The bank, started in 1997 as a source of microloans to Rwandans, continues to provide banking services to people who are “traditionally excluded from the formal financial sector,” Greer said.
Greer worked at Urwego from 1999 to 2000 and joined Hope in 2004; Hope partnered with Urwego in 2005. For the past 10 years, ownership of Urwego has been shared by Hope International, World Relief and Opportunity International.
Hope’s share gradually increased to 49 percent. In 2015, the local faith-based nonprofit set in motion its plan to purchase an additional 50 percent share.
$1.7M sale approved
Hope announced this month that the $1.7 million sale was approved by the National Bank of Rwanda, and it now owns a 99 percent share of Urwego. World Relief will stay on as the shareholder of the remaining 1 percent.
“It’s the single largest transaction in Hope’s history,” said Jesse Cassler, vice president of finance and administration for Hope International. “It’s exciting to be the primary shareholder and really direct the mission of the organization moving forward,” Cassler said.
Urwego is the largest program that Hope has and likely the largest Christian microfinance program in the world, Cassler said. Taking on the larger share means not so much a change for Urwego as a re-emphasis on roots, he said.
“Our focus is reaching out to those living in material poverty,” Cassler said. “Hope International is clearly a faith-based, Christ-centered organization, and Urwego is as well.”
A mission bank
Urwego offers traditional banking services, including loans, to more than 300,000 clients. Its two main options are microfinancing and a savings and credit association.
The microfinance side works like a traditional bank with savings accounts and loans. The savings and credit association uses groups that function as mini credit unions and offer loans within the group, Cassler explained.
Rwandans use the loans to start businesses “as diversified as the economy,” Greer said, as barbers, restaurateurs, beekeepers, farmers or construction workers.
Loans go up to thousands of dollars, Greer said. Typically about $500 is needed to expand a small business.
“The progress in Rwanda is unmistakable. I am filled with so much optimism about where this country has come from,” Greer said.
Christine Baingana, a business development director for Hope and Urwego, was born in Kigali, Rwanda, had worked for Hope in Lancaster, and in 2016 moved back to Rwanda to work with Urwego.
“Peter Greer’s vision for economic development and love for Rwanda is at the core of Urwego’s existence,” Baingana said in an email.
“Hope becoming a major stakeholder in the bank is the beginning of the fulfillment of that vision, that desire to see dignity restored for thousands of underserved families living in poverty.”