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Can $50 change a life?

The villages of rural Ghana grow most of their food themselves – usually carb-heavy staple crops that are good for satisfying hunger, but not so good for providing the nutrients that growing children need.  Nutritious fish, meat, fruits and veggies are generally only available in the market – at prices that many rural Ghanaians can’t afford.

Researchers had noticed that kids who eat meat do better on cognitive tests.  The problem – nutrient-deficient diets – seemed simple enough.  The solution, though, is revolutionizing villages all over Ghana.

Grace Marquis, a professor with McGill’s Centre for Indigenous Peoples' Nutrition and Environment, recognized that real food security would only come to rural Ghana when families could generate enough income to buy nutritious foods on their own.

In 2004, to help tackle the problem, Marquis’s team started offering nutrition education, entrepreneurship training and $50 microloans to members of local women’s groups.  The plan was to help women launch or expand small businesses and build financial security in their homes.  With an income assured, mothers could make healthier food choices for their children.

“Ventures included fish-smoking, poultry egg production, selling foodstuffs and the processing and sale of foods such as shea butter and parboiled rice,” Marquis says.  “One woman started off selling maize porridge off a tray.  Today her business has expanded, and now she hires people to make and sell the porridge.  She supplies six restaurants, and she’s even managed to build a house with that income.”

Today, local banks have taken over the microloans – and the nutrition education.  The results, Marquis says, have been astounding.

“We started with 184 women in six communities, rotating $12,000 in loans,” she says.  “As of March 2009, about a year after the banks took over, they had reached 2,257 women. By that time they were rotating a million dollars.”

The key, Marquis insists, is empowering women to make healthy choices for their families – and for rural Ghana.

“They’re all increasing their businesses over time, and they’re all able to save.  This will influence not only their children, but all those with whom they interact in the future.”

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