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Student Group Lends a Hand to Local Farmers in Need

Published: Thursday, November 1, 2012

Updated: Thursday, November 15, 2012 00:11

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Sam Colt

Alex Britt ’15 and Nikhil Idnani ’14, two members of Local Lenders, stand in front of the CES Credit Union, the group’s liason for clients in search of larger loans.

During a presentation at the Harcourt Parish House last Wednesday, Alex Britt ’15 introduced the room to a fictional 35-year-old farmer working in Knox County. He cultivates 100 acres of land, has been doing well for himself for the past 15 years and wants to buy a power weeder to reduce his pesticide use and make his operation more sustainable. “Fred,” invented for purpose of illustration, represents the type of person who might benefit from the existence of Local Lenders.

A microloan organization following the model of the Grameen Bank, a Nobel Peace Prize-winning community development bank, Local Lenders will provide loans of up to $5,000 with a five percent fixed interest rate to farmers in the Knox County area. They will lend to farmers who are unable to access traditional loans, either because the amount they need is too small or because they have low or non-existent credit scores.

The group, which has yet to offer its first loan, also plans to offer free business counseling and training to the farmers and entrepreneurs who participate. “We want to act as a stepping stone,” Britt said. Ideally, she explained, clients would build credit within the organization, which would eventually enable them to establish relationships with local banks.

It’s a large task for students to take on alone, so they will work with several organizations from around Knox County, primarily the Local Food Council and Kenyon’s Rural Life Center. CES Credit Union has agreed to act as a liaison for successful clients looking for larger loans. The Mount Vernon Nazarene Enactus Organization, a group that combines entrepreneurship with philanthropy, is also involved.

“We are a liberal arts school, so we have beautiful ideas,” said Philisile Dube ’13, president and executive director of Local Lenders. “[Mount Vernon Nazarene Univresity] help[s] us take our beautiful ideas and put them into something solid.”

When Marika West ’12, Elizabeth Himeles ’11 and Jeanne Harwood ’11 started Local Lenders in 2009, they spent most of their time finding a lawyer who was willing to work pro bono and laying groundwork for the organization. Although the founders have graduated, the group appears to be gaining momentum in spite of what Nikhil Idnani ’14 calls the “balancing act” required to maintain consistency as members graduate and go abroad.

The Local Lenders are not an official student group and receive no funding from the College. According to Dube, “Kenyon didn’t want to be legally associated with a microfinance organization because there is some risk involved, and Kenyon did not want to take that risk.” The school’s lack of official involvement hasn’t been a major obstacle, however, and the members agreed that their independence from the College allows for more flexibility. As they move forward, the Local Lenders hope more Kenyon students will become involved.

This summer, Dube appealed to at least 10 different foundations to help fund the organization. Two responded. The financing has been long and complicated, but the Lenders’ goal is to make their first loan by the end of next semester. So far, $1,220 of the first $5,000 they need has been raised. The current prospective client, Chrissie Laymon ’01, who runs the Farm on Kenyon Road, would use the funds to create storage space for local produce so that people such as John Marsh, Kenyon’s director of sustainability, could have easier access to fresh food.

In the end, it all comes down to a humanitarian cause.

 “We’re trying to help the community,” Dube said. “This is the way we thought was best.”

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