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Non-profit benefits Honduras

Marielle Hampe | Thursday, January 26, 2012

A Notre Dame alumnus is working with the non-profit organization Unión MicroFinanza (UMF) to make the caffeine fix students crave between classes benefit rural coffee farmers in La Unión, Honduras.

Jeremy Miller, a 1996 graduate, said as the U.S. Coffee Program Director, he works with UMF to improve impoverished communities in Honduras through the sale of coffee, one of the nation’s main exports.

“If you don’t know where your coffee is coming from, chances are it’s grown by people without infrastructure who are living in poverty. To me, there is no reason for that,” Miller said. “Where we work, more than one-half of the population lives on less than $2 a day, the definition of poverty.”

He said UMF helps farmers produce high-quality coffee and sell to wider markets through microfinance systems, coffee purchases, infrastructure projects and job training. After the coffee harvest, he said UMF pays the farmers more money than they would typically receive.

In two months, Miller will move to Honduras with his wife and two children to become UMF’s Head of Honduran Operations. There, he will be in charge of service, microfinance and coffee training programs.

Miller said he credits Notre Dame’s study abroad program in Fremantle, Australia for giving him the confidence to explore different cultures. He later traveled to Southeast Asia with two classmates after graduation and then went on an 11-month trip around the world, he said.

“[They] helped solidify those early experiences I had and made me really get to know and experience what the world was like,” he said.

Miller said he is proud to be a part of an organization that works directly with Honduras’ people. Since beginning in November 2009, UMF has built a staff where six of eight employees live in Honduras full-time and two are Honduran nationals.

“We are a small group of individuals who are trying to intervene in the way that coffee is grown to improve lives,” Miller said. “The people of La Unión have desire and work ethic and knowledge, but they need the network of connections that we possess.”

He said UMF uses microloans instead of charity, based on the organization’s belief in people’s capacity to improve. UMF gave microloans in the form of goods, not cash, and began in small loans of $70 with no collateral.

“One of the things the UMF firmly believes is that people have a great capacity, whether to learn, to work, to do good — to do things for themselves and others in life,” Miller said.

UMF gave 125 people more than $10,000 in microloans in the first year of the program, he said. Each farmer received an equivalent of $75, primarily in fertilizer.

Borrowers are eligible to double their loan each subsequent year if they repay their loan and attend repayment meetings, Miller said.

Miller said 99.7 percent of the $10,000 in microloans given in the first year was repaid. In its second year, UMF gave $30,000 in microloans to 191 clients at a repayment rate of 96.3 percent, he said.

In addition to microloans, Miller said UMF gives farmers training and facilitates infrastructure projects aimed at improving the community. UMF also partners with organizations, such as the Honduran Institute for Coffee and the National Institute of Professional Formation, to teach farmers about coffee cultivation techniques and business practices.

Miller said although the ultimate goal of the organization is to help Honduras become more self-sufficient, he hopes organizations like Notre Dame can become involved with UMF’s operations in the future.

“[UMF] wants to be a mentor to the Hondurans,” he said. “The world’s poor need someone to walk with them.”