Newest venture for Square One provides interest-free microloans to Haitians

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March 12, 2018

By Mike Killeen

Square One made a name for itself developing sustainable business projects around the globe.

Since 2012, the student-run organization built a chicken coop and piggery in Uganda, BioMass Presses in Kenya and mobile chicken coops in Haiti.

But for the last two years, Square One has followed a different path. While hammers and nails may still be part of the equation, the group of about 60 students at the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University has taken up a new cause.


In January, Square One distributed $1,600 in interest-free microloans to six entrepreneurs in Léogậne, Haiti. The group doled out interest-free loans to seven entrepreneurs in 2017.

Microloans are typically defined as very small, short-term loans with a low interest rate. They are extended to self-employed individuals, new startups with very low capital requirements or small businesses with only a few employees.

Microlending is also a solution for funding impoverished borrowers in underdeveloped communities and countries. In those areas, the system of lending in small amounts has successfully encouraged entrepreneurship and economic growth for developing nations.

That’s the plan that Square One is following (although it doesn’t charge an interest fee for its loans). But they’ve taken that a step further and added an education component to the mix.

“I think we are really fascinated by the idea of education and letting the people in the community that we want to empower, empower themselves by giving them the means to create the businesses that they know that the community needs,” said Ali Ryan-Mosley, a senior at CSB who is president of Square One.

Four members of Square One – CSB students Alisia Moreno and Claudia Schulte, SJU students Joe Sullivan and Dan Butorac, and SJU faculty resident Pat Martin - visited Léogậne in early January. Their two-fold mission was education and microloans.

“The first few days, we just walk around the community getting to know people and letting them know there will be a workshop in a few days,” said Sullivan, a sophomore from Marshall, Minnesota, who is Square One’s co-director of project development. “Then, we went to different markets in the area, just to see how transactions are made.”

WorkshopFollowing that, two days of workshops were held for the community. Butorac and Sullivan taught a class in finance, with an emphasis on money management and savings. Moreno and Schulte conducted a class in marketing and economic principles.

Then, it came time to imitate the TV show “Shark Tank.” The four students heard business pitches and entrepreneurial ideas, trying to decide who would receive microloans.

Following much deliberation, six ventures were funded for a total of $1,600 (the money was raised at fundraisers and donations). They included a home-brewed medicine maker, a fertilizer business, a money transfer app, a teacher who buys schoolbooks in bulk and sells them more cheaply than the going rate, an artist and a restaurant owner.

The variety of ventures was “amazing, especially since the community is so small. It brings a lot of growth in the community,” Ryan-Mosley said.

“There were dozens and dozens of people that were very appreciative (of the group’s efforts),” Sullivan said.

This is the second year Square One has provided microloans to the people of Léogậne.

“We decided that the people in the community should pick the business potentially more than we should put the business on them,” Ryan-Mosley said.

Another part of the project was creating a business textbook that community members can use to help sustain their ventures.

“That’s a big part of what the project development team has been working on. What we’ve been doing for the last two years is creating a textbook that we can leave down there,” Ryan-Mosley said. “The book includes basic business practices and charts for how they can keep track of their money.”

The group will be making two separate trips over the summer. Square One will visit Rwanda in late May, and Costa Rica in mid-July. They will repeat the seminar and microloan structure at both locations while still exploring other options, Sullivan said.