Like Bailey, Baingana, a native of Rwanda, envisioned herself working for a big company such as the African Development Bank. And then she met Peter Greer. LancasterOnline

It is tempting to think of Christine Baingana as a modern-day version of George Bailey, the idealistic savings and loan president from Frank Capra’s movie “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Bailey dreamed of leaving his small town and building large buildings. Through unforeseen circumstances, he never left and instead built trust in his own town.
Greer is president and CEO of Hope International, the Christ-centered, microfinance organization based in Lancaster.
Greer initially tried to recruit Baingana 19 years ago when she worked at a commercial bank in Rwanda. She declined his offer and eventually went to the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, where she earned her master’s degree in public administration.
As she neared graduation in 2010, they reconnected when Greer visited Harvard to discuss his book, “Created to Flourish.” This time, she accepted his offer to join Hope International.
Greer jokingly calls it “one of the longest recruiting cycles I’ve ever done.”
Baingana said, although she wasn’t sure she wanted to work for a nonprofit, “I was drawn to the idea of giving back. Peter encouraged me to join Hope International to help build and grow savings programs,” she wrote in an email from Kigali, Rwanda. “I’ve been working with Hope ever since.”
Greer said Baingana exhibits the kind of leadership skills all organizations seek — character and competency.
“She has the highest integrity,” he said.
Baingana and her family spent five years in Lancaster before returning to Rwanda.
Last year, Baingana became CEO of Urwego Opportunity Bank in Kigali, after Hope International purchased a majority share in the bank for $1.7 million. It was the single largest transaction in Hope International history.
The bank started in 1997 as a source for microloans for Rwandans who traditionally had not been able to obtain loans from larger banks in Rwanda.
And while Urwego is not the African Development Bank, which has a staff of 1,500 and is in 80 countries, it has carved out a niche for itself as the largest Christian microfinance program in the world.
Early life
Baingana spent her childhood as a refugee. Her Rwandan parents were forced to flee to Uganda in the face of the failed genocide that enveloped Rwanda beginning in 1994.
One of 15 children, she said her parents struggled to provide for the family.
“The only tool my parents had in their hands,” she explained, “was the understanding of the value of education.”
When the genocide ended, her parents moved back to their native land.
All of her siblings attended school, and she graduated from college and began working at a bank.
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Today, the 49-year-old heads a bank with more than 300,000 clients. Urwego offers traditional banking services but is also known for its microfinance sector, which operates like a savings and credit association. Rwandans save what they can — as little as 35 cents a week, Baingana noted — and those funds are used as loans for others within the group.
She also is responsible for launching the first electronic payment service in Rwanda.
A different approach
“What Urwego does differently is that we go to the communities where clients live rather than waiting for them to come to us — and that itself can take a lot of work,” she wrote.
“We create what we call community banks, training community members and preparing them to access loans together. Training in the local language is an incredible and rare opportunity for our clients. They grow in areas like financial literacy, financial accountability, bookkeeping, how to save wisely, how to invest together, etc.”
She explained that most commercial banks in Rwanda focus on the capital city and other major cities where they can get a strong internet connection and reliable transportation. Furthermore, the requirements for opening a bank account do not favor people living in poverty.
“As a result, most Rwandans don’t have access to a bank,” she wrote. “That’s our first challenge.”
Baingana has a soft spot for that model. She did not have the funds needed to attend Harvard, but her friends and family members recognized the significance of going to the school.
“Some of them took loans from the bank,” she wrote, “while others pulled from their savings. Together, they raised enough money for me to go.”
Rwanda today is growing. Paul Kagame was recently re-elected president. And while some human rights groups have accused him of political repression, he is credited with building the country’s economy.
“It’s a reborn country with hope, economic growth, peace and stability,” she wrote. “We’ve seen God’s hand of grace upon our nation these past 22 years.”
Greer is optimistic about Hope International’s investment in Rwanda. The bank, he said, has provided a safe place for people to save and invest in their future.
Citing the example of Anne Beiler, the Lancaster County woman who started the global Auntie Anne’s pretzel franchise with a small loan, he sees the same entrepreneurial potential among Rwandans.
Baingana shares that belief.
“I want every Rwandan man and woman to have access to a bank account,” she wrote. “I want to see staff and clients sharing the love of Christ, discipling others and creating a glimpse of the Kingdom of God.”