Business news from the Fredericksburg region.
Loans give lift to Third-World businesses
BY CATHY JETT
Grace Msowoya and Betty Louhana used to be like dozens of women eking out a living by selling potatoes in Blantyre, Malawi.
Frustrated by their small profits, the business partners turned to Opportunity International for help. The Christian microfinance non-profit, which is dedicated to helping people in Third World countries lift themselves out of poverty, provided the microloan they needed to rent a truck.
Now Msowoya and Louhana spend several days on the road each week buying directly from farmers and selling potatoes to the vendors who were formerly their competition.
The two women have increased their profits enough to open a savings account that they can access with a card containing their thumbprints at an OI banking kiosk near their business. Grace was also able to move her family from two small rooms to a two-bedroom home and send all three of her children to school.
It is stories like Msowoya’s and Louhana’s that helped inspire Kadita “AT” Tshibaka of Fawn Lake in Spotsylvania County to get involved with Opportunity International and eventually become its interim president and CEO from April of 2009 to March of 2010. He’s now a member of its board.
Tshibaka understands their plight. He grew up poor in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the youngest of five children. His father died when he was only 3, and his mother supported the family by selling alcohol. She was able to put his older brothers through high school.
“They combined to make sure I got something better,” he said.
Tshibaka attended high school at a Presbyterian mission and won a scholarship to Dartmouth College, where he received his bachelor’s degree and an MBA. He went on to have a 33-year career at Citibank and then headed the divisional risk management team for the wholesale and international division of Lloyds TSB Group from 2005 until his retirement two years later.
“In 2002, I was introduced by a friend to this organization, whose vision it was to see all people be able to provide for themselves and their families and lift themselves out of poverty not with a handout but a hand up,” he said. “Microfinance appealed to me because of what I saw my mom go through. If she had had opportunity that others have today to have access to even a small loan she could have done much, much better.”
Tshibaka said he also wanted to give back, and OI would give him a platform to use the skills God had blessed him with. And he liked the fact that although it is a Christian organization, it doesn’t discriminate on the basis of tribe or faith.
Opportunity International was established in 1971 by Al Whittaker, former president of Bristol–Myers International Corporation in America, and Australian entrepreneur David Bussau after visiting the poorest of the poor in Colombia. They noticed the ingenuity of these people, and realized that providing them with loans as small as $60 could help them work their way out of poverty.
Today, the organization provides a variety of services in 23 countries in emerging markets. Besides microloans, they include mobile and satellite banks, which provide banking services to rural areas where none had been available; agricultural loans to small farmers; an Emerging Leaders program to train women in banking and finance; and long-term loans and training to school proprietors in underserved neighborhoods.
Opportunity International also has a program called Trust Groups, which promotes solidarity among a group of 10 to 30 entrepreneurs, who are usually women. Members must participate in four to eight weeks of training in business skills and personal development. They elect a leader and pledge to guarantee each other’s loans, which means they don’t have to put up collateral to qualify for a loan, and they must support one another’s businesses.
“In an African village, people see this as a lifeline,” said Tshibaka. “If you misbehave, the others are not happy with you. We have a 98 percent repayment rate. It went down to 95 to 96 percent during the economic crisis. Even with the poorest of the poor, that’s still very good.”
The majority—84 percent—of Opportunity International’s clients are women living in rural areas, he said. Their men have either been killed during wars or have left them behind as they sought work in urban areas or other countries.
“When we can help our mothers and our sisters in our culture, when you give a hand up to women, they invest in things that matter—education, food on the table, adequate health care,” he said.
Opportunity International gets its funding from such businesses as Tshibaka’s former employer, Citibank, and organizations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. It also has “support partners” in five first-world countries that are “dedicated to knocking on doors and explaining our operation” to individuals, churches, corporations and foundations, he said. Donations also can be made online at the nonprofit’s website, opportunity.org.
OI’s current goal, given the shaky economy, is to consolidate its operations and go deeper into the areas where it is already helping people, Tshibaka said. Its three major goals are to touch as many lives as possible, help the poor become self-sustaining, and for its programs to be self-sustaining.
“It’s a challenge,” he said, “but we feel it’s a challenge worth taking.”
Cathy Jett: 540/374-5407