In this article I continue to share my observations and discoveries during my first few months as CEO of Opportunity International Canada.
At its core, we say the mission of Opportunity International Canada is to empower those living in poverty. This is much more than the simple receipt of a loan for a business. It is a journey of freedom where marginalized people begin to lift their heads in dignity and participate in society and the local economy.
This is a profound mission. But does it really work? Does microfinance really make a difference? When I interviewed for the role as CEO I did as much due diligence as I could. But now that I am CEO, I wanted to see for myself if all the donations from our donors and all the hard work of our amazing team – the funding proposals, travel, events, meetings, lunches, dinners and presentations – were all worth it.
To begin this search, I spent a couple days in the Dominican Republic where Coop ASPIRE is our local microfinance Implementing Partner. Over two very full days I met with, travelled with, ate with, and saw Coop ASPIRE staff in action. As they shared their vision, goals, operations, and challenges, I saw their passion and desire to serve the poor with excellence. I came away inspired, humbled, and honoured to be partnering with them.
The Coop ASPIRE staff accompanied me and Opportunity Canada Board Chair, Dale Patterson, around Santo Domingo and surrounding towns to meet our clients. We met Loan Officers at each stop and came to see that these amazing folks are the heart of this work. They don’t just manage accounts, they invest time, training and energy in the relationship with each client. Sometimes starting with very raw material, they work hard to bring about transformation as their clients gain the confidence and skills to grow their business.
Dale and I spent an hour with Juan, Ana Louisa, Jean, Felix, Juana, and Mona, the 6 Loan Officers at the Altagracia Branch. There was both laughter and tears as they talked about their work. Ana Louisa said, “the relationship with the clients is the best part of the job”. They all love working with a variety of people and the possibility of transformation from poverty. A favourite story was from Felix, a young man who sold flipflops from a scooter. Six years after his first loan, he now owns two Colmados (small general stores). He also bought land to build his own house, and even owns a car. He is providing a living for his family and jobs for his neighbours.
However, by far the most impactful part of my short visit to the Dominican Republic was my meetings with four loan clients – Doris, Atlagracia, Siveli, and Elvira.
I met Doris in the neighborhood of Los Guandules, where we were told to remove our watches and rings for security reasons. She had worked for years as a maid until the cleaning chemicals made her sick. She took an upholstery course and started a business but struggled to grow because she had to travel across town to rent time on a sewing machine. Coop ASPIRE staff met her and invited her to a complete a 12-week training course. Just 6 months ago, she took her first loan to buy an industrial sewing machine. Her business is now so busy that her son quit his dangerous job as a security guard to work with her. As her grandson played drums on empty paint cans, this grandmother was so proud to show me her hand-drawn two-page brochure of material samples. Standing beside her and her sewing machine, I was captivated by her smile and new found hope for the future.
We moved on to Riviera del Ozama, a very run-down area beside the Ozama River which often floods. Across the road under an impressive bridge was a large open garbage dump. We met with Altagracia, a Beauty Salon owner who had received training from Coop ASPIRE and took a loan to buy a new professional hairdryer and some beauty products. She also helped set up her son, Wellington, as a Barber in a nearby shop. Since the loan, which she has paid back, her business has grown significantly, and her son is also thriving. Sitting in her shop, I was brought to tears when her son told us how proud he was of his mom for her hard work and how she kept the family together in a very difficult and dangerous neighborhood.
Just down the street we met Siveli, who owns a Colmado (small general store). With financial training and then a micro-loan she was able to buy in bulk to expand her inventory at lower cost, increasing her product offerings and profit margins. She invited me to stand with her behind her counter for a photo. What I saw was a confident business woman who took great care and pride in her store and worked hard to increase sales. With a young child and twins on the way, this growing family needs the income from this expanding business!
Lastly, we stopped in La Cucilla and met Elvira, a Coop ASPIRE client for many years with a very diversified business. She makes and sells lime and cherry Mabi (a traditional fruit drink), ice cream, and gasoline. She buys her gas wholesale and resells it in glass beer bottles to bikers. She buys lemons and cherries wholesale to make about 160 bottles of Mabi each day, selling 60 from her shop and the rest through street vendors. She also buys bulk used clothing for resale and has plans to transform her yard into a cafeteria. Standing next to her and a large basket of fresh limes, she flashed me a big grin and from the twinkle in her eye, I knew nothing would stop this grandmother entrepreneur.
Martha Arias, Opportunity’s Program Director for Latin America, recently returned from a monitoring visit to the DR and shared her observations with our staff team. There were many great stories like those above. But she also saw grinding poverty and unemployment that was driving families — particularly women and girls — to desperate measures just to put food on the table. Much work remains to be done and as I watched several staff members wipe tears from their eyes, I knew that all the work was very much worth it.
Doris, Altagracia, Siveli, and Elvira are four incredible women of business who, without the work of Opportuntiy and partners like Coop ASPIRE, would have remained marginalized and trapped in a cycle of poverty. Their transformation into confident business women as the result of a small loan, is deeply inspiring and highly motivating.
I will keep asking the hard questions and my journey of listening and learning will continue, but from what I have seen, the work we do touches each and every client!