HOW DID OPEN TO GROW HAPPEN? HERE IS WHAT OUR FOUNDER BOB BROWN HAS TO SAY.
I was inspired by the story of Nobel Laureate Muhammad Yunus who saw that low-income entrepreneurs had no access to credit and did something about it. Digging further I became intrigued with the concept of microcredit – the making small loans to poor entrepreneurs and the re-lending of loan repayments to others, as a way creating a charity that was financially sustainable.
Following a year of study and two years volunteering with a charity starting a microcredit activity in Nicaragua – more about this in Chapter 2, Open to Grow was registered as a Canadian charity to provide small loans to low-income women in Central America.
CHAPTER 1 – GUATEMALA (2011-2017)
In March of 2011, we were introduced to Bob Graham. Bob was one of the first individuals to bring microcredit to Central America as the Founder of the Katalysis Microfinance Network. Following 20 years growing Katalysis, in 2004 Bob started Namaste Direct (Namaste) in Guatemala to enable low-income women to make more money in their businesses by providing them with a Business Development Program (BDP) consisting of a business adviser, skills-building classes, and micro-loans.
In 2011, Open to Grow entered into a collaboration agreement with Namaste to fund and co-manage the micro-loan part of the BDP. During the 7 years with Namaste, we made over $1.4 million in micro business loans to 3,500 poor women micro-entrepreneurs and positively impacted over 17,500 entrepreneurs and their children. Our payback rate was 96%. Working with Bob and his team was a great privilege and an amazing experience.
Working in developing countries has many challenges and surprises. The funding world of an NGO or charity is one of these. In Namaste’s case, it as caused them to temporarily phase-down their operations. This in turn caused us to re-locate our microcredit activities.
CHAPTER 2 – NICARAGUA (2017-2020)
At the end of 2017, Open to Grow re-deployed its funds from Guatemala to Nicaragua. Interestingly, Nicaragua is where we first got our feet wet in microcredit.
During the Guatemala phase-out period, we analyzed many possible MFI partners. Following negotiations and due diligence, we entered into a funding agreement with ADIM. We selected ADIM primarily because of its focus on poor women entrepreneurs. We began funding micro business loans with ADIM in November 2017.
ADIM was founded in 1989. Its managing director, Patricia Padilla, was one of the original founders. Back in 2008, ADIM was one of four MFIs that Karen and I interviewed when volunteering for another Canadian charity.
ADIM was a small, well-organized microfinance institution (MFI) with six branches and 7,000 clients. Over 90% of its borrowers were women, many of whom were very poor. ADIM’s operations and results were excellent.
In our first three years, we made $0.8 million in small loans to 2,500 ADIM clients, benefiting a total of 12,500 women and their children. ADIM was a wonderful MFI to work with and we developed a close relationship with its staff. Little did we know what was in store for us toward the end of 2019.
CHAPTER 3 – GUATEMALA & NICARAGUA (2020 – )
This time was full of different surprises and challenges. First, ADIM was required to liquidate which process took place over a four-month period ending in early April 2020. While we were able to recover all of our funds, we lost a wonderful partner. We started looking for a new on-the-ground partner (or partners) in February.
Next, early in 2020, Covid-10 reared its ugly head and rapidly became a worldwide pandemic. This caused us to focus our attention on small MFIs in geographic areas where the impact of Covid-19 on the MFIs and their clients would be low. MFIs in large cities were no longer possibilities.
Last, in November of 2020, Hurricanes Eta and IOTA hit Nicaragua, Guatemala and surrounding countries, bringing strong winds, heavy rains and significant infrastructure and agricultural damage. The impact of the hurricanes on the businesses of the potential partners under review also had to be determined.
Using our selection criteria, adjusted for the above, we selected two MFI “finalists”, SERVIGUA in Guatemala and PANA PANA in Nicaragua. Following detailed monthly reporting over six more months, we entered into agreements with both MFIs. In addition to selecting the best of the small MFIs researched, the selections provided the added benefit of country-risk diversification.
Agreements were entered into in March 2021 (SERVIGUA) and May 2021 (PANA PANA) with funding following each agreement. As it turned out, both MFIs were formed by, are managed by and primarily serve Indigenous people. Check out their stories under ABOUT US/Our Partners. To date, both are performing very well.
The adventure continues. Whatever happens, we will go with the flow!