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Archive for the ‘Microfinance’ Category

It’s been far too long since I wrote a proper blogpost.  That’s mostly because I — along with what seems like half the world — tweet rather than blog these days.  You can follow me here.  And my travelogue-library reduxes are still some ways from completion, alas.

Last week I was in Boston to attend a Gates Foundation-sponsored symposium on savings-led microfinance.  It was held at the Fletcher School, so great to take a trip down memory lane.  Spent time at Harvard and met the founder of SeedingLabs, another social enterprise focusing on in-country scientific research in the developing world and that I am keen to see expand dramatically in the coming years.

My eyes were opened to the power of savings as part of a broader platform of financial products and services for the world’s poor and underserved communities.  I’ve often encountered legal, regulatory and big-picture policy issues related to savings:  what kind of entities can and cannot offer savings, appropriate prudential and non-prudential regulations, and so forth.  But I hadn’t spent much time on the different grassroots, village-based, self-regulating (so unregulated from a governmental perspective) approaches that are taking root around the world.  Although not without their own set of challenges, they offer a robust new tool to deploy as part of a broader financial platform in many countries.  Oxfam’s Savings for Change program is one such example, but there are a surprising number of others.  And there’s clearly a role for linkages among these smaller groups with larger MFIs, though much debate remains as to the appropriate “linkages” to forge, as well as when and how to foster them.

Following the principal gathering day, there was a half-day open space for microfinance practitioners.  Par for the course, it was a highlight of the entire symposium.  We spent time discussing topics as broad as the Psychology of Savings (and how cognitive biases factor in) and how to foster more savings initiatives for youth.  Regarding the latter I learned more about organizations like the Corporation for Enterprise Development (CFED) with savings-led programs in the U.S., and Aflatoun, based in the Netherlands and operating throughout the developing world.  CFED and Aflatoun’s activities resonate with me on multiple levels, not least the connection between Youth + Savings + Education investment.

So as I continue to navigate my current crossroads, even more to think about — how do we spur more action and innovation in this space, especially for future generations (and in a way that gives younger cohorts some control and meaningful responsibility in the process)?

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Happy (belated) new year — and then some!

Incredible how time has flown by.  African adventures, holidays, Obama administration and more positive changes on the horizon…

The best way to track me these days (including all of  my African travelogues, which now seem like a long time ago) is still on my Tweetstream.  However I do plan to write a longer, more ‘robust’ narrative in the coming weeks.  No promises as to when it’ll be ready, but whenever it is you’ll be able to find it here.

Quick recap since my last post.  Africa trip highlights are too numerous to list, but here’s a snapshot:

  • Meeting Obama’s grandmother Sarah in the very rural ‘village’ (read: dirt road, mud huts, smiling kids and scrappy dogs) of Kogelo, western Kenya
  • Bicycling down the escarpments of the Great Rift Valley, through banana plantations and ending up on the shores of Lake Nakuru with zebras to my right, wildebeests to my left and a rainbow overhead
  • Feeding giraffes by hand, cruising by a fabled white rhinoceros and viewing lions less than 5 meters away
  • Hiking through a Zanzibari “spice farm” and plucking fresh nutmeg, cloves, vanilla, peppercorns (5 colors), ginger, cacao, annatto, lemongrass, cardamom, tumeric, cinnamon, curry leaf and more from the branches and vines, then eating a simple meal with a village family that used the spices we’d brought
  • Celebrating Jerry’s birthday with spit-roasted goat, green bananas and new Maasai and Chagga friends
  • An impromptu morning concert with about 40 local schoolkids dancing and grooving to their hearts’ delight, with spontaneous portraits captured happily afterward
  • Crossing the equator 4 times in one day — and doing a handstand on it, of course
  • And last but definitely not least, spending several wonderful days teaching at the IDLO law-and-microfinance course in Tanzania with participants from everywhere from Malawi to Madagascar to Nigeria to Uganda and beyond… an amazing, fun, inspirational group and I learned so much too!

Flickr photo albums can be found here:

Returning to San Francisco after a marathon 37-hour journey (which included taxis, boats, buses and planes) was like entering another, faster, chillier, almost surreal world.  Cars went way too fast, there were no large animals grazing at the roadside, and shops were so large and brightly-lit… strange!

Happily it was also the holiday season, so enjoyed that to the fullest.  Then the new year, lovely family visits, some microfinance speeches… and here I am, here we are, so blessed and lucky and thrilled to be alive at this amazing time.  We donned our matching Obama kangas, purchased from a roadside stall in rural Tanzania, proudly throughout the inauguration celebrations — then saw the exact same one greeting Obama in the White House!

On that note, get ready for some hopefully exciting, positive changes on the horizon — in Washington DC, and also closer to home here in San Francisco.  Kwaheri for now!

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Seulam (Amharic, from Ethiopia) — Hujambo (Kiswahili, from Kenya) — Greetings from East Africa!

I’ve been on the road for almost 2 weeks now, yet due to lack of both quality internet access and time have not been able to blog as much as I’d hoped.  It’s been an amazing journey so far, as I’d hoped and expected… Addis Ababa, Nairobi, and now a small village (no electricity) in rural western Kenya near the Kakamega forest reserve.  I’ve hob-nobbed with cabinet ministers about legal reform for microfinance; seen zebras, giraffes, gazelles and even the fabled white rhino at close range; and experienced family hospitality and microentrepreneurship first-hand.  It’s an extraordinarily rich, diverse, warm and fascinating area, yet saddled with a problematic history (on many levels) and current obstacles to change.  Obama and his legacy live strong here — even 5 year olds know his name, and his portrait is painted on the side of many buildings.  I am delighted to be one of the first unofficial “foreign ambassadors” of the new-administration-to-be and can only hope that the push for meaningful change becomes a truly global movement.

I’ve also come to realize that online connectivity is not one of the region’s strengths.  So it’s probably best not to get my (or anyone else’s) hopes up by promising to blog “live”; rather, I may end up reverting to offline observations and note-taking, to be followed by a more comprehensive travelogue post after-the-fact.  It will depend in part on whether access options get any better in the coming weeks…

Meanwhile I’ve posted many “mini-blogpost” tweets online, which can be found here.  At least they provide a few snippits and insights into what I’ve experienced so far.  Please continue to check back at the same Twitter link, as I intend to update it as often as I can!

Kwaheri for now…

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This past week has been incredible. First BarCamp Africa at the Googleplex, then the inaugural SoCap (social capital) conference in SF. My mind is still spinning with ideas. Amazing and inspiring people, tremendous opportunities, so much to be encouraged and enthused about…

I moderated a BarCamp panel on social, cultural, political and development issues in Africa. A fabulous diversity of perspectives — from documentary filmmaker Amie Williams‘ experiences of the Kenyan political violence through the eyes of a teenage girl, to Joseph Nganga’s efforts at alternative energy and rural needs thanks to companies like Vipani, to Josh Goldstein‘s work with Google regarding internet policy and the specific needs of Africa (and a Fletcherite like me!), to Ken Banks‘ initiative to deploy technology to community health workers and hospitals in rural areas, to Kjerstin Erikson’s organization FORGE that works with post-conflict refugees in Zambia and beyond. Other highlight breakout sessions included an African music and dance journey, brainstorming about the likes of the XPrize, and taking an extraordinary Google Maps adventure above, below and around the continent.

Less than 48 hours later, I found myself at SoCap. Along with some 700+ other people — double the original capacity, from what I understand — packing into Fort Mason and eager to meet others interested in going “beyond microfinance” and pushing the double bottom line and social investment envelopes further.

There were more than 50 breakout sessions organized by the SoCap team, plus an unconference day facilitated by Jerry Michalski. Particularly noteworthy organized sessions included New Spin on Old World Development, Design in the Developing World, Venture Philanthropy and International Government Investment, Sustainable Energy Investments for the BOP, New African Capital and Scaling US Social Enterprise (that’s only a small fraction of what was on tap). The day was capped off by an engaging, challenging Oxford-style debate regarding whether profit maximization is the best way to reach and assist the poor. I lost count of how many times I heard the word “philanthrocapitalism”…

I must say — and not only because of my connection to Jerry 🙂 — that the unconference day was the best of all. Not only because it allowed participants to own and direct the discussions themselves, but also because this format finally provided “something different” at this type of conference. A forum to connect with others on one’s own terms and with one’s own thoughts in the open. A chance to let discussions take tangents, which 99% of the time lead to even better things. An opportunity around every corner to be surprised, challenged and reminded about the myriad avenues to build community.

A sampling of the unconference sessions I attended (can we say, custom-tailored to what’s most relevant to me these days?!):

  • “Legal / structuring 101” for social investing (including VC folks, entrepreneurs and a few lawyers for good measure)
  • Social impact metrics and measurement parameters
  • Franchising social enterprises (including e.g., microfranchising)
  • Fortune 500 companies: Can they innovate via social investment?
  • Social investment in Africa
  • Alternative exits, with an emphasis on legacy

I’m looking forward to staying in touch with so many people from SoCap (big question: might we work together someday?) and look forward to SoCap 2009 already. As for BarCamp Africa, I’m not sure if it’s an annual event but definitely think it should be — and its relevance will be felt again quite soon, as exactly 3 weeks from today I’ll be Ethiopia-bound!

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Last night I went to a reception for MicroBike USA and the One Hen children’s book about microfinance.  The event was co-hosted by Wokai, SVMN and Accion and featured the six MicroBikers who cycled across the USA to raise money for — and awareness about — microfinance, along with One Hen author Katie Milway Smith.

It was a unique opportunity to further expand the microfinance community to include “younger” generations, whether university- or elementary school-age.  My only complaint was that, if the event is titled “Youth in Microfinance” and the goal is to educate and excite youth about global economic development, then do not host it in a venue that is over-21s only.  To have to turn away the very people who you want most to attract seems to me not only counter-productive, but also an entirely preventable situation.  What about a local cafe, bookstore, school campus or neighborhood library instead?

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Next month sees a couple of interesting events in the microfinance space. First there is the inaugural microfinance investors conference in San Francisco. I’m thrilled to see this finally happening out west given the robust microfinance community that’s been here for some time already. More on the conference, agenda etc. can be found here.

The next day I’ll be Europe-bound for the upcoming IDLO law-and-microfinance course in Bucharest, Romania. It’s slated to focus on MFIs in Eastern Europe and CIS. I’m looking forward not only to teaching and learning more about microfinance in this region, but also apparently the hotel venue appears to be as large as a small city (indeed, it’s right next to Ceaucescu’s Presidential Palace and I wonder if it gives the latter a run for its money!). Surely there will be ample opportunity for more travel stories and photos as well… all in due course.

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To the extent that new legal structures can be exciting — which is a long shot for many, I admit — there is one on the horizon.  The L3C (Low-Profit Limited Liability Company) officially came into being in Vermont last month.  It has national applicability (thanks to the fact that it is essentially a modified version of the LLC which exists in all 50 states) and provides enormous potential to facilitate socially beneficial and “double bottom line” investing by commercial investors and philanthropic entities alike.  Among other advantages, it flips the traditional investment model on its head by enabling (1) foundations and donor advised funds the ability to meet Program Related Investment (PRI) requirements by taking an equity position in the L3C (high-risk + low-return), with the possibility of receiving financial returns in the future, and (2) market investors increased opportunities to enter the social investment arena due to such equity cushion (low-risk + high-return).

The L3C is a fascinating model and appears to be broadly workable.  The more I learn about it, the more I like it…  Perhaps a longer post about it in the future.  For now the best L3C summary can be found here.

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