CEO Village Enterprise
Hey everyone, this is Yanik Silver and with me is my co-host Elizabeth Page.
We’ve got another exciting interview here on our Audacious Innovators series with Dianne Calvi, President and CEO of Village Enterprise. She has a background of over 20 years in international management experience prior to joining Village Enterprise and served for five years as President of Bring Me a Book Foundation.
A quick summary of Village Enterprise and why I was so moved to get involved with them–they play a unique role in poverty reduction and micro enterprise development. Village Enterprise focuses on people living in extreme poverty and equipes them with resources to create sustainable income generating businesses. I think the huge key point is its creating sustainable income generating businesses. It’s not about charity. It’s about creating a self-sustaining movement and to that end, micro-entrepreneurs.
That’s what I got so excited about when I came in. It costs $250 to train a micro-entrepreneur, and it isn’t just one person that is affected. It’s an entire family. About five people were affected and it brought them out of extreme poverty. Not as a hand-out but in a self-sustaining and truly confidence inspiring way by helping people be resourceful and to create their own path. I love micro entrepreneurship at all levels from micro entrepreneurs to big enterprises.
Thank you, Yanik. Thank you for having me. Each individual business costs $250 to start. That includes all the components of our program in terms of the direct costs, which includes the seed capital and the business training and mentoring for one year. We provide 12 modules of business and financial literacy training to our business owners and ongoing mentoring for an entire year.
[PULL QUOTE: “…groups of three entrepreneurs and actually each business impacts up to 20 to 25 people. At $250 you can permanently lift a family out of poverty.”
So $250 goes a long way. Our businesses are group businesses. So these are groups of three entrepreneurs and actually each business impacts up to 20 to 25 people. With $250 you can permanently lift three famiies out of poverty and break the cycle of poverty for future generations.
It does go a long way. You know what’s interesting, I’ve been asked why are you doing this in Africa when there is so much poverty in different areas? You can be doing it in the US. Is it that the small dollar amount can have a huge impact over there?
Africa is the area of the world with the most extreme poverty and the highest percentage of people living in an extreme poverty. In many parts of East Africa, close to 50% of the population lives on less than a $1.25 a day. What that means is that those families are typically eating just one meal a day. Their children are malnourished. That means that the children aren’t growing into healthy adults. Their growth is stunted. Brain development is stunted. They are not able to go to school.
So it’s a kind of poverty that we really don’t see in the United States and many parts of the world. It really is devastating and unfortunately the impact goes from generation to generation because families become trapped in the vicious cycle of extreme poverty.
[PULL QT. “But the good news is that we can end extreme poverty in our lifetime.
But the good news is that we can end extreme poverty in our lifetime. We can end the incredible suffering in our lifetime. In the past generation, extreme poverty has been cut in half. In 1981, 52% of the world’s population lived in extreme poverty. By 2005, the numbers has been cut in half to 26%. In just one generation.
So it’s our vision that in this next generation, in our lifetime, we will live to see eradication of extreme poverty.
That’s a huge vision and its really exciting. Before we drill into that, I want to talk about Village Enterprise. Since 1987, 23,000 businesses were created, over 10,000 entrepreneurs trained annually, and 75% of your businesses are still operating after four years. These are all incredible and powerful stats. So how did you do it?
We try to equip people living in extreme poverty with all the resources they need to create a sustainable business. We feel that the key to our success is our Business Mentor Program. When we enter a community, we recruit local leaders in the community as business mentors. Those businesses are successful because they are mentored and trained for an entire year.
Village Enterprises really become part of the fabric of the village community. We qualify potential entrepreneurs. We target those living in extreme poverty. We are using the Grameen Foundation’s Progress out of Poverty Index, to target people and ensure that we are serving people that need to access a grant, not a loan. Then we provide them with the training and mentoring that they need to help their small business thrive.
Since our business mentors live in the areas where they serve, our work operates from the deep understanding of the local customs, language and culture. Once we qualify a business group, the business mentor works with that group to develop their own business plan. We identify what type of business will be most successful and then all the inputs the business needs.
So our businesses vary from agricultural businesses to skilled labour businesses like bicycle repair, carpentry businesses, tailoring businesses and retail businesses are primarily the businesses that we start. After going through an extensive business training program and developing their business plan, we provide them with a small seed grant. We program it in 2 instalments. They receive one at the beginning, a $100 grant and if they use all of the grant to buy inputs for their business and successfully start a business, we do progress report in about 3 to 5 months, we provide a follow-on grant of $50.
During the course of the entire year, the business center is following up once a week or more, giving encouragement, providing skills and advice to address the needs of the small businesses.
So that gives you an understanding of how our program works. In the past year we added some really exciting new additions to our programs. One addition is the business savings program. Now, in addition to helping them generate income, we are also helping them save. It’s interesting to note that in Swahili, the main language spoken in Kenya, there is no word for savings. That’s because savings is a relatively new concept. The people that we worked with haven’t had the opportunity to save.
There is no financial institution in this sparsely populated area so we provide them with those savings and financial literacy training, as well as organize the business groups into savings group so 10 businesses form a savings group. We help them elect leadership and in the development of a constitution by .giving some general guidelines on policies and procedures to be put in place.
They have an ongoing community based savings and loan organization in their community that they can use to access loans and to save money for the future. That’s really an important part in breaking the cycle of poverty.
So those are really new, exciting additions to our program. We started this program at the beginning of the year and it’s doing extremely well. We hope to start 250 savings group this year and about 2500 businesses.
[HEADING: GROUP BUSINESS]
Excellent! How about the group of businesses, I think that’s sort of unique. Micro enterprise starts with the initial grant. Are they complementary businesses or are they all from the same retail kind of businesses. How does that work?
Group business: the three individuals works together on the same business. As you know there could be different skill sets. So, for example in our retail business we may have someone who is gets the products from the farmers and brings the products to the retail store. You may even have someone in the retail business that actually takes products from the retail store and gets them to other markets.
So every business is a group business and within that business the individuals have different roles. In some cases we might have people in the retail business needing people to come to the store at different hours and different times of the day. The other important thing about group business is that it provides some accountability because we are giving grants and not loans. It’s very important that the money is used to buy inputs for the business and by having a group of business they support one another.
Another important element of the group business is that in many parts of Africa and in particular in East Africa, disease and health issues can really play a role in the success of the business. By having three individuals run the business, when someone gets sick or the family faces hardships the other business owners can help that person and that family. So it is more of a community effort and it makes for a successful business in the long term.
Then finally we find that in the group business, they support one another. These are people that have never run a business before and as you know, Yanik–you run your own business—there are highs and lows running the business. By having group businesses you can really support one another through the tough times.
So those are all of the reasons we feel it is important to have a group model as opposed to an individual model.
Right and then everyone get a share equally?
Yes they share equally. Again they may have different roles but in terms of sharing the profit, they share equally.
Then the three takes turns on what to buy?
It’s self-selecting. The business mentor may encourage people to work together. If an individual doesn’t have a group already established, the business mentor may facilitate the development of the group business but is really mostly self-selecting. Often, the group is made up of people that are related to one another–they are in the same family. Certainly they are all people of the same community so they know one another. They know who they will work well with. Often, its just like when we choose to go into business with a friend of ours or someone we know. They do the same.
Let’s talk a little bit more about what kind of impact micro-entrepreneurship has on the community: individually, in the family, the community at a larger level, and then countrywide. What are you seeing?
Well, we see communities completely transformed. It’s really remarkable what can happen. I was there in January/February and I went to an area outside of Soroti. This is a very rural area and before we started working with this community the whole area was purely subsistence farming. There were no businesses other than very small kiosks for vegetables laid on the ground but nothing in terms of real business development.
We came to the region and realized that there was a real opportunity to grow sunflowers in this region. So we worked with the community and developed what we are calling our Business-In-A-Box. One of our businesses in a box is raising sunflowers. What it means is that we will provide all the inputs. Instead of a seed capital grant–instead of cash-we provide them with all the inputs they need to start the business.
Because these farmers have never grown sunflowers before they really didn’t have access to improved seeds, fertilizers and pesticides needed to grow sunflowers. We encourage them to continue growing food for their families. So we didn’t ask them to dedicate all their land to growing sunflowers so as a result they are now growing sunflowers seeds that they are selling to mills.
Before we started this project, 80% of the vegetable oil was imported from outside of Uganda and often at very high prices. Imported from other countries where labour is more expensive and land is more expensive. As a result of this project we started over 500 sunflower businesses which included our 1500 sunflower farmers growing sunflower seeds and four new mills have entered the region. And sunflower seeds have tripled. This was a two year project.
When we visited they were so overwhelmed with joy and gratitude. Before they started this sunflower business they could not grow many crops for their family. Their families would go hungry. It’s so hard for parents when their children are chronically hungry. Really incredible suffering! It’s just amazing. You’ve seen the pictures I’m sure, on TV.
It is really as bad as you see. This is one of the areas where children were chronically malnourished. Now the children are eating three meals a day. They are in school. The parents are just overjoyed. Just imagine what it feels like going from not being able to feed your family to now feeding your family, and now you have a sustainable business that you can also pass on to your children. It’s amazing.
So the whole region has been transformed. Sunflower businesses were not the only businesses we programmed in the region. When we go to a region we try to do an assessment of all the business opportunities in the region. So we also started retail businesses that have flourished, and of course sunflower farmers now have income for the products being sold in the retail stores.
There are now clients that can purchase their clothing. In fact one of the groups that we came to see all the women were in their new dresses. They are just beautiful. The African fabrics are made of really bright colours. This is such a great experience for me to see the impact on one whole region. It’s not just one family. We like to talk to the individuals and find out their own individual stories.
There is a quote from one of our business mentors, which I think is wonderful. The business mentor said; “Village Enterprise renewed the people from the dust bin, washed them and then put them in the sunshine. There is no one else that is going to do that. Others see what’s shiny and they don’t get near the dust bin.”
It’s really true that we are trying to go after those people that others have decided they are not going to serve because they are too difficult to serve. We are not forgetting those people. We provide them with all the resources they need so that they can generate enough income to lift their families out of extreme poverty.
This project you just described was over a two-year period?
Yes, two and half year period. We ended on the third year with that project.
Talk about taking the impossible and making it possible. Pretty audacious. To see that kind of transformation is obviously inspiring and I think it inspires people to action and to see there is a possibility. People can have a sense of being overwhelmed thinking; “What can I possibly do?” And you are saying what you can do is absolutely transformational.
Yes. It is absolutely possible to end extreme poverty. It just takes a combination of funding because you do need to support this kind of effort and the vision to see a world as a different world from today. Today, there are so many technologies that are being developed specifically for these areas. One of the things that we are trying to do, as an organization, is taking technology to the people that need it the most.
[Pull QT: “…taking technology to the people that need it the most.”
There are lots of design firms, universities like Stanford, that have design efforts underway to design technologies that can have transformative impact on extremely poor areas. We work with an organization called Kickstart. Kickstart develops technologies for the extremely poor and we are getting the Kickstart foot-powered irrigation pump out to hundreds and hundred people.
We are giving vegetable seeds, fertilizers, and pesticides so that they can grow crops twelve months a year as opposed to four months a year during the growing season and the rainy season, and grow much higher value crops that provides them with substantially more income than crops like maize and the traditional crops that they grow.
Another example is in the region of Kenya where Kenyans have seen complete transformation of the whole area because of the Business-In-a-Box around the Kickstart water pump. They can generate three to four times the income they were generating before by selling some remaining maize after their family have what they need to survive on.
You talked about the impact on families; how they are getting three meals a day; that school enrolment has leapt up to 95%; that they now have savings; that 90% of businesses are now engaged in savings; resulting in great impacts and benefits at both the community level and the individual. And having read your annual report, there is another more universal impact and it’s the impact on peace, natural resource conservation while lifting up these communities.
Can you help us understand how investments of $250 in an entrepreneur creating a sustainable revenue generating business can actually have an impact on peace in the region?
[HEADLINE: MICRO-ENTREPRENEURSHIP AND THE PEACE DIVIDEND]
We have evolved our peace and conflict resolution project after the last election in Kenya. What happen after the last election in Kenya is that violence broke out and businesses where being burned to the ground. It was basically tribal violence–one tribe against the other. Our country director was finding it very difficult to work at that time so our Peace Project came out of the need to develop a way to work during this very difficult time.
So we decided to add to our business training, peace and reconciliation training. Instead of teaching them business and how to work together as a business group, we actually added training on how to resolve tribal conflict, and how to work with people of the other tribe. We made it a requirement that the businesses be formed by individuals from different tribes. Instead of just allowing them to self-select, we actually required that at least two different tribes be represented in a business.
We also require that one member of the business group be a peace advocate in the community. We saw a substantial change in attitude and behaviour as a result of this project. After a year, we went back and we did some survey work and 91% of the people that participated in the program sound much more friendly to the other members of the other tribe.
So it had an impact on the people, and they got to know people from the other tribe and it had an impact on the stability of the area–less violence and less conflict between the members of the other tribe. What I am saying is in working together you learn to appreciate people and understand people of different backgrounds.
Based on my personal experience, I worked overseas for several years and worked for people from different parts of the world,.I really learn to appreciate different cultures. I learn to appreciate different ways of thinking. Yes it’s true that in our peace and reconciliation project members of different tribes work together. They have great appreciation for one another.
I also believe that a lot of conflict is a result of economic disparity and feeling that the only way you can achieve what you need to achieve is through violence. By providing people with opportunity to generate income and to increase their standard of living is the thing to do to have an impact on peace.
[HEADLINE: INNOVATIVE IMPLEMENTATION OF MICRO-ENTERPRISE FOR CONSERVATON
The other project that you mentioned is the conservation project, which I think is a very innovative development of our model.
We worked in partnership with the Jane Goodall Institute and in the Budongo Forest in Uganda which is one of the more important rainforests in Uganda and in Africa in general because it’s probably the last habitat. Unfortunately it is surrounded by areas that are inhabited by people that are very, very poor.
And those people have, for generations, thought of the forest as a resource, a resource in terms of food and cutting down the trees, which is completely understandable. Now we are trying to protect the forest telling those people that you can’t go in and you can’t cut down the trees and you can’t kill these animals. They say, “we are starving. That’s the resource that we rely on.”
So conservation efforts, which are strictly training efforts, had not proven successful. So we are providing our micro-enterprise development program around the forest. We have coupled the program with conservation training. The conservation training is really about why is it important for them to protect the forest. What’s in it for them and how it impacts their businesses. Many of them are agricultural businesses so we talked a little bit about how, if you cut the trees, it changes the rain pattern so you don’t get much rain.
So we try to explain to them why it is important to protect the forest. And we also provide them with income generating business so they are not in the position to have to cut down the trees or to have to kill the animals for food. To have a way to generate income so that they can feed their families and to buythe food from the income they generate.
That’s been successful. We launched about 800 businesses around the Budongo Forest. We’ll be moving to a new area opposite that in the next six months, that we conserved. This is around another area of the forest. Our hope is by putting businesses around the forest we really cover the perimeter of the forest, and the people of those areas will no longer need to use the forest in a way that impacts it negatively.
That’s outstanding. Talk about triple or multiple bottom line benefits.
Yes. A lot of people talked about micro-lending and you are more about grants.
Why do you not do micro-lending and instead give a grant?
For couple of reasons:
One, we worked in very raw, sparsely , populated area. Because our focus is in extreme poverty, we decided to focus on rural areas that other organizations have a very difficult time serving. It’s typical not for micro-financing institutions to serve these areas because they’re so spread out. People have not run a business before and it’s very risky to loan money to someone who is illiterate, who has never run a business and who lives in a very remote area.
It is hard for them to create a sustainable business model because it takes so long to reach these people. In terms of micro-financing you need to get the money back in. They need loan officers that work in the communities and it’s much easier to make micro-finance work in more densely populated areas. Asia is much more densely populated than Africa. Also, it is much easier to start lots of businesses quickly in those areas because there is already a lot of economic activity in the cities and in the more densely populated towns.
Our focus is more on people living in extreme poverty. Over 80% of people living in extreme poverty live in these rural areas. So that’s why we use a grant model. We feel that the most important change for us is the change in the standard of living of the family. So we want to focus all of our efforts on increasing their income and their standard of living.
So by not having to pay back a loan they can take their income and reinvest it in their business or they can reinvest it in their family. They can use the money to buy school uniforms and make sure their children are in school. They can use the money to start buying protein which is so important for healthy brain development in children.
[HEADLINE: MEASURING SUCCESS]
Our metrics for success are different. Our metric for success are increases in income, increases in food security, increases in education. Those are our metric of success, standard of living metric whereas micro-financing institutions are looking at loan payback ratios and customer retention. They really run as a business.
There is nothing wrong with that. Micro-financing has done great things in the world. It’s a much, much larger business. Micro-financing industry is huge and ours is an extremely small organization but we feel that our model has been expanded through partnerships to make impact on millions of people in the next five to ten years.
Yes, I agree. I have a quick follow up on that. The model has no pay back, so how is it self-sustaining? Or is it simply donations that gets your model here?
Right now we are rely on donations. Not every organization is self-sustaining. Even micro-finance, some of them are not self-sustaining. Many of them are working for that to happen and many of them are not.
We are looking at ways to earn revenue and we talked about potentially developing a distribution model that would potentially provide us with income back from sales of our products through our network of retail businesses. So we are looking at a couple of different models. We have also looked at some fee for service opportunities. We are doing so now in some areas in Kenya and in that case, the organization that we train provides us with a fee to train them on our model. So that is another earned revenue opportunity for us.
For the next five years we’ll be relying on donations or foundation funding. We are fortunate that we’ve been funded by several venture capitalists and entrepreneurs that really believe that what we are doing is one of the most effective ways of lifting people out of extreme poverty and they have been willing to provide us with significant donations year after year.
Yes and I also contribute as well.
And you are one of them. Thank you, Yanik.
Well it’s my pleasure now because of the impact that I see. It’s not like you travel on a big corporate jet. All the money really goes where it is making an impact. It’s really important, the self-sustaining nature of the program.
I just want to encourage people to go to Diane’s site. Tell us again how people can participate.
There are a couple of different ways.
One: you can go to our site which is www.villageenterprise.org and on the site we have a lot of information on how you can get involved.
We have the fellowship program for young people that are interested in getting over into the field. We have volunteer opportunities still on that page for people who want to help us in different ways and we have volunteers doing strategic projects. Some volunteers help us in operations.
Funding businesses probably is the most significant way you can have an impact.
For every business you fund, you know that you are going to be lifting three families out of poverty for life. So we love to have more people funding our businesses and getting involved with us on a volunteer basis.
Yes, that’s so inexpensive to fund businesses. So worth it!
Thank you for having our Village Enterprise here. Thank you Yanik. Thank you Elizabeth.
Thanks Diane this has been a great session. I encourage people to go to Village Enterprises and get engaged. If somebody likes leveraging your money and your influence—this is the place to do it.