Tuesday, March 29, 2011

40 Years of Opportunity in Serving the Poor...

[Christ-centered, Client-focused Opportunity... Opportunity's Logo decorated with tiny flowers...
"Everlasting Father" Group in Chennai urban area... Four women working together to earn $85 a month ... 40 years of Opportunity at the entrance to the conference center]

Opportunity International has been in existence for serving the poor for the past 40 years. There was a global leadership conference in Chennai, India, in celebrating its 40 years of Opportunity. Most of the leaders gathered to review what God has done through OI in the past and what OI aims to achieve for the next 40 years.

Jonathan Wilson, Senior Pastor of Newport Church in California led the morning devotions. He used the analogy of the 40 years during which time the Israelites had to wander in the desert before they were allowed to enter into the promised land. The 40 years signified a generation. The old generation people had to perish in the desert due to their disobedience to God and the new generation transitioned from the desert to the promised land under the new leadership.

But the transition was not necessarily positive.

The transition was from the desert to the city, from scarcity to plenty, from simplicity to complexity. During this transition, people could easily be lost in their relational identity with God and their faith in Him among the plentiful and complex lives. Thus, they fell into sin and disobedience numerously. Each time they fall, they were shifted back to the time in the spiritual desert to bring them back to reality and repentance. When they repent, God allowed them to move back to the complex and plentiful lives. But they quickly forgot about God's grace and fell back into disobedience.

It was a great reminder to OI and OI leadership.

OI has become substantially larger in size and now has significantly more resources than 40 years ago. But, along with such plenty, OI has also become much more complex and difficult to manage as a global organization.

It was a great awakening moment for OI. Most of the key leadership has been changed over the past one year or so. But the new leadership rededicated the entire network to the principles of "Christ-centered, Client-focused" leadership and management. It was a blessing to see the re-dedication of OI's ministry of serving the poor to the Christ-centered principles.

I have come back with great encouragement.

During the conference, I had an opportunity to visit some Indian clients whom Growing Opportunity Finance (GO Finance) is serving in the rural Chennai area. All were pretty poor but their smiles were never poor. I was so blessed by the happy heart with which they were living, remembering so many rich people who are living without happiness. Their smiles were so pure and genuine, and we could sense happiness in their lives. Happiness is not determined by how much we possess, but by how we manage our heart despite our surroundings.

"Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions." (Luke 12:15)

May God bless OI and its new leadership so that OI may become greater blessings to many poor people around the world through Christian micro finance than for the past 40 years. - Jeffrey

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Two-Day Stop-over in Dubai...

Kristin and I had a 2-day stop over in Dubai on March 26th and 27th. We took the Big Bus double decker two-day program. It is the easiest way to experience a new city, particularly this fascinating city.

[The Palm Jumeirah at night, a man-made residential and hospitality complex that is shaped as a data palm, Dubai's national plant. Here is the Atlantis, a water amusement park copied from the Atlantis in the Bahamas]

The first day, we saw the Burf al Arab, the world's only 7-star hotel. Its architecture symbolizes a Dhow boat that is sailing smoothly. We also saw Burj Dubai, the world's tallest building with the height of 800 meters (more than twice as high as the Empire State Building), the Palm Jumeirah, the Atlantis. The Burj al Arab picks up its guests via a helicopter from the airport via a helicopter and provides Rolls Royce limo for its guests.

[The World made of numerous islands of which prices ranges from $10 million to $100 million.]

The Burj Dubai has a shape of a drill that looks like making a hole to the heaven. I could not resist thinking of the Babel Tower in the bible through which people tried to reach the heaven. God destroyed it and scattered all people with different languages according to the Bible because God considered the human act as the human's
willful disobedience and defiance against God. This human pride always causes and invites God's wrath. We also saw the glimpse of the Ski Dubai, the indoor ski slope. People take lifts to the top and take the slope over 400 meters. It was totally unthinkable to ski inside a building particularly in a desert environment like Dubai. What do you think?

The second day, we took a walking tour of the old city souks (markets), such as gold souk, old souk, textile souk, fish souk, spice souk etc. and took the old Dhow cruise in the Dubai Creek.

Dubai is part of United Arab Emirates that consists of seven (7) emirates. Abudabi is the largest emirate that owns over 80% of the land. Dubai is the second largest emirate and is the commercial and financial center in UAE.

UAE's national flag has four colors: red for security, green for prosperity, white for peace and black for natural resources (black crude oil). I learned that most of Arab countries have some or all of these four colors in their national flags.

It was a short but an amusing tour, experiencing the extreme creativity of a human mind in architecture, city planning, construction, shopping, hospitality, transportation, entertainment, media and science.

[Burj Dubai, the tallest building in the world. What is amazing is that Dubai has a plan to build 5 more supertowers one of which will be even taller than Burj Dubai. It will be called Al Burj, or The Tower. How much taller should it be?]

In Dubai, there are more than 500 mosques that are the centers of life for the muslims. They pray 5 times a
day diligently. They believe in Q'uran as the word of God spoken through His prophet Mohammed, pray 5 times a day, fast during the month of Ramadan and plan to pay a visit to Mecca at least once in each muslim's life time. Through these disciplined religious principles, they believe that they can obtain salvation from God. Since they believe only one God who does not beget or does not need to be begotten, they cannot understand and accept the triune God, the incarnation, the justification through the messiah's redemptive death, the
amazing grace of God to the extent of allowing His only Son to be crucified to satisfy His attribute of justice. They talk about truth but never understand the genuine truth, Jesus Christ.

The city of Dubai never bored me, but I could not deny the sense of excessive human pride against the will of God apparent in the minds of Dubai leadership. I wonder how Dubai will continue to transform in the future.

May the faithful Lord be also gracious to the people of Dubai so that they may know the truth through Jesus! - Jeffrey

[Burj al Arab, the one and only 7-star hotel in the world. I learned that Tiger Woods hit a golf ball from the heliport and Andra Aggasi played tennis on the heliport.]

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Starkey Hearing Foundation ... 2,250 Rwandans Now Can Hear Better...

[People are patiently waiting... Chance who was one of 2,250 Rwandans that received the free hearing aids ... Hearing Aids waiting for the owners ... Bill Austin placing a hearing aid on Chance with the assistance of Dr. Charles Murigande, the Minister of Education]

Starkey Hearing Foundation was established in 1973. It mission is to help the hearing-impaired people around the world through education, research and provision of free hearing aids. Rwanda saw Starkey Hearing Foundation in action last week and this week. Over 5 days, Starkey Hearing Foundation has provided 2,250 hearing-impaired Rwandans with free hearing aids. The Minister of Education, Dr. Charles Murigande, was the guest of honor. Along with Bridge2Rwanda, Hope International, MTN, Pros for Africa, UOB also participated in promoting to the target people so that they may benefit from this campaign.

Starkey Hearing Foundation's primary sponsor is Starkey Laboratories, Inc. that dates back to 1967 when Bill Austin established Professional Hearing Aids. It merged with Starkey Hearing Aids and Starkey name was retained.

Bill Austin is still active as CEO for this billion dollar company. He came to Rwanda with a professional football player, a professional singer and a bunch of hearing aid professionals to provide help for the Rwandan hearing impaired people.

Bill Austin is a Christian. He read a parable about a young rich ruler who wanted to know how to be saved but could not follow the instruction from Jesus Christ to sell his possessions, give them to the poor and follow Jesus. The bible says that he turned back in sorrow because he had great wealth. Bill was challenged by this parable and decided to share his wealth to help the hearing-impaired people through Starkey Hearing Foundation. This year alone, he provided 2,000 people in Uganda with free hearing aids and 2,250 in Rwanda.

Starkey Hearing Foundation continues to work to help the hearing-impaired people, so the world may hear.

May God bless them richly! - Jeffrey

Saturday, March 19, 2011

SORWATHE and Tumba College of Technology...

[Tea plantation.....The founder of SORWATHE, still active at 87....Rwandan fire pot suitable for a cold rainy day]

On Saturday, March 19th, 2011, KSR (Korean Seniors in Rwanda) made a field trip to SORWATHE and Tumba College of Technology.

SORWATHE is the largest tea factory in Rwanda, producing 80% of tea that is mostly exported. It produces black tea, green tea, white tea, authentic tea and organic tea. (SORWATHE was covered in an earlier blog post.)

KSR also visited Tumba College of Technology (TCT). It is located in Rulindo District, north of Kigali, and it the northern campus of Integrated Polytech Regional Center or IPRC. In addition, there are currently southern and Kigali campuses. Eastern and western campuses will also be built in the near future.

IPRC was named as such because the campus also provides technical and vocational training in addition to college education on technology. TCT has been and still
is sponsored by JICA (Japan International Cooperation Agency). TCT has three departments: ICT, Renewable Energy and Mechanical. The campus was impressively clean and well organized. Classrooms were in a mint condition and were well equipped with computers, equipment, machines, testing tools and experimental devices.

TCT has approximately 500 students and all of them are staying in its dormitory. Access to TCT from main roads was challenging and inconvenient so I asked the students why the campus was established there. We were told that one of the government ministers put it there because he wanted it to be close to his home town. Well... The government's policy of "zero tolerance for corruption" was after all not so perfect.

I also asked what the school graduates are doing after graduation. Most of them get a job, I was told. It is not exactly what the government hopes, but it is the reality. The government wants them to start a business to enhance the technical skill level in the market place. But enterprises are not born over night but require intensive and extensive learning, training, practices and experiences. I suspect it will need more time until it actually happens as the government hopes.

Joseph, President of Kicukiro College of Technology, TCT's counterpart in Kigali, joined us for the tour. KCT was established one year behind TCT, but it is trying to catch up fast. KOICA, Korea's international cooperation agency, is sponsoring KCT now so this tour was part of learning from TCT's success.

Throughout the day, it rained heavily. So the road condition was pretty challenging and we were physically tired. But we all felt assured that these technical colleges will increasingly supply skilled workers and brains into the market place soon.

May that become true...sooner rather than later... - Jeffrey

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Japan's 8.9 magnitude Earthquake, Tsunami, Nuclear Power Plant Threat...

Japan was recently hit by the 8.9 magnitude earthquake in this island country, with the epicenter approximately 80 miles off the north eastern coast. This earthquake was the strongest one that Japan has ever experienced so far. Japan is well used to earthquakes since the country is sitting on edge of the Eurasian tectonic plate bordering two other plates. I hear that 20% of all earthquakes that take place in Japan are magnitude 6 or higher. Thus, Japan is known to be best prepared for earthquakes. Probably so...

But, this time, it was beyond Japan's preparedness. It was so strong that it produced a huge tsunami which hit the eastern coasts of Japan and spread as far as the western coasts of the U.S. The tsunami flooded many villages and towns, causing a countless number of casualties. So far the confirmed death toll is reportedly 12,000 and it is likely to rise substantially more. It is an unbelievable tragedy. We all became helpless and speechless at the power of the mad nature.

To make it worse, Japan had two nuclear power plants severely damaged by the tsunami and the damaged plants made the already wrecked country exposed to significant nuclear threats because of the exposed fluid rods and the failed cooling system, even the back-up. Radio active steams had to be released into the air to avoid even more grave damages that may result from overheated fluid rods. We have been praying for God's mercy on this terrified country.

More than anything else, the world was fascinated by the calm and orderly behaviors that the Japanese showed under the catastrophic circumstances. The Brits have been admiring such Japanese, calling their behaviors as the humanity's most advanced (civilized) one. I am not sure if this claim has any legitimacy, but it is true that the Japanese have astonished the world with the way they responded to the disasters.

We have been lifting up the people of Japan to the Lord for His mercy upon them so that the disasters may not spread any more and that some Japanese may get to personally know Jesus, who is the way, the truth and the life to salvation... while God is still waiting... before it is too late. (2 Peter 3:8,9)

I trust that all things will turn into goodness in His eyes and in His time. Amen! - Jeffrey

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Grant Proposals to UNCDF and USAID (March 22nd 2011)

I have been extremely busy for the past three weeks due mainly to a couple of proposals for funding (submitted on February 28th and March 21st) and the board meeting that took place on March 17th and 18th last week.

I am coming from commercial banking. So grant proposal was not in my career. In the micro finance world, however, this plays an important role since many initiatives require financial support not to hurt its sustainability. I am still not so familiar with the grant proposals, but I am getting adjusted.

The first grant proposal was to UNCDF, a UN agency, for $200,000 under its BIFSIR program. BIFSIR stands for Building an Inclusive Financial Sector in Rwanda. After we submitted it on February 28th, we received a notice that we were on the short list and were requested to submit an addendum yesterday (March 21st). With this funding, we are planning to develop mobile banking solutions to provide affordable remittance solutions to the rural farmers and to expand the access to financial services for the rural informal sectors.

The second grant proposal was to USAID under its IILP (Integrated Improved Livelihood Program). This program provides a total of $13.4 million over 5 years. Opportunity International and UOB joined CARE International in making the bid. There were other participants also. We submitted it on March 21st and are now waiting for the final decision. If we won the bid, we would be able to provide significant number of the poor Rwandans with informal and formal financial services in seven (7) districts in southern and western districts. We are hopeful, but we would seek God's favor on these proposals.

These proposals would not have been made possibles without the support of two volunteers: one from the U.K. (Marius) and the other from the U.S. (Austin) They played a pivotal role in documenting the needs and rational behind our proposals. Particularly Austin worked on a very complex budget document including the narrative to justify the budget. I thanked the Lord for providing such help when needed.

Praise the Lord! - Jeffrey

Friday, March 4, 2011

Trip to Nyanza and Huye...

[With Huye EBU staff .................... With part of a client group ...................... A client's store ]

On Friday, March 4th, 2010, I visited Nyanza/Huye EBU (Entrepreneurial Business Unit). Huye is located in the southern province and the second largest city in Rwanda. It houses the national museum and is the home for National University of Rwanda, the largest and the best college in Rwanda. It is a 2 and a half hour drive from Kigali. This was the second scheduled visit to EBUs in 2011, after our visit to Karongi in February.

The purpose of the visit was to observe the progress being made with the EBU and discuss how we can scale up our outreach in the area where they serve the poor. Huye EBU is responsible for five (5) districts (Huye, Nyanza, Gisagara, Nyamagabe, Nyaruguru) out of 30 districts in the country. But currently the outreach is one of the smallest, serving approximately 2,500 clients only. The other side of the coin is, however, Huye EBU presents a tremendous potential to expand our outreach.

Huye EBU is a turnaround case. The PAR (portfolio at risk) was high and the client number was not growing at all. We had to change the leadership completely. The EBU leader and team leaders were all replaced, and lending staff were switched around with different client responsibilities. After the changes, I visited the Huye EBU in August 2010 to empower the new leadership. Six (6) months have since passed and I wanted to visit them again, to acknowledge the difference that has been made and to empower the leadership even more. PAR now stands at a minimal level and the client number started growing again. The team spirit was more apparent and their morale was higher than last year. They asked me follow up questions on new products that are currently under development, such as OpenSky, micro insurance, motor taxi loans. I was greatly encouraged by the change in their attitude. Our transformational impact was also increasing as more clients now receive our HLI (Holistic Life Improvement) training than last year and the number is growing further. We have a transformation officer resident at Huye EBU, who also covers Muhanga and Rusizi EBUs. We praised the good Lord!

I informed the staff that UOB is currently making a proposal for a significant amount of grant to an international development agency. If granted, this proposal would benefit Huye EBU most since the proposal will cover seven (7) districts which include all five for which Huye EBU is responsible. The proposal includes implementation of a proprietary mobile banking solution that will help outreach to even very poor people in remote areas, who cannot afford existing remittance services. I asked them to join me in praying for God's favor so that we may be able to accelerate our outreach to the very poor people in the area.

After the meeting with the staff, We visited a trust group led by a young lady, called Rachel, standing next to me in the photo. This group has 24 members and is in its 6th cycle. Unfortunately they were not all gathered by the time we arrived and we had to leave shortly because we had to come back to Kigali for other appointments. But we still had an opportunity to talk with several members, including Rachel. A few male members all showed a great interest in our new motor taxi loans. (Refer to the previous blog post.) We gave them a few procedural tips for them to follow. I prayed for God's grace, comfort, encouragement and empowerment for them. Rachel prayed with thanksgiving and for our safe journey back to Kigali.

On the way back, we stopped at one of the prospective clients in Nyanza, who is running a convenient store and a restaurant at a bust stop. He is also running a milk processing center where he collects milk from dairy farmers, boils, pasteurizes and sells it to stores or consumers. By the Rwandan standard, he was a significant entrepreneur, possibly outside our target clients. But, we found it an excellent indirect opportunity to empower dairy farmers in the surrounding area. Unfortunately, we could not spend too much time with him because of our time constraint, but we agreed to follow up soon.

May we experience God's favor on the grant proposal so that our outreach to this area may expand in His name! - Jeffrey

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

First Motorcycle Taxi Loans...

[UOB sticker on the front license plate... With the first 3 riders and staff... A motor taxi rider]

Today, UOB disbursed the first motorcycle taxi loans. Finally!

Motorcycle taxis (motor taxi or ipikiki in Kinyarwanda) are common means of transportation in Rwanda. It is dangerous as people get injured and often die of accidents. But, it gets you where you want to go when you need to go. Rwanda has a mountainous terrain and roads are narrow. As the cities develop more, the traffic jam will get worse. A solution will be motorcycle taxis. Public buses, called "matatus", are cheaper, but the schedule is irregular and they are usually packed. Passenger car taxis are prohibitively expensive. Thus, motor taxis are getting more and more popular despite the risk.

UOB is working on motorcycle loans with the largest motor tax association in Rwanda, called "FERWACOTAMO" that has more than 8,000 taxi riders throughout the nation and the largest motorcycle dealer, called "Sameer Hussein" that holds an 85% market share. These first motorcycle loans have finally come to fruition after more than 6 months of discussion, negotiation, agreement, system configuration, waiting for the delayed shipments. The launch has been delayed for more than 4 months. So we rejoiced and praised the Lord for His faithfulness! We plan to disburse these $1,800 motorcycle loans at a rate of 25 per week or $45 thousands per week.

We developed this micro loan product in an effort to developing micro enterprises. At present more than 65% of the current motor taxi riders are leasing them from wealthy individuals or companies. With the same amount of monthly payment, now they will be able to own the motorcycles in a year. May this opportunity spread over widely throughout the nation!
Another to note is the UOB sticker that will be placed on the front license plate of the motorcycles. (shown in the photo) UOB is widely known to be a Christian organization in Rwanda. I hope to see UOB more widely known to Rwandans through these stickers. - Jeffrey