The international impacts of microfinance are well-documented, but its benefits are also being felt closer to home.
"We are in the business of enabling people and honouring their dignity," Reeta Roy, CEO of the Mastercard Foundation, says about those working in microfinance. The sector has risen to prominence, catching the attention of mainstream financial institutions since Muhammad Yunus and the Grameen Bank were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006.
October 1, 2010 saw the opening of the 2nd Annual Microfinance Conference in Toronto with an inaugural gala. The fundraising event attracted over 250 businesspeople, micro-entrepreneurs, non-profit representatives, and students. Amanda Lindhout, a Canadian journalist held hostage in Somalia for 15 months, Robert H. Pitfield, head of International Banking at Scotiabank, and Roy were among the night's notable speakers.
Much has been made about microfinance's potential to lift people out of poverty abroad. However, it is also enabling individuals closer to home to start enterprises with environmental and social benefits.
"I tried getting loans from the big banks, but I was turned down because I had no equity," says Hélène Nicole Richard. She is the founder of Les Langues Sur Les Planches - Languages on Stage (www.lsp-los.org), an organization working with youth to promote multilingualism in Canada. Alterna Bank, a socially-conscious Canadian credit union, provided her first loan to purchase equipment.
Richard makes the business case for children to start learning multiple languages while they are young. She believes a Canadian workforce is at risk of falling behind globally because they are less multilingual than Europeans. "In Europe, it is recommended that if you are a CEO, that you should speak at least four languages. Here, we have problems speaking two," she says. It's hard to believe that an organization with a mission of enhancing language education to improve workforce mobility and productivity struggled to get support from established financial institutions.
Wes Misener (www.wesmisener.com) was a male model for four years before he started an eco-friendly and ethically-manufactured menswear line in October 2009. "My idea is to bring something eco-friendly, but fashionable. People don't have to compromise to wear something sustainable," he says. His products are made in Canada using organic cotton and bamboo.
"The conventional approach wasn't working for me so I was looking for other options," he says. It was a loan from Access Community Capital Fund (www.accessccf.com) that helped get him started, Toronto-based Community Loans Fund, a financing mechanism targeted at those not qualifying for a loan from a traditional institution.
Sensing an opportunity to establish profit-making products, large financial institutions like Citigroup and Scotiabank are increasingly getting involved in microfinance. "These are labour-intensive, high-volume, person-to-person businesses," said Pitfield about the resources required to run Scotiabank's CrediScotia microfinance activities in Peru. The social responsibility mandate of many NGOs and credit unions at the gala indicates that these organizations may be better suited to meet the needs of clients who are unqualified for traditional lending.
Micro-entrepreneurs in Canada and around the world have something in common: they couldn't obtain loans from traditional institutions despite being determined to run their own businesses. In Canada, if Misener and Richard are any indication, micro-entrepreneurs are developing unique businesses that transaction-by-transaction are helping the environment and society. The number of organizations participating in the sector as well as public interest shows a growing understanding that while not a silver bullet, microfinance can play an integral role in stimulating entrepreneurship among those marginalized at home or abroad. The gala's attendance, the calibre of its speakers, and the interest it generated in just its second year are a testament to the increasing awareness of microfinance's effectiveness in helping resolve social issues.