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Survive to Thrive

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Opportunity clients in India make face masks (Photo credit:Opportunity International)

The Hammer Falls

Atul Tandon, CEO, Opportunity International

For millions of people under lockdowns around the world, lives or livelihoods is not a choice.  Without a livelihood, it becomes hard to sustain life.  For them, the issue is surviving today so that it becomes possible to thrive another day.

I recently spoke with Atul Tandon, CEO of Opportunity International, to learn more about how Opportunity is responding to the challenges faced by its 17 million microfinance clients in 28 countries around the world.

“We estimate that 80% of our clients have had a loss or impairment of income,” Atul told me.  “In most cases there is no income.” 

The hammer of any crisis falls hardest on the extremely poor.

Atul Tandon

“You have little to begin with. Now, your little market stall that you were selling some homemade food products, that market stall is now closed. Kids are not going to school. They’re not getting their school meals. You’re not earning the income. That’s what’s happening to the clients.”

Atul quoted from a client in Uganda, “You all are fearing an infection from COVID-19.  I know we will die of starvation.”

Will incomes return before the food runs out? Photo credit: Opportunity International

Financial First Responders

In the midst of this challenging environment, microfinance providers have mobilized to continue to provide financial services, while also adding new functions as health educators and emergency supply providers. 

The financial systems built to serve the poor are intact and functioning.  This is the hardest test anybody could throw at us. The staff is working, the systems are working, branches are open, mobile networks are functioning.  So the investments that we have made, governments and individuals, … are helping our clients survive.

Atul Tandon

Opportunity’s 78 partners employ 26,000 staff and agents.  They have responded quickly to the needs of their clients.  “We are still out in the villages and in the communities, trying to keep social distance while doing basic communication and basic hygiene while helping our clients complete their transactions over digital platforms.  We are working with local merchants to expand out agent network.  One of the big challenges we are having is making sure these agents have cash and that cash is safe.”

In Malawi Opportunity is getting farmers crops to markets. Photo credit: Opportunity International

Opportunity’s partners have deployed to help their clients survive the present conditions so that they can thrive when their economies reopen.  Opportunity has organized to provide similar support to its partners – help them survive the immediate effects of the pandemic and the lockdowns so they can thrive with their clients later.  Atul outlined three elements of this plan:

  1. Support partner operations – The financial first responders need to keep operating during a time when the income they normally receive in the from of interest payments has dried up.  “We are raising charitable dollars that we need for making sure that the partners (keep working) and their staff are safe.”
  2. Move to digital as much as possible – Digital financial services increase both access and safety.  “We are raising money for a massive digital buildup including things like phone systems, IVR (interactive voice response) and increasing the capacity of our call centers.”.
  3. Provide liquidity through interest rate buy-downs – As economies open, there will be large demand for new loans so that clients can recapitalize their businesses.  “What we will need is a very rapid injection of large amounts of cash into the social banking system… We can buy down the cost of money so that we make funding available to our clients and to our partners at a reduced or reasonable basis.”
Opportunity delivers financial services and health education to rural villages. Photo credit: Opportunity International

Neighbor Helping Neighbor

How do people already living in poverty survive sudden economic loss?

“The poor survive because the poor help the poor.  The neighbor helps the neighbor.  We talk about loving your neighbor.  Well that is the modus operandi in villages and small towns across the world,’ said Atul.  He then tells me the story of Linda the baker, a client he spoke with in Accra, Ghana. 

Linda started her bakery with one oven under a tree.  She built it up into an operation with 47 direct employees and 80 sellers.  When the lockdown came, most of her employees went home to their villages.  Only 17 remained with her.  As a food producer, she could keep operating, but the government only allowed five of her 80 distributors to sell each day.  So Linda rotates the sellers, giving each a chance to earn money.  But that means each woman must wait two weeks before their next day to sell.

Linda the Baker Photo credit: Opportunity International

Atul relates what Linda said to him, “Many of the women whose turn it is not come to me and say. ‘Mama, will you give me some bread today because my children are hungry.  I’ll pay you back when it is my turn to sell.’” 

And how does Linda respond? “My sisters are hungry.  I have to give them bread.  There isn’t a second way.  I have to stand with them today.  No, I don’t want them to pay me back.  If I can give you the bread that I have, you have it.”

Atul sees Linda as fulfilling the words of Jesus, “I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat (Matthew 25:35).”

For Atul, Linda provides the example of how we all work together to survive this pandemic so we can thrive together once it passes.  “If we all had her resilience and her compassion.  If we could have that sense of mutual hope and encouragement with our immediate neighbors and with those we don’t see across the waters.  If we do that, we survive.”

Atul closes our interview by reading what Frodo and Gandalf have to say about the time of COVID-19

Highlights from the Interview

00:15             An overview of Opportunity International before COVID-19

03:17             The impact of COVID-19 on Opportunity and its partners

05:07             African client: “We will die from starvation”

07:51             Proud of the way the social banking community has responded

11:02             Financial first responders

15:17             Survive to Thrive Campaign

16:45             “This is hard.”

18:03             Neighbor helps neighbor

22:44             For $1,000, 500 children get a quality education

27:43             The story of Linda the baker

32:09             What Frodo and Gandalf can teach us about this time

Full Interview with Atul Tandon, CEO, Opportunity International

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