I’m not thinking in terms of number of patent filings, amount of venture funding, or angel investors by square foot (or meter), but on many other metrics, Yaoundé, Cameroon far outpaces the more obvious entrepreneurial hubs of London, Tel Aviv, Singapore, and Silicon Valley. Everyone here is an entrepreneur. That spirit is palpable. From papaya sellers, to cell phone credit merchants, to self-proclaimed podiatrists selling shoes, the streets of Cameroun’s capital are swarmed with people dealing in every product you can imagine.
The diversity of enterprises is impressive. You’ll find jeans, q-tips, phones, tomatoes, ties, boiled peanuts, soccer cleats, and grilled corn all on one block. And every seller is somehow creating value. From purchasing ginger in bulk to sell individually to preparing and grilling fish (a delicious meal but with obvious risks for delicate expats), these entrepreneurs are doing everything they can to provide for their families. It’s in busy streets like these that microfinance still has tremendous potential.
When weaving through the masses of people it’s easy to be shocked by the constant struggle, but equally impressed by the determination, patience, and ingenuity. The beginnings of some of the most dramatic entrepreneurial success stories started in places just like Yaoundé. That fourteen year old who just sold you a slice of watermelon, already a seasoned salesman of nine years, could be the next agricultural magnate. The eight year old finding discarded shoes to refurbish might one day own a chain of commercial outlets. And some sort of microloan is often a key component to successes such as these.
As uplifting as such success stories might be, these examples don’t illustrate the primary goal of microfinance. These rags to riches journeys are perhaps the most likely to be turned into a documentary and leveraged to generate the next wave of funding for microcredit programs, but they are not why Kiva, Grameen, or other organizations do what they do. It’s to alleviate poverty, not to create a mogul.
Yaoundé and many other bustling, dense, cities around the globe, are still ripe with opportunities for microfinance that can capitalize on the populations’ tremendous energy. Entrepreneurs in these parts of the world work harder than many people you’ll ever see. Someone will spend hours without a break to cut a wreck in half with an axe in order to recycle the scrap iron. What could providing an actual metal cutting tool change in his life? A hundred dollar loan to buy this machine could change everything.
How about providing a machine to roll dough to a fried dough vendor? For a Kiva borrower that I had the privilege of meeting, it tripled her output. And created jobs, as she now employs two workers. Her journey has gone from worrying about providing for her family to thoughts of expanding with another production and distribution center.
Microfinance is a tremendous tool that often provides relatively simple things. Additional fertilizer for crops, an extra sewing machine to help meet demand, capital allowing for bulk purchases; these are all products of microfinance that generate far more value than the nominal amount of entrepreneurs’ modest loans. This capital provides much more than hope, it provides opportunities. Opportunities for entrepreneurs to change their lives.
Raphael Ferry is serving as a Kiva Fellow in Cameroon, working with ACEP Cameroun and GHAPE. Find out more about the Kiva Fellowship!