By Michele Gregg
Three homeless Spokane teenagers are trying something new. It's not drugs. It's not theft. It's not anything stereotypically associated with street kids. They are repairing bicycles.
Their bike business is part of Cup of Cool Water's microenterprise program, which is in turn part of an international movement to enable the poor through Christian business development, says Cup of Cool Water director Mark Terrell, '94. His hope is that the youth will take the training and one day work on their own.
"Our bicycle-repair ministry is an empowerment tool used to teach both self-confidence and basic mechanic skills," Terrell says. "It is our hope that this ministry will help youth make the transition from street life into a life of self-sufficiency."
Microenterprise works to provide funds, training and education to poor and disadvantaged groups so that they can eventually become self-sufficient, says Kyle Usrey, dean of Whitworth's School of Global Commerce & Management. Christian microenterprise development provides even more than solutions for the poor that go beyond physical and emotional needs; it provides the gospel. This approach to ministry caters to the poor from a Christian perspective as well as from a business perspective.
Whitworth's mission to educate both mind and heart connects academics and God's calling, says Heath Katsma, '03. Whitworth's standard is in line with Christian microenterprise development, which focuses on sharing the gospel as well as providing funds and training to succeed in the world.
"I believe giving out a loan and a Bible goes hand in hand," Katsma says. "We need to do more than just share the gospel; we need to show people God's grace."
Katsma is back at Whitworth working on his master's degree in international management and is now heavily involved with Christian microenterprise development. He has done extensive work in both Washington, D.C., and Spokane, Wash., on microenterprise-development projects, and he believes that such projects cater to both social and salvation aspects of ministry.
"It's a way that capitalism is used to harness the market to solve social problems for kingdom-of-God purposes," Usrey says.
Microenterprise Development Defined
The mission of microenterprise development is most often carried out through a common model. The program starts when poor entrepreneurs apply to receive micro loans, anywhere from $50 to $200, depending on the need. Their applications are reviewed, and some are chosen. From there, the loan recipients are coached and trained to start and manage their businesses. Once businesses begin to thrive, they repay their loans and their families gain independence. After the loans are repaid, the monies are recycled for someone else's use.
Most microenterprise organizations report a 97-percent repayment rate, Usrey says. Grameen Bank in Bangladesh and ACCION International affiliates in Latin America boast small-loan repayment rates approaching 100 percent.
But with every good thing come tribulations, as well. One of the challenges of microenterprise development is fraud. Sometimes the poor can be taken advantage of because of their economic position. Another challenge the system faces is in market development. The poor save some money, but not a lot, Usrey says. When the loan recipients don't understand the value of savings, the mindset can be hard to change. Creating programs that train loan recipients in accounting skills has been one way of solving this problem.
Microenterprise development started about 30 years ago, Katsma says. For the first 20 years it was small, and lending institutions weren't paying much attention to the strategy. But in recent years, businesses are starting to realize they can profit in this field, which can be both good and bad. Ethical dilemmas have surfaced, Katsma says. Should organizations charge interest, or should the true mission be not to charge interest at all? This question depends on the core values of the organization. As Christians, some lenders believe that God's call to reach people for his kingdom is more important than using the strategy that makes the most money.
Enabling the Poor – Locally and Internationally
Usrey says the two main centers for Christian microenterprise development are in the Philippines and East Africa. The recipients of micro-loans tend to be women, because they tend to utilize the money to invest in their families' needs, Usrey says. However, microenterprise development can be found almost anywhere in the world.
Christ Kitchen, in Spokane, Wash., started by Jan Martinez, has taken its own form of microenterprise development. This nonprofit organization provides jobs to women living at the poverty level who make and sell food mixes, such as soup and cookie blends. As part of the women's time at work, Martinez leads a Bible study every week. Again, both spiritual and financial needs are being met.
Microenterprise development can be implemented anywhere, from Spokane, where Christ Kitchen works on a small scale, to an international movement that is helping millions of people. David Bussau, known as the grandfather of Christian microenterprise development in Central Asia, has worked in more than 60 countries helping 10 million people to emerge from poverty as well as sharing the gospel with them, Usrey says.
The Road to Self-Sufficiency
The beauty of microenterprise development is that it helps poor entrepreneurs create and develop their own dreams. Most participants already have a vision for their future, and microenterprise development helps them implement that vision. With the help of nonprofit donors, many disadvantaged groups have had their lives transformed spiritually, physically and financially.
Kyle Usrey often says to his students, "If you want to change the world, get a business degree."
Students with business degrees can use their skills to train and help those less fortunate to launch their own businesses. Through microenterprise development, poor communities are brought out of poverty and given a second chance.
"This can give them a hand up when there might not be any other way for them," Katsma says.
Microenterprise development takes a holistic approach to bringing people out of poverty. To help the poor become self-sufficient, it is important to address all aspects of their lives. Microenterprise development helps disadvantaged groups through more than just providing money, Usrey says.
"They need more than a provision of capital; they need training, health education, and property ownership," Kyle Usrey says. "There is no one silver bullet."