Sunday, March 29, 2015


WHEN JEAN-MARIE MICHEL’S business collapsed seven years ago, the Frenchman’s life unravelled. After a prosperous decade in Latin America, the former professional cyclist and Tour de France competitor had set up two shops selling bicycles in his native Bordeaux. But the enterprise went bust in 2000. His Colombian-born wife left him and moved to Bogotá with their two children. At 45, he was bankrupt and unemployed. As a young man, he’d had a passion for bees. Maybe bee-keeping would provide a livelihood, he thought. He asked his bank for a loan to buy bees, beehives and a pick-up truck. The bank turned him down. Social services directed him to a non-governmental organisation called the Association for the Right to Economic Initiative (ADIE). It listened to his idea and loaned him 6500 euros ($10,000). Michel was back in business. In 2003, his beehives yielded 100 kilograms of organic honey. Today he has a million bees producing a ton of honey per year. His produce – Les Ruchers de Sarah – is so popular that he aims to double production. “I have found my place,” smiles Michel. “Without ADIE I would not be where I am today.” The woman who made this possible is Maria Nowak, ADIE’s founder and president. Polish by birth and brought up in France, she has enabled thousands of individuals to regain self-respect and take control of their lives. For her pioneering work, she is Reader’s Digest’s European of the Year. FIRING SQUADS As a small child in wartime Lvov, Poland (now L’viv, Ukraine), Maria Nowak watched from her garden as the Nazis executed local intellectuals, including family friends. Later, German soldiers burst into her house. Her mother, a doctor, was kicked and beaten, her elder sister and brother were imprisoned and tortured, and her father, a lawyer, deputy mayor and resistance activist, was sent to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Two of her cousins were killed. Ever since, she says, “I feel the need to justify my survival. Why them and not me?” After the war, the family left Poland. Ten-year-old Maria and her younger brother were sent to Switzerland. After a year lodged with strangers and in an orphanage, she got word to join their father in Paris. Lacking entry visas, Maria smuggled herself and her brother into France hidden in a train lavatory. It was another year before they were reunited with their parents. Their life as refugees was a constant struggle. Maria’s mother worked as a domestic helper and assembled plastic flowers on the kitchen table, while her father found employment at the Free University in Strasbourg. When she won admission to Paris’s elite Institute of Political Studies, her scholarship helped to support the family. “I wanted to be a doctor,” she says. “But I was a refugee, not French, so I could not. I thought, ‘Become an economist and heal societies instead.’” For her MA at the London School of Economics, she spent a year in Africa. After graduating, she returned to Africa to work for the French Development Agency. The continent became her primary focus for almost three decades. CAFE MEETING In 1986 she was sitting in a cafe in Bobo-Dioulasso, the second city of Burkina Faso, when she met a young man called Moussa. He offered to polish her shoes. She asked how much he earned per day. Less than a dollar, Moussa said. He kept half the money to buy rice; the rest went to the man who owned the brushes. Nowak was appalled. She recalled a meeting the previous year with Nobel prizewinner Muhammad Yunus, whose Grameen Bank in Bangladesh pioneered microcredit – small loans for entrepreneurs too poor to qualify for bank loans. If Moussa was loaned the money to buy his own equipment, he would be able to double his income. Inspired by Yunus and Moussa, Nowak began projects in Burkina Faso and Guinea. Micro-finance became the primary credit system in rural areas. Seconded to the World Bank, Nowak replicated Grameen Bank methods in post-communist Albania with credit unions that enabled farmers to buy animals or tools. “Entrepreneurship never dies,” she says, “even in Albania, where every initiative was forbidden.” In Bosnia, she kick-started microcredit by laying 500 Deutschmarks ($350) on a table at a shelter for survivors of the Srebrenica massacre and offering to lend it to anyone with a business project. One woman stepped forward with an idea for a market stall. Nowak handed her the cash. In the following weeks, she made loans to a teenage goldfish breeder, a woman who planned to make goat’s milk cheese and another who proposed manufacturing sugar lumps from grain sugar. All prospered and repaid their loans, as did other novice entrepreneurs whom she bankrolled. CHANGING FRANCE Microcredit was popular in the developing world. Yet few thought of using it in the developed world, such as her adopted country France. “In France, we lend only to the rich,” Nowak scoffs. She took her idea to several non-governmental organisations but none was interested. By this time, Nowak had a full-time job and three children. But she thought: “If no-one else wants to do it, I must.” She founded ADIE and set about raising money for loans. First, she won funding from a number of foundations including the European Union’s anti-poverty programme. Later, big banks saw that involvement with ADIE could be good for their public image. Nowak saw that ADIE had to make loans to those applicants with the energy to create a business. As ADIE’s reach and visibility grew, thanks in part to her daughter Anne, a TV journalist, she would encounter plenty. MOP AND BUCKET Aziz Senni grew up in a rundown area near Paris. Transport was bad, taxis were scarce. Senni saw a market for cheap “collective” taxis, shared by passengers and common in his parents’ native Morocco. In 2000, an ADIE loan helped him to buy his first vehicle. Now Senni’s business operates 130 taxis, employs 150 people, made $8.2 million in 2006 and is franchising the model in other regions. “Maria Nowak gave me the chance,” he says. Separated, jobless and with three children to support, Marie-Antoinette Benda, thought she could make a living with a market stall selling inexpensive jewellery. She outlined her idea to ADIE and borrowed $1100 to buy stock and rent a space at Grigny, 32 kilometres south of Paris. She repaid the loan with interest over two years as business grew. Then she borrowed more to expand. Today, Benda and her stall, now four times as big, are popular fixtures. “I often tell the unemployed: ‘Don’t stay at home sleeping! Do something!’” she says. Entering its 20th year, ADIE now has more than 100 outposts throughout France, mostly in areas with high unemployment and poverty levels. Just as important, Nowak has recruited 1000 bénévoles, unpaid volunteers who help aspiring entrepreneurs through unfamiliar territory such as bookkeeping and dealing with officialdom. Inevitably, not every enterprise succeeds but just over half are still going five years after they launch. At the same time, three out of four ADIE alumni are still in work, either in jobs or self-employed. “They are more likely to be hired if they can say: ‘I have done this and this and this,’” explains Fabrice Talandier, ADIE’s regional director for Nord Pas de Calais and Picardy. Throughout, Nowak has worked to make the regulatory environment more welcoming to small entrepreneurs. Her microcredit crusade, originally dismissed as unworkable in France, is now supported by European institutions, government departments, chambers of commerce, corporations and banks. The European Microcredit Network, of which Nowak is the president, estimates that small and micro enterprises represent 91.5 percent of the 2.5 million start-ups that are created in the EU every year. “Microcredit does not solve the problem of poverty but it makes a real contribution,” she says. At 72 and working 70 hours a week, Nowak is thinking less about relaxing with her grandchildren than about the challenges ahead. “At some stage, I will stop,” she says. “But I don’t see that I will retire. I will stand down as president and become a volunteer.” - See more at:
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