World Vision Micro - A Conversation with Karen Larsen

Karen and Laurie

Let me start by saying I am thrilled to be able to speak with Karen Larsen from World Vision. Karen is a supporter of Hot Sauce 4 Good, an incredible, compassionate and tireless advocate for children and I am honored to call her a friend. 

Hot Sauce 4 Good: Hi Karen, thank you so much for sitting down with me to talk about your work at World Vision - specifically the microfinance program. Karen is the head of Marketing Innovation and one of the strongest proponents of World Vision Micro. We had the pleasure of traveling to Ethiopia this past winter with Karen and saw first hand some of the incredible work that World Vision Micro is doing.

Karen Larsen: Happy to be here with you, Bob, and of course I’m always happy to talk about microfinance. In my opinion, I think it’s one of the most amazing but perhaps least understood aspects of World Vision’s community development work.

HS4G: The concept of microfinance has been around since the 1970s when Muhammad Yunus pioneered it in Bangladesh but a lot of people still don’t know what it is. How would you describe World Vision Micro to someone who knows nothing about it.

KL: Microfinance is a simple concept that has a life-changing impact on individuals, families and entire communities. Many mothers and fathers in poor communities where World Vision works aren’t looking for a handout--they want to provide for their families.  They are ready and willing to do the work. They just need a little help getting started.  

Over 70% of our entrepreneurs are women because women invest more of their income directly in their children. And that’s what World Vision is all about—helping children reach their God-given potential.

— Karen Larsen

World Vision provides access to working capital by lending money to them in very small amounts - $100, $300, sometimes as little as $50. This allows these entrepreneurs to not only invest in themselves and their businesses, but also generate an income they use to feed their children, send them to school, provide health care, and save for the future.  Interestingly (and a fact I know your wife Laurie would love) over 70% of our entrepreneurs are women because women invest more of their income directly in their children. And that’s what World Vision is all about--helping children reach their God-given potential.

HS4G: So this is a loan, not a gift. What is the repayment rate?

KL: That’s one of the greatest statistics - our repayment rate is an incredible 98.6%! We are very proud of our entrepreneurs and the entire World Vision Micro team. Our repayment rate is so high because we don’t just give loans. We also provide business training and organize them together into “solidarity groups” to support one another. And at the same time as we are giving the loans, we are ensuring that they have access to things like healthcare and clean water.

HS4G: There are a lot of micro finance groups out there, what makes World Vision Micro different?

KL: Now that’s a question I love to get because I think our model is a great one. In addition to what I described above, World Vision doesn't just swoop in and tell folks what to do.  World Vision partners with the communities for the long term. We are there, embedded, for 12-15 years. In fact, most of our staff come from the countries and communities where we work.  When we go into a new community, we first ask the community what they need.  We typically work on the basics first: water, healthcare, education.

Our goal is to have the communities where we work thrive and microfinance is such an important part of it. It’s essentially how we fulfill on our promise to bring fullness of life to children and communities.

— Karen Larsen

But for a community to become fully independent and sustainable, they need strong leaders and successful businesses, and that’s where Micro comes in. World Vision Micro works with the community to establish cooperatives, teach the budding entrepreneurs on not just managing their payments but in how to spend their loan money wisely and how to save money for the future. We encourage our lenders to become leaders. Our goal is to have the communities where we work thrive and microfinance is such an important part of it. It’s essentially how we fulfill on our promise to bring fullness of life to children and communities.

HS4G: Karen, you just said something interesting. One of the things that you do is to help these farmers and small business owners spend their loans. Can you talk a little about that?  [Editor’s note: I find this very fascinating so I wanted to dwell on it a bit.]

Tamiru, Laurie, Brooke, Luke, Tripp, Nathan, Bob, Ben, Karen and Brian

KL: Sure, I’d be happy to. Even though to us these loans may seem small, to the people receiving the loans, they are far from “micro.” When World Vision’s Microfinance Institution (MFI), which is a legal, regulated institution that World Vision runs in these communities, provides the money to the entrepreneur, people can sometimes be so focused on their desire to pay back the loan that they won’t want to spend it! Like the parable of the talents, they will sometimes want to hide the money in a hole in the ground so they have it there to pay back. Microfinance, however, is not a just financial transaction, focused on paying back the loan like we think of loans here in the US.  It’s really about investing in a business, empowering an entrepreneur, encouraging a family and transforming community. Our loan officers work closely with the entrepreneurs to spend their loans wisely and come up with repayment plans that almost always ensure success.

HS4G: Thank you for that Karen. There is another thing that sets World Vision Micro apart from other microfinance organizations and that is the concept of ‘recycling’. Can you tell us about that?

KL: Well, for us, we know that our donors are interested in transformative impact. They see that when they sponsor children. With World Vision Micro we have the opportunity to affect more than just one family with each loan that is provided. As I mentioned, we want to see our entrepreneurs and this community become independent. So when a loan is paid back, that money is “recycled” to fund another loan in the same community. This creates a ripple effect. Over time, that one donated loan can and does help transform a community.

HS4G: Karen, thank you for your time. Before we finish, do you have any favorite success stories that you would like to share with our readers?

KL:  Ooh, It’s so hard to pick!

Well, one that personally really made an impact on me was a woman that I met in Mexico shortly after we launched Micro. She had a small concrete-block roadside stand selling things like candy, beans, and rice to passers-by. As we sat and talked, she told me about her five daughters, all of whom were studying in school. This had been her whole motivation to start her business since she hadn’t been able to go to school herself. Her parents only had money to send one child to school, and so they sent the boy. Her younger brother went to school and she stayed home. She was determined that her daughters would have the opportunity she never did.

Later that day as her daughters arrived back home from school, she introduced me to her oldest daughter. Fifteen years old, she looked closer to twelve in my eyes. She gave me a shy smile as her mom proudly shared with me that she was the first person in their family to ever go to high school. But what her mom said next has stayed with me: if it wasn’t for this small business started by a Micro loan, this fifteen year old child would be married! In their community, girls are expected to marry by 15 unless they’re in school. Most of her childhood friends were married, and several even had babies.

As a mother to two daughters, I saw them as I looked at this girl. My daughters who had the opportunity to not only go to school, but to do anything that they set their minds to. I was just so grateful for the donor who had funded this woman’s loan, who will likely never know the true impact they had on this mother, and on her daughter.

But that’s what microfinance is all about. Empowering moms and dads to take care of their kids, and to allow kids to live in the fullness of life that God intended for them.

HS4G: As always it was a pleasure spending time with you. If anyone is interested in learning more about World Vision Micro or would like to fund a loan, you can do so at http://worldvisionmicro.org.
 

World Vision is a Christian humanitarian organization dedicated to working with children, families, and their communities worldwide to reach their full potential by tackling the causes of poverty and injustice.