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Business Comment

Jim Armitage: Amid the scandals, there are still microfinance firms doing good

Global Outlook

Life has not given too many breaks to Berna Naiga. Living in the remote Ugandan scrubland near the Kenyan border, she has HIV-Aids and is widowed with four children. Her brother was killed in a car accident, leaving a further six children under her care.

But, now 50, she has successfully put her own children through university and is looking after her late brother's orphans thanks to the income from not one, but three businesses which she set up and runs.

Berna works hard, long hours, but is quick to laugh and is rightly proud of her achievements. I would love to see her taking the stage at the Dorchester for the Entrepreneur of the Year award one day.

Like millions in the developing world, she had no choice but to become an entrepreneur. In her region of Mbale, getting a job with a big firm is just not possible: big firms do not exist.

In most cases, nor does the finance needed to buy the goods, machinery or land to get a little business started. But Berna was lucky. At Mbale there was a village bank operated by the global microfinance charity Finca.

Berna says: "I got my first loan from Finca in 2004 when my children had started school. It was for 100,000 shillings [about £25]. I paid some rent for a shop and bought some items to sell – sugar, other types of food, simple things."

While working at the shop she learnt hairdressing, and, with further weekly Finca loans, started a mini-salon. She now also makes school uniforms for local families.

With the profits, and additional short-term Finca loans now totalling around £325, she has bought some cows and a few small houses which she rents out – all to support her nephews and nieces until they too have left university and got jobs.

"I have been successful because I try hard. I am HIV positive but still have my strength. I have hope that by the time God calls me, I will have finished my work here."

Finca, she says, was "everything" to her business.

Berna's is just the type of story that the microfinance "industry" needs to tell right now. A flurry of scandals in Asia and Latin America have shaken its reputation. Tales of predatory lending by organisations seeking to make a fast buck out of the world's poorest people have become increasingly commonplace.

A scene once populated by a very few socially minded funds has been invaded in some regions by greedy lenders not averse to handing out beatings to those who get behind on servicing their outrageous interest repayments. Way too much money is being lent by microfinance firms tempted by the rapid profits that can be made.

A major scandal in India led to claims that aggressive collection tactics had driven some women to suicide. In Mexico, stories abound of near-200 per cent interest rates being charged to the poor.

Meanwhile, some academics argue that the very idea of making loans on such a micro level holds back economies, rather than developing them: the money spent encouraging a group of women to start selling food or offering simple services could be better used to fund bigger employers in industries like manufacturing that could bring real economic gain to a region, they argue.

Against this backdrop, I met the hugely inspiring but realistic character of Rupert Scofield. This tall, weathered American is a veteran of the US Peace Corps, which he joined to avoid Vietnam after being drafted in 1971. After a couple of crash courses, he was sent to teach Guatemalans how to farm corn and beans more efficiently. "Quite ridiculous, really: I didn't speak Spanish, I'd grown up in New York City, but off they sent me," he recalls. He slept on the operating theatre table of the local doctor-cum-vet who put him up.

"I knew enough agriculture to be dangerous," he jokes. "But I wanted to be helpful."

So, rather than attempt to teach long-established farmers how to farm, he started a scheme to lend them a few dollars each in the form of fertiliser to boost the crop yields from what was miserably depleted soil. The results were spectacular. "Harvests increased hugely and, of about 800 farmers, only one didn't pay us back the loan. I still remember his name – Apollonario. I guess if you rolled up all the interest since then, Apollonario owes me about $1m."

Mr Scofield was bitten by the bug. After a series of socially minded jobs over the Cold War decades in Latin America – worthy of a book in themselves – he now runs Finca, one of the biggest and, at 25 years old, longest-established microfinance charities in the world.

To say he is upset by the rogue elements who have invaded his sector is an understatement. "These guys are happy to come in to milk a town of money for three or four years and when they've done they fold up and go to the next market. And they're backed by big money, especially in Mexico."

He and seven other of the biggest reputable networks have teamed up to create a best practice guarantee about to be rolled out across the main lending countries. But I can't help wondering how much that will help uneducated and desperately poor people stay away from the sharks. After all, we had the subprime mortgage crisis in the developed Western world.

But Mr Scofield is hopeful that skilful PR will be able to publicise the fact that, as he puts it: "there are banks and there are banks". Given the absence in much of the Third World of consumer protection authorities to help the public, or credit referencing agencies to help the lenders, PR from the good guys is one of the few tools available.

Meanwhile, Finca is focusing on really difficult countries like Congo, where the needs of people are vast but the costs and risks of doing business prohibitive to the fast-buck merchants.

Clearly, the world of microfinance is at something of a crossroads. It is hard to see how the bad lenders can be kept from preying on the vulnerable.

But amid all of its troubles and critics, we should not lose sight of the likes of Berna in Uganda. Her three daughters are now teaching in Kampala, her son is working in IT.

Microfinance – and of course, the hard, hard work of Berna – has given them, and her future grandchildren, a springboard to a better world.