One in four of the world’s poorest people live in rural areas, often relying on a few staple crops to meet their daily needs and generate a small income. They are also more likely to be affected by climate change since many scientists believe it to be responsible for the unpredictable, extreme droughts and rains that destroy harvests and lives. Since these rural communities have limited access to finance and technical support to build their smallholdings and create greater resilience, they rarely attain the economic empowerment they need to break free from the poverty cycle.
The OECD’s definition of economic empowerment is: ‘the capacity of women and men to participate in, contribute to, and benefit from growth processes in ways that recognize the value of their contributions, respect their dignity, and make it possible to negotiate a fairer distribution of the benefits of growth’.
Related to this, in 2015, the UN Sustainable Development Summit crafted a collective global Agenda promoting ‘prosperity for all while protecting the planet’. Comprising 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the Agenda espouses ‘no-one should be left behind’ and aims to end poverty, inequality and injustice among other goals.
So, while we err, um, aargh over the details of social impact investment products and outcome data, perhaps we should also be acutely conscious of: ‘who or what is being left behind’ while we deliberate?
Monica Middleton, National Director of 42-year old world-wide social investor, Oikocredit, considered issues of poverty, financial inclusion and economic empowerment on a recent trip to the rural region of Luzon, the Philippines. She visited Oikocredit’s social enterprise partner and co-operative, ABRASA, as well as some of the farmer-members who have benefited from their social impact investment and other support.
If, like me, you are squeamish about slippery, slithery creatures, I should mention that ‘rice eels’ are some of the heroes of this story, having provided a lifeline out of poverty for ABRASA co-operative member, Mrs Venus M Sadang, and her family.
Venus M Sadang, ABRASA co-operative member, holding up a rice eel.Photograph, Opmeer Reports 2017.
Speaking of her childhood, Venus told us: “As children, we were so poor. My parents were farmers with six mouths to feed. We lived in a small hut on a thin diet of rice, cassava and banana”.
Venus also married a farmer, working alongside him in the rice fields while trying to make a few extra pesos selling beauty products on the side. But it was hard to make ends meet, particularly with three small children at home. Banks wouldn’t lend any money to help them, so they often borrowed money from relatives and friends who charged them high interest rates. “Business is business”, Venus explained...
In 2007, at the age of 32, Venus was introduced to ABRASA by a friend, and was granted her first small agricultural loan at the far more reasonable rate of 1.5%. ABRASA’s CEO, Evelyn T Clement elaborated: “rural life is so very hard for these farmers. A family of five needs around 10,000 PHP per month (€184) to survive. But this sort of regular income is painfully elusive, so they desperately need our financial and technical support, as well as help in generating additional sources of income to get through the hard times”.
Sybille Schwandt, Oikocredit SA North Germany with ABRASA CEO, Evelyn T Clement. Photograph: Oikocredit
A few years later, things really took off for the family. Venus was approached by a Mr Chang, inquiring whether she could obtain rice eels to sell as a delicacy to his customers in Taiwan. Rice eels are not regarded as a delicacy in the Philippines. Instead, they were originally introduced to control the snails but have since become pests, destroying the rice crops and mud banks which separate the paddies. Each day, rice farmers dispose of hundreds of eels just to keep their rice fields in working order.
Although they were initially sceptical about Venus’s idea, thirty farmers agreed to a price of 60 PHP per kilo of eels (€ 1). Venus managed to sell 100 kilos per day to Mr Chang - charging 120-150 PHP per kilo (€2 – €2.75) and placing the eels on ice in 30 kg boxes for the 12-hour delivery drive to Manila.
Venus packs up eels for transport. Photograph, Opmeer Reports
Over the next few years, the family wanted to grow their ventures by investing in capital. They needed in a large storage tank to meet Mr Chang’s growing demand for eels, and a sieve and water pressure hose to enable expansion of their corn and rice farm. In 2013, ABRASA granted Venus another loan of 100,000 PHP (€1,800). Subsequent loans went towards home and farm improvements as well as ensuring that the three children could all be educated through college. Today, Venus turns over 500 kilos of eels per day. She pays intermediaries 70 PHP per kilo (€1.30) to collect eels from around the region. They pay farmers 60 PHP per kilo (€1), and Venus gets her 120-150 PHP per kilo (€2 -€2.75) as well as credit for starting a blossoming micro economy.
Venus’s entrepreneurial endeavours and her relationship with ABRASA, however, have never just been about access to finance. Over the decade, ABRASA have given her financial literacy and business skills training, practical and emotional support, and encouragement to develop further business ideas and open a savings account. Her loyalty to ABRASA is palpable: “They have helped me every step of the way, at every turn, whatever I have needed. Without them I could not have made this the business success story that it is, neither would our children be set up for the future”.
On my return to the UK, I reflect on this family’s entrepreneurial journey out of poverty into economic growth and empowerment via social investment. At the same time, I can't help considering those who are 'left behind’: The 38% of adults worldwide (2.7 billion people) who lack access to the basic financial services they need to grow their own ventures and build their own paths out of poverty.
ABRASA were founded in 1992 as a multi-purpose co-operative and serve around 3,400 farmer-members in rural Quirino, north of Manila. 54% of their members are female. Oikocredit currently have a loan outstanding with ABRASA of PHP 22.6 million (€425,000).
Established in 1975, Oikocredit invest in more than 800 social enterprise partners across Africa, Asia, Latin America and Central & Eastern Europe. We prioritise inclusive finance, agriculture, renewable energy and infrastructure sectors to reach the most disadvantaged communities in the world. Our activities support 16 of the 17 sustainable development goals and they issue Annual Social Performance Reports on social and environmental outcomes alongside our Annual Reports & Accounts.