It all started in 1973 when Namaste Direct founder Bob Graham visited Guatemala during his Kellogg Foundation Fellowship. He was struck by the tragic circumstances endured by so many Guatemalans. He promised himself one day, if he could, he would help these people with both resources and money.
Fifteen years later, Bob was one of the first “social entrepreneurs” for microfinance in Latin America. In the 1980’s he was a founding pioneer for one of Central America’s first microloan NGOs, the Katalysis Partnership, which received early support from USAID. In 2004 when Bob turned Katalysis over to its regional non-profit partners, Bob’s microfinance work encompassed 21 NGOs in 5 countries with more than 200,000 borrowers and a loan portfolio of $60 million. By now Bob has had 25 years of experience doing development work throughout Central America, the Eastern Caribbean, Mexico, India and Africa.
For microfinance to work best, Bob recognized not just the need to make money available to people in poverty, but also the critical need for effective mentoring and education to accompany loans. With this goal Bob, joined by Bob Ilse and Sherrie Ilse, started Namaste Direct in 2004 (and later its sister organization Fundación Namasté Guatemaya) to work with low income women entrepreneurs in Guatemala.
LESSONS LEARNED 2004-2014
There are a number of distinctions that make us a unique NGO. We have come to the conclusion that we can best help by focusing on one goal: increasing women’s incomes. We let women decide how best to spend their profits. We have faith in our clients’ ability to lift themselves out of poverty through individual entrepreneurship. This is in sharp contrast with many NGOs in Guatemala, which look to provide comprehensive development. Our Basic Business Development program focuses on financial literacy and business. We measure our success solely on the amount that our client’s profits have increased.
We initially partnered with well-established microfinance institutions (MFIs) but later decided to administer the loans ourselves due to our disagreement with the way some MFIs were choosing to do business. Many MFIs charge very high interest rates. In contrast, our interest rates are among the lowest in Guatemala.
We have become known as an accountable NGO with impressive tracking capabilities. We were dissatisfied with how most NGOs evaluate their effectiveness based on the amount of resources applied to a problem. We evaluate our effectiveness based on the outcome of our work in the hands of the individual client. We also use “Western World” consulting methodologies, rarely used by most NGOs.
Because Bob Graham had a successful business career in California he has an affinity for numbers and measurable results. He asked Tenmast Software to build a custom online database to manage, measure, and evaluate our outcome based development initiatives. They very generously did so, on a pro-bono basis! We are meticulous about gathering accurate, up-to-date measures of women's incomes and profits. We input information daily from our Business Advisors about each client’s progress. Then we evaluate the information using QlikView, the number one business intelligence tool in world. (Also generously donated by them!) We can pull up real-time statistics about our clients at any time, and we constantly seek new measurements and pilot programs to track and improve our progress.
We have formed many effective partnerships. Our financial literacy training material comes from Freedom from Hunger, an NGO that provides microcredit and business training in 17 countries. In 2011 the Canadian NGO Open to Grow began to provide funding of our microloans. In 2013 we began a partnership with Kiva, the first online lending platform connecting lenders to entrepreneurs. This partnership has enabled us to reach a whole new audience of lenders using detailed stories of the work we are doing.
In 2013 we launched “Starz”, a higher-level business development program to offer our high capacity clients larger loans ($2,500-$4,000) and further education, to make the leap from microenterprise to a medium sized business. Each Starz client has completed our initial Business Development Program and on becoming a Star, receives further intensive training and coaching. She also completes a 60-hour business education curriculum from which she receives a diploma in Small and Medium Enterprise Management from INTECAP, Guatemala’s leading training institution. We designed the course content with INTECAP specifically for our new Starz program.
In 2014 all paid staff positions were transferred to local positions in Guatemala and more Guatemalan Board Members have been recruited for our local operations. Currently, our nine-member board includes five Guatemalans.
WHAT ARE THE RESULTS OF THESE LESSONS LEARNED OVER THE LAST TEN YEARS?
30% + increase in micro-entrepreneurs´ monthly income for each nine month loan and education cycle completed.
250% return on money invested: For every $100 Namaste spends on training, the first year after her training each woman earns more than $250 in profits.
Micro-entrepreneurs act on 81% of advice given in their monthly mentor meetings (reported by their Business Advisors)
Currently 76% of clients are keeping records despite the fact that 26% of them are illiterate. Keeping financial records is new to almost 100% of our beginning micro-entrepreneurs.
Unique Annual Business Women’s Conference: Each year 100 low-income women (many of whom have never spent a night away from home) attend three days of learning and networking.
Founded in 2004, Namaste celebrates 10 years with over 3,000 loans to low-income micro-entrepreneurs for a cumulative total of $3,758,000 increase in profits.