Dollar by Dollar: Building Capital for Micro-Entrepreneurs

Decades under the repressive rule of a military junta have sapped many women and men in Myanmar, or Burma, of the skill-sets and savvy needed to pursue entrepreneurial, income-generating activities.

Furthermore, leaders in Myanmar's Anglican church, which Five Talents also partners with, had been -- until recently -- reluctant to encourage members to pursue "business" opportunities.

"Money is difficult because it might cause some problems in the church," said Ethel, who works with savings group members in Pyay, and whose husband, Clement, is a pastor. "It might cause people to separate or fight, so the church has [been slow] to recognize its value. I try to explain that God wants us to save money and do business [to provide for our families]. Finally, people in the church have begun to recognize the value."

Five Talents works with local partners across many different cultures and countries. Each under-served community is different and requires a nuanced, tailored approach to micro-enterprise development. Myanmar is no different.

The early stages of Five Talents' partnership with Mothers' Union in Myanmar has focused on establishing savings and loan groups, or "associations," in the mostly rural and under-developed Irrawaddy River Delta region.

Some of these groups are creating joint agricultural enterprises – an innovative approach that has proven to be remarkably effective, given the context.

Moreover, church leaders across the country are on-board and are encouraging members to participate. They see the program, which began in 2011, as transformative – not just at the individual level, but also at the church and community levels.

It all begins with business skills training workshops like this one – and with an emphasis among participants on building up savings.

"Sometimes it is hard to save even 1,000 kyat ($1.03) every month," said Ethel. "But I encourage them to find money for that amount – through a small business or a small chicken farm, or something."

Out of the groups' savings, members lend to one another. The 3% interest rate on the micro-business loans is returned to the group's collective savings, "liberating" the members, Ethel says, from having to borrow from local money-lenders, who often charge exorbitant interest rates.

Helen, one of the group members present during Sonia's budgeting workshop testified to the benefits of building up savings and taking out small loans to support new income-generating activities.

"My life has changed," she said. "I can produce more because I have more capital."