Spreading HOPE in the midst of poverty with small businesses

By Trillia Newbell
Oct 16, 2014

If we know that the poor will always be among us, what should we do about it? Can we really do anything that truly matters?

The answer to those questions has been explored and discussed numerous times. Thankfully, there are organizations dedicated to helping equip the Church in serving those in need. One such ministry is HOPE International. HOPE’s mission is to invest in the dreams of the poor as they proclaim and live the gospel in the world's under-served communities. They do this by: Sharing the hope of Christ as they provide biblically based training, savings services, and loans that restore dignity and break the cycle of poverty. The love of Jesus Christ motivates them to identify with those living in poverty and be His hands and feet as they strive to glorify God.

I interviewed Christ Horst, author of Mission Drift and Vice President of Development for HOPE, in order to learn more about this ministry. Horst has been with HOPE since 2006 and is based out of Denver, Colo.

HOPE provides funds through microfinance. What is microfinance? 

HORST: Microfinance is the process of giving small loans and savings services to entrepreneurs in developing countries. They use that capital to start small businesses. With their profit, they repay their loans.

This works well in developing countries where jobs are scarce and small. Family-owned businesses are very common. A loan of $50 or $100 helps grassroots entrepreneurs start businesses—it helps tailors buy sewing machines, farmers buy seeds and fertilizers and grocers buy their products in bulk.

Many microfinance organizations also provide business training to their clients. At HOPE, we’re also firmly committed to sharing the love of Christ with our clients so that they flourish not just economically, but also spiritually. We believe Jesus’ sobering words that a man can gain the whole world yet still forfeit his soul. Because of this, we see ourselves not just as bankers, but as missionaries, reaching into far corners of the earth with the Good News of Jesus Christ.

How has this approach to serving the poor been beneficial to the individual, their community and the economy of their region? 

HORST: At HOPE, we've found that most poor people really want to work. They have gifts and abilities they'd like to have utilized, but are often unable to do so because jobs are scarce. Unemployment robs them of the dignity that comes from working and providing for their families.

Our founder Jeff Rutt discovered this in the 1990s when he started travelling to Ukraine after the collapse of the Soviet Union. His church started sending containers of food, clothing and medical supplies to the city of Zaporozhye. Eventually, a pastor there pulled him aside and said the donations were doing more harm than good. People were becoming dependent on the shipments, and local businesses were losing customers because they couldn’t compete.

Rutt came back to the U.S. and started researching. He heard about microfinance, and in 1997, HOPE International was born. We started with loans to 12 entrepreneurs in the Ukraine, and we’ve grown to 17 countries, now serving over 675,000 grassroots entrepreneurs across the globe.

What are the criteria for becoming a HOPE country?

HORST: At HOPE, we are committed to serving the world’s under served communities in the countries of greatest poverty. That means we focus our work in countries that don’t already have a concentration of financial services. We look for clients who don’t have access to formal banking opportunities. Right now, we work in 17 countries throughout Latin America, Eastern Europe, Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia. Some examples of countries that we work in are the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ukraine, Haiti and Malawi.

How do you find the individuals to borrow money? Can anyone apply? Is there an application process?

HORST: Our goal is to always work alongside the local church. Often, when we start work in a new area, we will connect with pastors and train them and other community leaders. From there, we ask them to recommend people for our programs. Our field staff—all local to the countries where they work—are ultimately responsible for recruiting new clients and informing communities about the opportunity.

We employ a vetting process for clients. Our field staff members verify the business a client proposes to ensure it’s sustainable and has room for growth. Most clients come to us with a pre-existing business or concept. While there’s not a formal application, clients agree to the process, and they go through a multi-session training on how they must use the loan before receiving the funds. 

Since our inception in 1997, HOPE and our field partners have issued over two million loans to these entrepreneurs. And they’ve proven to be a remarkably good risk. Over that time, we’ve had a 98 percent repayment rate.

How long does it usually take to process a loan from the development to the implementation of the business? 

HORST: Our loan cycle is short—clients typically repay their loans within six months. We only give loans to clients who have strong business plans and who are ready to succeed so they can quickly purchase the items that will make them more productive. Usually, that increased productivity translates very quickly to greater profit.

What are some of the most common businesses started?

HORST: The businesses are diverse, just like the 675,000 clients we work with!

HOPE clients operate grocery stores, clothing stands, farming cooperatives, restaurants and catering services. Some sell donuts, and others produce wheelbarrows. We have one client in Burundi who started a business renting out chairs and place settings for weddings. She eventually grew her business to serve events of 200 people, and she began renting out wedding dresses as well.

I understand that most of the loans are for women. Why do you think that is?

HORST: We provide business training, savings services and small loans to the most vulnerable people around the world. In many areas where we work, women are most vulnerable because they have been excluded from traditional business and banking opportunities. Yet, research has shown that women are most likely to invest in their family. So when we empower women with opportunities to run successful businesses, we are in turn investing in children, education, nutrition and healthcare. By investing in women, we are investing in their entire communities.

Are there any new countries or regions you are currently working with?

HORST: About a year ago we started programs in Malawi. This summer we launched a third partnership in India.

Are there any success stories that stand out to you?

HORST: Our partner in the Philippines, The Center for Community Transformation, has a client named Dolorosa. She’s been in their programs for about eight years, and she now runs several successful businesses. She’s become very influential in her community.

One time, Dolorosa said, “My most fervent dreams are no longer for myself . . . I want to be able to create jobs for others because I believe it is easier to lead individuals to Jesus Christ when their stomachs are not empty.” To me, that’s exactly what microfinance is all about: restoring clients’ dignity through employment and leading them to Christ.

I believe you shared that there is an astonishing 98 percent return rate on loans. I imagine many would think the risk would be much greater. Why do you think you have such a wonderful percentage on the return or payback for your loans?

HORST: We do have a 98 percent repayment rate. We believe this is due to a few reasons:

  1. We provide business training, and we vet our clients’ business plans. They don’t get a loan for a home improvement project; the loan must support a business that is likely to be profitable.
  2. Our field staff members have ongoing relationships with the clients, and they answer questions whenever needed.
  3. Our programs take place through solidarity groups in which one loan officer works with a group of 10 to 20 clients. These groups become an incredible support to our clients—clients develop strong friendships, develop a business network, and they cross-guarantee each other’s loans. This is where the concept of “social collateral” comes into play. The clients are highly incentivized to make payments back so as not to harm their reputation within their community and because they have agreed from the outset to cross-guarantee each other’s loans. There’s a natural safeguard here: if someone defaults, the group steps in to make the payment on their behalf.
  4. We place an enormous emphasis on savings. In all of the places where we work, savings is a component of what we do. It’s important for the families we serve to not just have access to business loans, but also access to a safe place to save their money. In many of the places where we work, there simply are no banks. Our clients are then forced to save in not-so-safe ways, like putting their hard-earned savings under the mattress or paying exorbitant fees to a “money collector” to hold their savings for them.

How can our readers get involved and learn more? 

HORST: Our website, hopeinternational.org, has many ways to get involved, including attending one of our 18 events around the U.S. this fall, donating financially or items, such as cars and electronics, or even going on a trip to see our work firsthand.

People sometimes wonder how banking and entrepreneurship make life better for the poor. What about hunger? What about trafficking? What about orphans? The great news is, that’s why we love microfinance: the impact goes far beyond mere economics.

Microfinance is not a cure-all, but its impact is stunning: many of the families we serve can now afford to eat three meals per day, so nutrition improves. Many parents can pay their children’s school fees, so literacy rates increase. Income is more regular, so when a child gets sick, the family can afford life-saving medicine. Families have a reserve of savings, so if there is a drought and crops die, there isn’t such intense temptation to traffic a child to pay rent.

Often, once a HOPE client’s business is profitable, they will care for other people in their community. Many women take in orphans. Some savings groups have a fund just for widows in their area. Some clients grow businesses so large that they create additional jobs in their community. Ultimately, we see employment bring a lot of dignity to our clients as they use their God-given talents and abilities. When that happens, they in turn bless others. Entire communities flourish.

For too long, we believe that we’ve underestimated the power of people living in poverty. In a traditional sense, charity often tells families in poverty they can’t. At HOPE, we want to equip them with tools so they can. Charity tells recipients they are not worthy, not capable. We want to remind the people we serve that they are created in the image of God. As image bearers, they all have gifts and skills worth investing in.

Microfinance has been a new concept to serving those in need for me. Though I would never rate means of service, HOPE’s mission and implementation seems to be a sustainable method for empowering individuals to learn how to care for themselves and their community. My prayer is that what begins with one loan will impact generations to come—ending generational poverty and launching thriving communities.

Image credit: Nikole Lim


If you are in the Nashville, Tenn., area, hear from Peter Greer, HOPE International’s president and CEO, as he shares how HOPE-network clients around the world mobilize discipleship, training, savings and small loans to create brighter futures for their families and communities. The event will take place on Thursday, October 30, 2014, from 7:30 – 8:30 a.m. at the Brentwood Country Club in Brentwood, Tenn.. For more information or to reserve your seat, contact Isaac Ezell at iezell@hopeinternational.org. You may also visit their website at hopeinternational.org.

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