Opportunity International, a Graduation, a Benchmark for Empowerment in Nicaragua
In rural Nicaragua, as Inter Press Service reports, “…land is life; it is vital for the family infrastructure.”
Tourism and agribusiness are the two leading industries in Nicaragua, a nation which suffers from both widespread poverty and a three-year drought heightened by massive deforestation over the past few decades. As a result, the rural population rightly feels disenfranchised due to the lack of opportunities within their communities.
Opportunity International aims to curb this, as of yet unchecked dynamic, and break the cycle of poverty. The social enterprise has stewarded unique Community Economic Development (CED) programs to foster a climate of empowerment through applicable education; assessing the needs of their ‘clients,’ in this case the families whose children attend the Emprendedora Technical High School in Granada and meeting, if not exceeding them, through on-site management, agri-business education and the promotion of financial autonomy through such means.
We had the chance to speak with Opportunity International Global CEO Vicki Escarra, the organization’s Nicaragua Country Director David Kone and Opportunity International Governor David Allman, during the graduation festivities at Emprendedora regarding where the school can go from here and the unique model deployed by their dynamic outfit within this jewel of Latin America.
What inspired Opportunity International to give focus and attention to the needs of the Nicaraguan communities?
Vicki Escarra: At Opportunity International, where the focus is on providing access to loans, savings, insurance, and related training to clients in the world’s poorest communities, our major donors like to see the work up close. They want to experience first-hand the process by which their dollars are put to work breaking cycles of poverty and building cycles of financial security. Moreover, some of them also have relevant knowledge and are excited by the challenge of designing solutions. Rather than wait to see the end result of our approach, they want to collaborate from the very beginning.
In 2007, David and Donna Allman approached Opportunity with an idea that fell outside our traditional microfinance model: to build a Community Economic Development (CED) program in Nicaragua. A CED strategy starts with an asset assessment rather than a needs assessment of the poor, recognizing that even the poorest families have assets to contribute to their own development. CED programs then mobilize the key strengths of a community, so the community itself is working hand in hand with the organization to achieve economic growth and security.
The Allmans’ passion was palpable, and the funding model they suggested was different from our norm but completely viable. It called for leveraging the profits of the global microfinance institution and coupling them with private investments from the Allmans and their donor network.
With the leadership of Opportunity’s CED expert, we forged ahead, investing resources to build programs in four areas: 1) agriculture financing, training, and processing; 2) artisan training and product distribution; 3) a rural technical high school and 4) community infrastructure; and leadership development work.
Our CED initiatives start with the community itself identifying the need, then partnering with us to achieve the desired result. Together, we’ve constructed school libraries, repaired churches, built roads, and, crucially, ensured clean water through new aqueduct systems.
Opportunity’s investment in an agricultural processing plant, which enhances the value of poor farmer’s crops and provides year-round access to new markets, achieved 30 percent higher yields and an average income increase of 50 percent over last season for our farming clients. Each farmer now employs an average of five field workers, creating jobs in remote areas of Nicaragua where few employment options exist.
David Allman: Nicaragua is a stunning example of Latin American potential. Despite the drought, the nation is rich in arable lands, remains a bastion of tourism opportunity due to the region being steeped in history, and hosts all of the benefits of coastal community farming.
Yet despite what could be achieved, we surveyed and found that 30 percent of these communities still live on less than $2 USD per day; in other words, in conditions of extreme poverty. In light of all of the opportunities available to affect lasting change via innovations in philanthropy, we knew we could help.
Why focus on education when one argues the most pressing need in Nicaragua is agricultural investment?
David Kone: Over the last decade, Opportunity has developed a community-focused program that empowers Nicaraguan families and farmers to work together in order to fully utilize their communities’ economic, social and cultural assets.
We target these programs to both agriculture education and cultivation processes. For example, we provide loans and technical assistance, helping farmers grow higher-quality and more drought-resistant crops. On average, farmers’ yields have increased by 30% through our efforts, despite the conditions previously listed. Also in 2012, Opportunity Nicaragua Founded the Emprendedora (or“Entrepreneurship”) Technical School, today empowering approximately 300 rural youth with relevant education, preparing them for careers in tourism/hospitality or agriculture, the country’s two high-growth industries, as we’ve previously suggested. Today, these graduates are receiving both a high school diploma and a technical degree in either agriculture or hospitality, preparing them to either attend college or launch successful careers immediately after graduation; this allows them to provide for their communities and immediately break from dependency.
To be sure, there is never one universal condition in which one program can effectively ‘cure-all.’ We thusly diversify our approach in each case and in each country to meet the diverse needs of the communities where we operate.
Is this program one-of-a-kind, unique to Nicaragua in terms of Opportunity’s worldwide reach?
Vicki Escarra: To David’s point, yes, this program, in particular, is unique, based on the specific assets in Nicaragua. However, Opportunity International proudly uses this same specificity when assessing the ambitions of our clients around the world, be it via our operations in India or indeed through the financial autonomy-driven programs effectively carried out in Uganda or Tanzania. Empowerment and in particular, the education and equality-centric empowerment of young women and girls, is what makes Opportunity International unique within the ever-competitive industry of philanthropy.
Where would you envision the Emprendedora Technical High School in five years’ time?
David Kone: The school was originally founded with only two classrooms and 60 students. Today, just some four years on, Emprendedora Technical has reached what we believe to be full capacity, with 300 students enrolled from the 7th to the 11th grade.
However, I can only foresee expansion and the continued evolution of vocational expertise and educational empowerment through the academic curriculum Emprendedora Technical provides, fostering a calculated climate of sustainable development for years to come.
What can the international community do to effectively support the Community Economic Development (CED) program instituted by Opportunity International?
Vicki Escarra: Partner with us. Across the world, Opportunity’s field operations couple our financial products with training, preventative health education, and much more. The Allmans’ dream taught us that community development, powered in part by microfinance, accelerates Opportunity’s impact on the communities we serve.
Innovation does not only come from professional staff or consist of honing historic strategies. As we seek to catalyze new business solutions to chronic issues, we need to be open to utilizing all the assets available to our organizations. When a donor is engaged for ideas and counsel rather than just dollars, the case for capital need is built collectively, the motivation is felt in the soul, and the sense of achievement spreads far beyond a tax exemption. A deep and lasting partnership is forged between the donor, the organization, and the communities we support.
We look forward to engaging with future clients and future partners and donors; we proudly accept the notion that the onus of responsibility in the interim is that it is in our hands to create lasting change, together.