Teach a Person to Fish…

UPDATED: October 10, 2015
PUBLISHED: May 17, 2015

Despite the church’s many open windows and doors, the sticky August heat hung in the air like a pesky, unwanted visitor. I paused mid-lesson to wipe the sweat from my forehead and glanced up at my students, all of them female entrepreneurs from neighboring villages in northern Ghana. One was quietly dozing off, another concentrated on breastfeeding her infant, and the others seemed to be staring into the distance. Crickets, or another local species of noisy insects, chirped.

“OK, time for a break! Let’s meet back here in 10 minutes.”

Our group began to disperse, but Porter Anyagre, a widowed charcoal seller, grabbed my hands and held them in her own. She grasped them for several seconds before carefully saying a few words—as if by saying them slowly, I could fathom the gravity of her message even if I couldn’t understand the language.

My translator, Salumi Yakubu, grinned. “She said she’s very thankful you’re here. And that she’s honored to learn.”

Like many of the volunteers who join nonprofit on a business-as-mission trip, I expected my time in rural Ghana to be uncomfortable—unfamiliar food, no air conditioning and a lack of indoor plumbing. But as Anyagre held my hands and smiled, I realized how insignificant those inconveniences were in light of the lives that could be changed—mine included.

Which is what Videre does: change lives. Since its first class in 2010, the organization has equipped entrepreneurs in developing countries with training and microfinance loans, empowering them to use their businesses as means of giving back to their villages. Members of their communities nominate participants, and the program, broken up into three one-week phases, teaches the basics of starting or expanding their businesses.

Volunteers, generally business professionals or entrepreneurs, serve as business coaches. Because Videre has Christian faith-based roots, pastors and members of local churches work as translators, facilitate on-the-ground operations and build trust with the local entrepreneurs. Already Videre officials are seeing a positive impact on local economies.

“We recognize that poverty isn’t simply a physical, monetary thing,” says Brittany Bradberry, Videre’s director of operations. “Poverty is also emotional, spiritual. So we seek to address all those areas and help them bring spiritual and physical transformation to a community.”

As a result, all entrepreneurs’ business plans must include a component that Videre calls a Kingdom Impact Strategy, which explains how they intend to use their businesses to share their faith and help others.

Comfort Ibrahim, who graduated from Videre’s program in 2011, purchases raw rice, mills and processes it, and then sells the rice to bulk buyers. Ibrahim is a widow and the primary caregiver for seven children and relatives, but she sets aside some of her profits to buy school uniforms and books for other children in her village who cannot afford them.

Another Videre graduate, Boajon T. Simon, travels among 17 communities to sell medicine. He had already been in business for five years before joining the training program, and it was through Videre that he was able to purchase a motorcycle with his business loan—an upgrade from the bicycle he previously used. He also gives a portion of his profits back to his community.

“Without the program, I would have never had the money to get a motorbike, which lets me travel farther and help more people,” Simon says. “I also learned a lot about how to spend my profits—saving some, reinvesting some and using the rest to help others.” He later sought me out to show off his motorcycle, beaming with pride as he stood next to his pharmacy on wheels.

Complaints about the difficulties in getting loans in Ghana are a common refrain among Ghanaian entrepreneurs. Even if they are approved for loans, typical lenders’ interest rates start around 30 percent and skyrocket upward. By contrast, Videre’s interest rates are 15 percent, and the nonprofit requires only that applicants have potentially profitable business plans and complete its program successfully.

Even harder to obtain than financing is a solid education in business and finance. Most participants are illiterate, and many of them agree that knowledge is the most valuable commodity they gain from the program.

“We’ve had entrepreneurs come to our program, and they’re completely confused as to why their businesses were losing money,” Bradberry says. “Turns out, it just wasn’t a profitable idea. But they never actually ran the numbers and probably didn’t know they had to.”

The business training is considered to be fairly rigorous, especially for participants who haven’t attended school or aren’t used to sitting for extended periods of time—consider my snoozing scholar, for example. Still, the majority of enrolled entrepreneurs successfully graduate, receive their loans and begin repayment on time.

“It’s simply incredible what owning your own business in this area can do,” Bradberry says. “Sending their kids to school, doing good in their communities and having extra money to save up—it sounds simple, but these are all things that would otherwise have been nearly impossible.”

When it’s time to say goodbye to my group of entrepreneurs, we take pictures and exchange hugs. They ask me when I’m going to return. It breaks my heart to tell them my plans are uncertain, so I say I’ll do my very best to visit. “Besides,” I add, “I don’t want anyone to forget about me once you all have thriving businesses!” Their eyes twinkle as they laugh.

Tears well up in my eyes. Anyagre reaches out to hold my hands once more, smiles warmly and lets them go.


Jennifer Chang is the former associate editor for SUCCESS. She has a corgi puppy who has more Instagram followers than a dog should have. Tweet or follow her thoughts and favorite links at @jenzchang.