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A New Bill Gates, From Venture: A Collection of True Microfinance Stories

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Venture is a rich and readable collection of true microfinance stories. It is written for anyone who would like to better understand the realities faced by the the aspiring middle class in the world's least developed countries, the range of factors that affect their prospects for working their way out of poverty and how microfinance can impact their lives.

The entrepreneurs featured in this book are all members of Zidisha Microfinance, a web-based crowdfunding platform that allows low-income, computer-savvy entrepreneurs in developing countries to share their stories and negotiate micro-loans directly with individual lenders. As the world's first person-to-person lending service to eliminate intermediaries and connect individual web users and entrepreneurs across the international wealth divide, Zidisha is uniquely positioned to offer an undistorted depiction of the variety of individual stories and circumstances that come to play each time a microfinance loan is disbursed.

Each story paints an unforgettable picture: A 70-year-old goat farmer who relocates his home to better care for his ailing father, carrying the sticks and metal sheeting made from across the mountains on his back. A plump, beaming detergent sales-lady who lives in a home no larger than an ordinary bathroom but has adopted five orphans. A cancer survivor who supports herself and two children by pounding millet for $1.58 per day. An irrepressible lady who supplies half of her neighborhood with much-needed IVs and other medical supplies by day, and by night checks into the local cybercafe to chat with Facebook friends on the other side of the world. A young man who has no arms but insists on working to support his able-bodied parents out of filial duty. An accounting student who pays for his university tuition by purchasing a taxi and splitting proceeds with a hired driver. A bright young lady who renounces college to care for her orphaned siblings and overcomes gender stereotypes to launch a thriving construction business.

At its heart, Venture is a tribute to the remarkable community of Zidisha Microfinance entrepreneurs and countless others like them -- a tribute to their grit, ambition and indomitable spirit in the face of overwhelming obstacles. We hope this book will help translate the statistics about poverty and the opportunities afforded by microfinance into human terms, and inspire readers to reach out and connect with their counterparts on the other side of the international wealth divide.

Story 3: A New Bill Gates

I was fortunate to have the occasion to meet with Aissatou Traore at the Dakar, Senegal headquarters of Forever Living, a direct selling company that produces aloe vera and other natural health products. Forever Living is based in Arizona, but markets its products through a worldwide network of tens of thousands of independent distributors, including Aissatou.

Aissatou is the sole breadwinner for her elderly mother and 14-year-old son, who she hopes will have the chance to go to university in Canada someday. She has a genius for marketing, and our conversation soon turned to the benefits of her products. She gave a riveting presentation, skillfully weaving international statistics, personal experience and client success stories into a mesmerizing narrative that left me thoroughly convinced that aloe vera toothpaste is, after all, a must-have staple of good oral health.

Aissatou starts her day at 5 o'clock each morning. After a quick breakfast, she spends the next two hours reading books on marketing and entrepreneurship. Indeed, Aissatou is an encyclopedia of market networking strategies and management one-liners. Motivational business posters deck her living room. Her favorite book is Being the Best You Can Be in MLM: How to Train Your Way to the Top in Multi-Level / Network Marketing-America's Fastest-Growing Industries by marketing guru John Kalench. Aissatou hopes to use this knowledge not only to improve her sales, but to one day climb the ranks of Forever Living itself.

Aissatou usually begins meeting her clients at 9 o'clock in the morning. As a saleswoman, Aissatou spends her time traveling in and out of Dakar to meet her customers at their homes or offices. When not assisting customers, Aissatou patrols the streets and public buses for new clients and potential partners. When she started as a saleswoman, most of her customers were friends and family. Today, they represent half.

Aissatou's marketing approach is direct and fearless. Armed with a badge pronouncing "I feel great, ask me why!" hanging around her neck, she proudly walks up to potential clients (typically mothers and middle-aged adults) to tell them about her products. With two years of increasing sales, Aissatou has mastered the art of salesmanship. "Confidence is key. I use my products, so I know they work. I have no problem or fear telling others about them. In fact, I feel like I'm doing people a service," she explains.

If a potential client shows interest, Aissatou gives them her business card and asks for their number. Aissatou then logs that number into her client book and schedules a rendezvous the following day. At these meetings, Aissatou brings a catalog of her products and lists her clients' demands. Her best selling products are Vitamin C pills and organic juices. She then heads to her retailer, Forever Living Products, to buy the products at a discount rate and distribute them to her clients.

This process of finding clients, soliciting their orders, purchasing them at retail prices and then reselling them consumes long hours. Aissatou's workday ends at 10 o'clock at night. Despite the long hours, Aissatou shows no sign of tire. "I love my job. Being a saleswoman gives me the independence and flexibility to earn the money I deserve and better my family's well-being."

Aissatou used a Zidisha loan of $780 to purchase a large inventory of Forever Living products, which ought to have boosted her earnings substantially. Unfortunately, most of the inventory was lost to a thief who broke into her home and stole her stock before she had the chance to sell it.

A few days after the theft, Aissatou stopped by the office with the unfortunate news that her apartment had been robbed. She lost her phone, $180 in cash, and about $600 worth of Forever Living products. Aissatou suspects a neighbor stole her products and has been soliciting police stations ever since, to no effect. Despite these hardships, Aissatou wanted me to stress to her Zidisha lenders that she still plans on making her first repayment on time. Indeed, Aissatou didn't stop by to look for pity; she wanted to double check Zidisha's bank account number.

I was absolutely amazed by Aissatou's dedication. Here is an entrepreneur who, despite the ordeal of being robbed, made time out of her busy day to stop by to ensure that she'll make her first payment on time. I asked Aissatou if she has always been so resilient and relentless. "My Grandma raised me this way," she replied. "As a child in the Casamance (the war-torn southern region of Senegal), we had to pick rice in the fields after school. It was tough. I still remember all that weight of rice we carried on our heads. But this hard upbringing and the example set by my grandmother taught me to never give up, even when it feels like the sky is falling," she explained. "The real challenge in life is getting back up. Once you decide to want to get back up, you work your way out and God takes care of the rest."

Completely out of money to buy new stock, but undeterred, Aissatou contacted her best clients one by one and offered a deal: She would give them a special discount if they would agree to pay in advance for the products, rather than upon delivery. She used the advances to restart selling, at a profit margin that was razor thin due to the discounts. She makes up for the narrow profits with volume: Her notebook contains the names of several hundred clients, many of whom are located in rural villages a day's journey from Dakar city. On the days she "goes into the bush" to deliver her products to the villages, Aissatou wakes up at 4 o'clock in the morning to prepare the day's meals for her 14-year-old son, and returns home as late as 1 o'clock the following night. This strategy has enabled Aissatou to slowly reconstitute her working capital, while also making regular repayment installments on her Zidisha loan, which is now 94 percent repaid.

She seemed completely unfazed by all of these obstacles. By way of explanation, Aissatou cited the example of Bill Gates: He started on a small scale as well, and she is simply doing the same. She is a voracious reader. On the day we met, she was reading a French translation of The Leader in You by Dale Carnegie. Aissatou said she was inspired by Mr. Carnegie's idea that there is a "mine of gold" inside each one of us, and that the best way to fully realize our potential is to develop our own business. She values her freedom, and says that nothing can stop her from reaching her ambitions. Aissatou's Words:

Dear lenders, It seems that you want to discover and learn the realities of my country Senegal! I would like that no more children suffer and that all the men and women live healthier. Every day I meet people one by one or in groups to learn about their problems and to provide solutions with my medications... Did you know that without good health, there is not much we can do for ourselves or our families? So each time you lend money, tell yourself 'I am supporting Aissatou so she can help someone get better.' Your loans go straight to my heart and you should be proud for doing it. Together we support each other to help support our brothers.

More and more people are appreciating natural products. Those who already use them rarely hesitate to tell others about their benefits. I get many calls from Senegal's interior, like the rural towns of Linguere, Darha Djolof, Casamance, Kolda or Mbour, because people in those regions are confronted by malaria or malnutrition. The fact that people from those areas who use my products are satisfied, encourages and motivates me to meet new people and help them discover the benefits of natural products. This is why I don't hesitate to reiterate my need for financing to buy more products and deliver them to these localities. I have to sell at weekly markets and there are many across Senegal. Weekly markets are great opportunities for me to showcase my natural products and make recommendations. My time is always full and I love my work. I get tremendous satisfaction whenever a sick person thanks me for their recovery, or that someone else begins to feel better. (Translated from the original French.)

You may view the latest news and photos of Aissatou's business at her Zidisha Microfinance profile page.

From Chapter 3 of Venture: A Collection of True Microfinance Stories by Zidisha Microfinance.

Next time: How an enterprising young man in Kenya used a $536 microloan to turn a sleepy rural village into a mini technology hub...