THE BLOG
02/22/2013 11:58 am ET | Updated Apr 24, 2013

"The Travelers' Oasis," From 'Venture: A Collection of True Microfinance Stories'

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 microloans 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 it was made from across the mountains on his back. A plump, beaming detergent saleslady 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 20: The Travelers' Oasis

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When I first visited Karfiguela Falls, there was nothing to welcome me but a run-down and abandoned "campement." Such a shame for the most beautiful and important tourist attraction in Burkina Faso!

Today, Karfiguela Falls is transformed. A short distance from the old "campement" you will now find a restaurant where Siaka Tou serves tasty meals and fresh drinks. The Karfiguela Falls are far away from the nearest town, so it is a great advantage that Siaka is offering lodging as well. Two charming huts are ready by now, a third is under construction and he is planning to build a few more, each representing a different traditional housing style of the people of Burkina Faso.

Like the majority of Burkina's population, Siaka practices sustenance farming and grows rice, corn, peanuts and vegetables. Sustenance farming means that Siaka grows his food mainly for the consumption of his family- only what is left over is sold. Siaka helps his father raise cattle as well and occasionally works as a guide to tourists who visit the popular waterfalls of Karfiguela. Siaka works hard to develop his community, and for the last three years he has volunteered as a counterpart to United States Peace Corps.

Luckily for Siaka, the waterfalls of Karfiguela are one of the most popular tourist sites in Burkina Faso. This is why he came up with the idea to build a restaurant and campground at the waterfalls. Noting in his loan application that "there are no food, drinks, or accommodations within ten kilometers from the waterfalls," Siaka saw this shortfall as an opportunity to diversify his earnings away from low-margin and volatile agriculture. At the same time, by taking advantage of the tourism created by the waterfalls, his community would benefit from the additional employment and a larger market for village goods and services. 

It is only fair to tell you that this is not exclusively the result of Siaka's loan with Zidisha. He was offered a small grant by the United States Peace Corps Burkina Faso as well, and both he and Peace Corps Volunteer James Megivern invested a great deal of time, energy and ideas in the construction works. Thanks to the Zidisha loan, though, Siaka was able to actually start the restaurant. The loan of $1,128 was sufficient to buy a large refrigerator, tables and chairs, and all the necessary materials for preparing and serving food.

The restaurant menu mixes local with occidental, giving a comfortable, close-to-home option for Western tourists, with the option of Burkinabé meals for the more adventurous and for Burkinabé tourists. Dishes are made with products bought from the local community like bissap, a sweet West African drink make from hibiscus, palm wine, and mangoes. Siaka also sells souvenirs, bought directly from the village women and girls who handcraft them. Finally, men from his village work as tour guides. 

Because tourism is not a very stable sector in Burkina Faso (and today even more under strain because of the troubles in neighbouring Mali) the restaurant is a very important asset. Even when weeks go by without a tourist coming along, Siaka's restaurant is doing very well and the villagers appreciate it very much. The closest town is fifteen kilometers away and Siaka's restaurant has become the go-to place for fresh bread, cool beer, and a decent meal. This means a steady income for Siaka, but it also makes the area around the falls more lively and cosy.

I was particularly charmed by the catering service that Marleys - for that is the name of Siaka's restaurant - is offering. It is a steep walk up to the falls and people who want to spend all day up there can now order food and drinks from the restaurant. Siaka will send it up with a smile!

There is no shortage of future plans: more huts, a new and more solid roof for the restaurant, a fence, and more. Fortunately, Siaka's work has attracted the interest of a private investor who is likely to provide the capital needed to take his business to the next level. Siaka's loan is much talked of in Karfiguela, and although few people in the village are computer literate, there may be more loan applications coming up from the region soon.

In the meantime, thanks to this collaboration, Siaka now leads a venture that is sustainable, helpful to the economy of Karfiguela, and supportive of the local culture.


Siaka's Words:

Hello and thanks very much, I am very happy to have the loan. I used the money to buy the tables and chairs, spoons, sign, and the building itself. Now the Karfiguela Waterfall restaurant is open for business. Next month I plan to buy the refrigerator and begin to build bedrooms for the tourist lodge...

I bought the freezer in December and now, there are cold drinks in the waterfalls. These days, I am doing the rooms for the tourists. Each will be housed in a different style hut, and will represent a traditional housing design of one Burkina's ethnic groups: Peul, Daraboro, Lobi. James is helping me create a website. Thanks! Siaka

You may view more comments and photos of Siaka at his Zidisha Microfinance profile page.

From Chapter 20 of Venture: A Collection of True Microfinance Stories by Zidisha Microfinance.

Next time:One man's journey from motorbike taxi driver to shop owner and job creator...

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