10/17/2012 11:30 am ET Updated Dec 17, 2012

Madame Ndeye Bineta Sarr, The Fashion Creator, 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 seventy-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 1: The Fashion Creator

Madame Ndeye Bineta Sarr met me at the edge of the paved road, and even though it was the first time we met she greeted me as affectionately as an old friend. As we wound our way through the dusty dirt paths of her neighborhood in Dakar, Senegal, she introduced me to various local households who had benefited indirectly from her business: a cloth dealer in the nearby market, a little boutique stacked high with reels of yarn in every imaginable color and a small sewing shop to which she sometimes outsources less specialized aspects of clothing manufacture.

West Africa is famous for its vibrant traditional clothing, and many women in Dakar make a living from sewing traditional dresses. Yet in this competitive market, Ndeye has carved out a niche for herself thanks to sheer artistic genius. Her creations never fail to turn heads: multicolored skirts sparkling with embroidered stars, hand-knitted lace, and overlapping layers of transparent gauze, imposing folded headdresses with brightly dyed cloth tied in the shape of flowers, necklines in every imaginable geographic shape. Clients fortunate enough to own one of her outfits guard it for special occasions, and when they put it on appear to float above the rest of us in this world, suddenly immune to the billowing clouds of red dust and car exhaust that choke the air. If she had been born in another time and place, Ndeye could have easily handled the royal wardrobe of the court of Versailles.

Ndeye's house is constructed in the typical Dakar style: three brightly painted bedrooms alongside a small open courtyard, a separate shed for a kitchen and another for the restroom, corrugated metal roof, and a little faucet in the courtyard which provides the household's only running water. The whole place was irreproachably clean and Ndeye's artistic touch could be seen in the potted flowers and colored tiles decorating the courtyard.

When she first joined Zidisha, Ndeye was living with about 30 extended family members in this tin-roofed home, which they built themselves little by little as money could be spared for building materials. They only had three mattresses for beds. Ndeye and her husband, who was unemployed except for odd jobs he picked up here and there, struggled to pay school fees for their three children. Despite their dire living conditions, Ndeye was determined that her children would grow up educated, and she began sewing dresses to earn extra cash for their school fees.

Word of Ndeye's design talent began to spread, and her gorgeous dresses were soon in high demand. Since most of her customers paid on credit in small installments, she used to wait for days to accumulate enough money to buy fabric for a new dress, which she would produce with the help of an ancient pedal-driven sewing machine. On a good week, she would sell one or two outfits in this way. Ndeye once tried taking a small loan from a local bank to boost her working capital, but the high interest and fees on the loan took so much of her profits that the benefit was negligible.

When Internet access became widespread in Senegal, Ndeye took advantage of classes offered by a local nonprofit to learn basic computer skills. The organization put her in touch with Zidisha, and she decided to give it a try. Twelve lenders from around the world read the story she posted on her Zidisha profile page and chipped in small amounts to fund her first loan of $830. She used the capital to buy an electric sewing machine, rent a boutique workshop, hire an employee and establish a working capital fund for cloth and other materials. Thanks to these investments, Ndeye is able to fulfill up to a dozen client orders at a time, increasing her income dramatically such that she is now the main breadwinner for her household. Today Ndeye's earnings cover the cost of education up to the university level for Madame Sarr's children, nieces and nephews.

Despite this substantial step up in living conditions and opportunities, microfinance has not been a panacea for Ndeye's family. Her oldest son will soon complete a bachelor's degree in Geography at the local university. When asked about his ambitions after graduation, he responds that he aims to emigrate to Europe, where he will be able to earn money to send home to his family. He doesn't wish to leave his home country, he explains, but there are simply no employment opportunities in Senegal for young adults, educated or otherwise.

Ndeye herself suffered a setback earlier this year when the building housing her workshop was demolished to make way for new construction in Dakar's rapidly growing suburbs. She adapted by lending the sewing machine to her employee who uses it to assemble outfits that are cut and embroidered by hand by Ndeye in her home.

Ndeye intends to open a new workshop soon. She certainly has no shortage of clients. When asked how she advertises, she laughs and says she simply dresses herself and her children in her creations and waits for people to inquire where in Dakar they can go to buy such extraordinary outfits.

Ndeye's Words:

"I am very satisfied with the loan from Zidisha. Since I received my loan, I have become more independent and more productive. As you can see from the photos I am posting here, I am able to work full-time and provide for my household without asking anyone else for help. I believe now that everyone has the possibility to find work, if they know what to do and where to seek the resources they need. I believe that there are people who genuinely want to help poor people in the world, and that we all have the opportunity to advance ourselves and make a success of our life...

Your fundings helped me so much to support my family. I am blooming thanks to you. I can support my children: the older one is going to the university, the second one is at high school and the little girl is at primary school. That is my family today, and you have helped me so much." (translated from the original French)

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

From Chapter 1 of Venture: A Collection of True Microfinance Stories by Zidisha Microfinance.

Next time: How a retired lady in the highlands of Kenya's rift valley used a dairy cow to pay for her granddaughter's education...