Dateline Timbuktu: Giving the poor a chance

TUP is a remarkable non-profit organization operating to help start businesses in the most underdeveloped areas of the developing world from Southeast Asia to Latin America to Africa. It’s hard work, and in its essence, is doing what we as venture capitalists do. The only difference is that TUP operates way below the poverty level to help people literally get off the ground and have a chance for a new beginning by starting a business. Most of us will never get a chance to see or do the work of TUP, but what we can do is give it our financial support to continue its mission to serve the poorest of the poor. If you are interested in helping out, contact TUP through its website at www.trickleup.org or send a check to the Trickle Up Program at 104 West 27th Street, 12th Floor, New York, NY 10001. Just say you’re a venture capitalist with a heart who wants to support VC activity in its most basic form.

I just returned from Ouagadougou, Mopti and Timbuktu, the latter a place you’ve probably heard of but couldn’t find on the map. Yes, Timbuktu—or Tombouctou as it is called by its inhabitants—really does exist and it is not in Nepal or the Himalayas, as many people respond on first reaction, but in the northern desert of Mali in south western Africa, on the edge of the Niger River. It is a city of 36,000, with one small paved street and the rest being streets of sand. The temperature when I left was 125 degrees, and the sand was blowing.

I recount this setting because in spite of this very difficult environment, life does go on in a form of extreme poverty—poverty that is even below the world definition of poverty of $1 per day in income. In some cases, in the villages around Timbuktu, I saw families of six or eight living on 50 cents a day, which actually keeps them alive, but with a very low life expectancy and certainly not many amenities.

In spite of this environment—and in many respects it gets worse as the rainy season arrives and floods what passes for roads, making them impassable—life goes on! My visit was part of a pro bono project with the International Finance Corp. to visit several training projects to foster economic development models of finance, and to review the Trickle Up Program (TUP) in particular. In the course of this visit, I met Judith Ariviere, a foot soldier in the war on poverty who moved to Timbuktu three years ago on behalf of TUP to see if she could make a difference.

Judith is not the kind of person you would expect to meet here, even among the earnest volunteers who come from around the world to work in one of the many NGOs (non-governmental organizations) that are trying to do something to ameliorate the problem of pervasive poverty in Africa. She is a bundle of a woman with bright orange hair and a full complement of lipstick, nail polish and eye shadow. She wears colorful cotton dresses and pantsuits that you might expect to find in a place like Miami or Las Vegas. She was actually raised just outside Montreal and has a strong French accent. She laughs a lot.

Answering the call

Through grants (not loans) of $100 each, Trickle Up has started over 7,000 businesses in Mali in the past three years (mostly run by women).”

Alan Patricof, Co-founder, Apax Partners

Fourteen years ago, Judith moved to New York from Canada to open a boutique on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, where she designed and sold dresses. But New York was too much hubbub and violence (it was the year of a vicious attack on a woman jogger in Central Park), so she returned to Montreal. There she read a newspaper ad seeking people to help poor women start their own small business in Tunisia.

She soon left for what she thought would be a year or two. Two years stretched into 10, and Tunisia was replaced by Morocco. She enjoyed helping poor women start small businesses that would help lift them out of extreme poverty—to earn $2 or more a day instead of $1 or less. Three years ago she answered an online ad for someone to start a similar program in Mali, which the UN ranks as the fourth poorest country on a list of 177 nations. Like most of us, she had never been to Mali before.

She joined Trickle Up, which through grants (not loans) of $100 each, has started over 7,000 businesses in Mali in the past three years (mostly run by women). It is their first chance at a slice of capital to start a business. So far, 95% are making a success of their efforts. They have formed associations and started savings accounts, while at the same time achieving some semblance of dignity and pride and hope for the future. Nothing fazes Judith as she goes through her days on her own, visiting small tribes in local villages in remote outposts. Often, she has no water or electricity and, at times, has to contend with broken vehicles, washed-out roads, lack of tools and electrical items and makeshift living conditions on her own. A day or two with Judith illustrated very well how a little capital and a little technical assistance can change lives and bring smiles and robust complexions to even the most disadvantaged people on earth.

The businesses that Judith helps to start are very basic: dried fish sales, briquette distribution, furniture assembling, and animal trading. Without these small funds, however, these women would never in a lifetime be able to accumulate the $100 that TUP gives them to begin an enterprise. To make it clear, this is even below micro-finance! In addition to the money, the TUP grant builds self-confidence and dignity and improves health, increases schooling and, of course, improves basic living conditions which to you and I would still seem a long way below basic.

The buck starts here

And once a week you will find them at meetings of their kondeye, a group of 25 women who pool savings of $1 a week in a wooden box with three locks. The pooled capital is used as a source of funds if they need to expand their business, pay for medical care for a sick child or pay for one of their children to get married (or, sometimes, buried). When you meet them, you will meet women who are more outspoken and confident than other women in the village, better groomed and more optimistic about their future and their children’s future.

We cannot continue to ignore extreme poverty, as sooner or later we will face it closer than we all would like.”

Alan Patricof, Co-founder, Apax Partners

If you follow Judith to one of the kondeye meetings, or one of the training sessions that Trickle Up’s local partners conduct, you will see a world class motivational speaker. “Trickle Up!” she shouts to her audience, and they respond by pumping their index fingers above their heads and chanting, “Up, up…” (They know what “up” means, but “trickle” doesn’t translate easily and none of them have ever heard of “trickle down economics.”) Indeed, most would look at you blankly if you asked them what happened on 9/11 in New York.

“Who will be my first millionaire?” Judith shouts. It’s not a crazy challenge. A million West African francs is equivalent to about $2,000 U.S. dollars. She hasn’t minted a Malian millionaire yet, but it’s a certainty that within a few more years, she will. As the meeting ends, she greets friends and hugs a baby that someone has named after her. If she has brought along her bosses from New York or an important foundation official, the entire village will greet them with drumming and dancing (she joins in exuberantly) and gifts of dried fish.

People like Judith are out there in every corner of the globe from India to Laos to Mali and, in particular, across Africa. Hot sand, dirty water and floods are all just part of the daily challenge. Their role is to give a little financial help and training and a little hope that things can get better. This is a level even below micro-credit that can only be served by human compassion, assistance and grants (not loans). We cannot continue to ignore extreme poverty, as sooner or later we will face it closer than we all would like. We must all do more than give lip service to making it better and we must honor, elevate and support the Judiths of the world in this fight.

Alan Patricof is co-founder of Apax Partners (formerly Patricof & Co. Ventures Inc.), a private equity firm with operations in eight countries and over $12 billion under management. Over the past 30 years, Patricof has participated in the financing and development of a large number of both public and private companies, many of which he still serves on as a director. These companies include private companies Johnny Rockets, Upoc Inc. and Zinio Systems Inc. and public companies ATX Communications Inc., Audible Inc. and Boston Properties. Patricof may be reached at alan.patricof@apax.com