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Voice of America: Prize-Winning Idea Paying Dividends in Kyrgyzstan

Kyrgyzstan, September 24, 2007

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Peter Fedynsky

Voice of America
September, 2007

Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan - It is said that it takes money to make money. Last year, an economist from Bangladesh won the Nobel Peace Prize for an innovative program called micro-lending that enables poor people to borrow small sums of money in order to lift themselves out of poverty. VOA Moscow Correspondent Peter Fedynsky has this report about entrepreneurs who benefited from micro-loans in Kyrgyzstan.

Busaira Tulekeeva opened her micro-business five years ago selling small garment items such as socks and ties in Bishkek's Alamadinskiy Bazar. Earlier, she was unemployed.

Tulekeeva is one of about 30,000 people in Kyrgyzstan who have received micro-loans from Kompanion, the financial affiliate of Mercy Corps, a private American international development and relief organization. The average Kompanion loan today is $350, a sum that allowed Tulekeeva to realize her modest business plan. "I feel very good because I was able to expand the range and number of products I offer and this is a good result."

Tulekeeva learned of the micro-loan program from other women at the market, as did her neighbor, Aiymkyl Dyikanova , who has been selling household goods here for four years. She too was able to expand her inventory, and to finally save some money. "I bought a DVD player for my family, a cell phone and summer clothes for my children. I also sent my kids on a summer vacation. I think this is a big achievement."

The achievement can be traced to Muhammed Yunus, an economist in Bangladesh. About 30 years ago, he came up with the simple idea of lending small sums of money to help lift poor people out of poverty. For this he won the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize.

Mercy Corps officials in Kyrgyzstan say their mission is to help build civil society and to expand Kyrgyz economic development. The organization's financial affiliate, Kompanion, employs more than 400 people in 49 offices to distribute micro-loans throughout the country.

Catherine Brown is Mercy Corps' director in Kyrgyzstan. She says Kompanion enjoys a 99 per cent repayment rate, despite the fact that the loans are given without collateral to people once thought to be poor credit risks."It has been proven that that theory [poor credit risks] is wrong. That poor people can handle credit -- appropriate credit -- as well as other people in other sectors and segments of the population."

Kosmosbek Cholponbayev is director of the Galenpharm pharmaceutical company. He is considered one of Mercy Corps' best success stories. He has a degree in pharmacy and now produces medications in a small factory on outskirts of Bishkek. Cholponbayev received an initial business loan of $7,000 from Mercy Corps in 1997. While that sum is on the high end of the micro-loan scale, Cholponbayev says Mercy Corps -- unlike commercial banks that turned him down -- was more interested in people than in loan profits.

He did not disappoint. Cholponbayev now has 50 full-time employees, a $500,000 annual turnover, and growth rate of 10 to 15 percent. He notes that micro-loans develop more than just the local economy.

"We've developed a sense of responsibility. You take money, you need to repay it. A strict budget must be set and observed. The entrepreneur learns a sense of responsibility. Every month, I need to pay off the loan. The economy works within certain limits. As much as you would like to, you can't throw money around."

Mercy Corps director Catherine Brown says the Kyrgyz people buy more goods from micro-businesses than they do from large retailers. This, she says, makes the micro-entrepreneur the backbone of Kyrgyzstan's economy.