As I sat in the office of a gleaming new factory in Rikuzentakata, Japan, munching on delicious vegetable tempura, I listened to Ms. Nobuko Tsuda describe her food processing business, which now employs 16 people.
When I first met Ms. Tsuda, two years earlier, we were sitting in a construction shed on the edge of a muddy plot of land and Ms. Tsuda was describing her vision of employing the elderly to work in a food processing company. It was nine months after the March 2011 tsunami ravaged the Tohoku coast of northeastern Japan.
The catastrophe killed more than 15,000 people, triggered a nuclear crisis and devastated the coastal area’s small businesses.
In Tohoku, small businesses were collectively the region’s largest employer, so we knew that rebuilding the area’s small business community was vital to the recovery of the economy and, ultimately, the region.
In September 2011, along with the nonprofit PlaNet Finance Japan and local bank Kesennuma Shinkin, we began a program to support small business recovery in the disaster-affected area by providing start-up grants for new businesses, and re-employment grants and loan interest assistance to pre-existing business owners. The program was designed to quickly and efficiently provide financial support in order to get businesses up and running again.
The revolutionary partnership with Shinkin Bank — the first of its kind in Japan — was key to getting funds where they were needed most. As the leading bank for small businesses in the region, their local presence and prior knowledge of the business community helped us identify the right businesses to support and swiftly disburse the financial services they needed.
Ms. Tsuda, who once spoke to me about her dream for a vacant plot of land, was one of the first recipients of a re-employment grant through our small business recovery program. The re-employment grants offered funds to pay a portion of staff salaries for a year, which created jobs and helped cash-strapped businesses revive their operations.
During my recent trip to check in on the program’s progress, I visited Ms. Tsuda’s new factory. She told me that her business is now fully operational — and expanding production. As I looked around, I knew I was witnessing success.
Ms. Tsuda demonstrated that if we coupled the right resources with the incredible will of Japanese citizens to rebuild, their disaster-affected communities could recover.
As the three-year mark of the tsunami approaches, more than 300 entrepreneurs are back in business because of our support.
And not only have most of them been successful in restarting their businesses, many of the entrepreneurs I spoke with during my trip described their plans for future expansion. They want to expand product lines, hire more staff and market widely through the Internet.
But more so, they have a fierce drive to heal their communities by creating employment opportunities and providing community services, like childcare and services for the elderly. And they want to send the message that the region is on the road to recovery.
While business owners in Tohoku still face challenges such as an aging demographic and marketing to people who are still not settled into permanent housing, it’s clear they have created a solid foundation for rebuilding.
With our help, they are moving forward. Read the program evaluation (PDF) ▸