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THE QUESTION

Your work focuses a lot on helping people in other countries develop their own source of income. But in rich countries like Canada, millions depend on welfare income and still live in poverty. How do we apply those overseas models here?

THE ANSWER

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In December, we travelled in Africa with Sir Richard Branson, the billionaire founder of the Virgin Group and avid philanthropist. We visited microcredit programs that provide small loans to people in poor communities to start businesses and become financially self-sufficient.

During that journey, he pondered aloud whether such a model could apply to the developed world and achieve scale through commercial banking. He told us that in November he bought a bank in England (the first time we've heard someone say those words) with the intention of creating a similar microloan program for British residents, modelled on the successes achieved overseas.

Microcredit is a simple but powerful concept: Lend small amounts to people who wouldn't have the collateral for a regular bank loan to start a self-run business. Because the loans typically go to groups of people who vouch for and support each other, repayment rates are as high as 99 per cent.

The pioneering microcredit institution was the Grameen Bank, based in Bangladesh, and founded by economist and eventual Nobel Peace Laureate Muhammad Yunus in 1976. In 2008, the nonprofit Grameen America was launched in New York to provide microloans to Americans living below the poverty line to start their own small businesses. So far more than $32-million (U.S.) has been lent to 8,400 entrepreneurs, and five new branches have opened in three U.S. cities. Another nonprofit, ACCION USA, has lent more than $100-million to almost 20,000 individual low- and moderate-income entrepreneurs since 1991.

In Canada, the first well-known microloan experiment, Calmeadow Foundation, launched by Ace Bakery entrepreneurs Martin Connell and his wife Linda Haynes, was tried in Nova Scotia, Toronto and Vancouver in the 1990s, but it ceased operating.

A handful of Canada's credit unions, from Alterna to Vancity, have stepped up to further develop the model with various products and tools for micro-entrepreneurs. Many serve new immigrants without a credit history here who can't get a loan from a bank.

Maybe Canada needs something like Kiva.org – an online microcredit organization that allows "lenders" to support a business plan submitted by an overseas family, farmer or entrepreneur. Using this online platform, so far more than 650,000 individuals have lent a quarter-billion dollars to more than 700,000 entrepreneurs in 60 countries.

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Microcredit isn't a cure-all, but its spirit of supporting entrepreneurship could be helpful for tackling some of the challenges of poverty in this country.



Craig and Marc Kielburger co-founded Free the Children. Follow Craig at facebook.com/craigkielburger and @craigkielburger on Twitter. Send questions to livebetter@globeandmail.com.

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