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Dive deeper into Opportunity’s history

Esperanza Room

In 1971, American businessman Al Whittaker asked a question that would change his life. When he met people living in poverty, he asked, “What do you need?” and the answer was simple: “We need jobs.”

As he continued to ask this question, Al connected with Carlos Moreno (pictured), a spice vendor in Colombia who had big dreams but limited opportunities. Al offered Carlos funding to expand his small business in the form of a small loan. With the loan, Carlos purchased spice dryers and grinders to expand his small factory. Less than two years later, he employed 11 people in his store.

Opportunity International was born. 

For years, Opportunity International offered financial support and resources to people living in poverty around the world—helping them build sustainable livelihoods and support their families. By the early 1990s, we realized that many of the people we most wanted to serve—women, families, and those living in more severe forms of poverty—were not able to access traditional loans without collateral.

In response, we created Trust Groups—groups of clients that meet together to share personal and business advice, receive financial training, vote on loan-related topics, and act as collateral for one another. Groups like the one pictured in Peru build safety nets and create communities based on collective success.

As Al Whittaker extended loans in Latin America, an entrepreneur named David Bussau was building a similar model in Asia. He initiated a loan program in Indonesia following a devastating earthquake in 1974, and in 1979 he joined forces with Whittaker to build a global network of partners.

In 1981, we launched programs in the Philippines to serve clients like Jemmalynn Alcantra (pictured), and in 2006, we began working in India where, at that time, 80% of the population lived in extreme poverty. Over the years, our work in Asia has grown exponentially—growing David Bussau’s first loan to an Indonesian farmer named Ketut into transformation for millions of families across the region.

Following the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, eleven new countries emerged—countries that were navigating independence, new political structures, and significant economic challenges. In August 1992, Opportunity conducted a feasibility study in Bulgaria to explore how to create a microfinance program in Eastern Europe.

By 1993, we launched a program in Bulgaria to serve clients like Nicola, a dentist (pictured). The success of this program led to Opportunity International’s expansion to Russia, Romania, Macedonia, Poland, Croatia, Albania, Montenegro, and Serbia.

Research estimates that 80% of people living in extreme poverty live in rural regions, primarily in sub-Saharan Africa and parts of Asia where low population density and poor infrastructure make it difficult for people to access traditional financial resources.

As Opportunity International began expanding across Africa in the early 2000s, we wanted to give families in rural communities access to critical services, but digital technology was not yet an option. In response, we began a mobile banking program—first with large mobile vans and then with smaller trucks that provided rural areas with secure, accessible banking technology. Families in places like Malawi (pictured) were able to visit the bank each week when it arrived in their community.

Over the next decade, the landscape shifted and mobile access exploded across Africa. Quickly, an innovative and widespread new solution to financial inclusion emerged: cell phone banking. With a series of partners, we became a leader in mobile banking—growing from trucks to cell phones, all to connect rural communities to the financial services they need.

In 2007, Opportunity began exploring a new opportunity born from the demands of our existing clients. Parents needed resources to send their children to school, and school proprietors were interested in business loans, but traditional loans didn’t fit their unique cash flow cycles.

In response, we created Education Finance—a program that partners with financial institutions to help independent local schools provide affordable, quality education, and helps parents access the resources necessary to send their children to school. We invested in clients like Vivian Adama (pictured), who received an initial Opportunity loan of just $54 and subsequent loans of increasing value. With these small investments, she grew her school from six students to 360 young learners of all ages.

Today, the Education Finance footprint has grown massively—a team of 90 staff works with partners in 27 countries, and we’ve collectively benefitted more than 9 million children with quality education.

In the early 2000s, Opportunity Bank of Malawi noticed a challenge facing the communities it was trying to serve. In an entirely rural country, nearly everyone relied on agriculture to survive. But traditional microfinance wasn’t designed with the needs of small-scale farmers in mind. Opportunity’s solution was clear: A unique financial program designed specifically for farmers and rural communities.

Opportunity International’s resulting Agriculture Finance program helps farmers increase their harvests and get their crops to market through custom financial and training solutions. Farmers like Martin Mwambujule in Tanzania (left) work with loan officers like Emmanuel Mapande (center) and Paul Mabuga (right) and specialized Farmer Support Agents to improve their farms and their yields with scalable, sustainable solutions—and as a result, farmers can better feed their families and neighbors. 

For more than 50 years, Opportunity International has been an innovative leader in the fight against poverty—and we continue to do this work today. With support from people like you, we help families build sustainable livelihoods, educate their children, and break the cycle of poverty for good.

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