Picking up the "Left Behind"
Online Marketing Specialist Katie Morgan sat down with two team members who recently visited clients in China as part of a research trip. Alex Baum, Senior Program Manager, ensures that we meet our commitments to donors and clients. Abbie Condie, Research and Knowledge Coordinator, manages research on Opportunity’s programs, partners, and initiatives.
Katie: What was the purpose of your recent visit to China?
Alex: We visited the Jiangsu Province, where Opportunity China works, to conduct research about our small and medium enterprise (SME) and agricultural clients. These types of business owners don’t get much attention in China and are often misunderstood.
Katie: Tell me more about the research you were doing.
Alex: We used a variety of research methodologies that focused on the entrepreneur’s past, present, and future, in order to try to gain insights into their strengths and weaknesses, their goals, and their needs. We are now in the process of analyzing this data and putting together a report and improved tools to help Opportunity China better serve these clients.
Abbie: We asked clients to walk us through starting and growing their business, including some specific questions about how they manage their business. Then we worked to understand their strategies for growing their business. This kind of information helps Opportunity China continue to shape and adapt their services to the unique needs of their clients.
Katie: Is Opportunity’s work in China similar to our work in Latin America or Africa?
Alex: In a way it’s similar, because we’re always trying to serve the working poor. But the demographic makeup of our clients, and their circumstances, look different in China. When we think of China, we think of the huge economic gains the country has made over the last four decades, and not the millions of people still living in poverty who have been passed over by these changes. In certain areas of the country, especially rural regions, there are still extremely limited economic opportunities. That’s why hundreds of millions of people have migrated in China from the countryside to large cities in order to earn a living wage. Because of internal Chinese regulations, they’re forced to leave behind their families and children. The millions of women, children, and elderly people who are compelled to remain in rural villages are known as the “left behind,” and many of their stories are truly heartbreaking.
Katie: So how are we serving the “left behind”?
Abbie: One of the main ways business owners are able to help their neighbors is by hiring marginalized people in their community who often struggle to find work—disabled individuals, the elderly, and left behind women.
Alex: That’s right. We focus on these depressed rural areas, trying to spark economic growth and create sustainable jobs so that families can stay together, and the rural poor can improve their livelihoods without leaving behind their communities and their children. And the best way we can do that there is by focusing on small and medium enterprises (SMEs). In other parts of the world, Opportunity often provides loans to entrepreneurs who own small market stalls or smallholder farmers working 1-5 acres of land. This is different than the Chinese economy, which doesn’t have opportunities for these kinds of businesses. Instead, Opportunity China works to create jobs for poor women, the elderly, the handicapped, and other vulnerable groups by helping grow businesses in disadvantaged communities. For example, by helping a garment manufacturer gain that initial capital, their business can grow from hiring two or thee family members, to 10-15 local women, to 40-50 left-behind women from the community who otherwise wouldn’t have a steady income. Opportunity China is highly focused on this service to the poor, often seeking out businesses that are explicitly trying to give back to the community.
Abbie: That’s what I’m really excited by—how we are able to enable business owners who have a heart for their communities and want to use their business for social good. Few other organizations are working in China because they see the incredible economic growth as a country in recent years without realizing that vast inequalities remain.
The millions of women, children, and elderly people who are compelled to remain in rural villages are known as the “left behind,” and many of their stories are truly heartbreaking.
Katie: What was the most inspiring part of your trip?
Abbie: I really enjoyed getting to see a wide range of our clients’ businesses—including one client who makes bags out of recycled plastic! I think the most inspiring client I visited was Ms. Hong, who runs a successful pig farm. She is savvy and is always looking for new technologies that can improve her business. For example, she researched the best way to build piggeries so that they still get natural light and air circulation and found a clever way to make cleaning out the enclosures easier for her workers. She also reduced the environmental impact of her farm by using the wastewater produced by the pig farm to water her peach orchard. She is very proud of everything that she has accomplished in her business as a single woman and is always looking for opportunities to grow and improve!
Alex: I visited a client named Jin Liang, who with his wife ran a wheat farm near the town of Siyang. Part of the research we did was building a “strategy map” with the client, identifying a specific goal that they had, and then working with them to physically map out how they would achieve their goal and why they wanted to reach it. These maps were great because they helped us see our clients’ ambitions, but they also pointed out weaknesses, such as a lack of understanding of the need for management skills that come with a growing business. Mr. Jin had worked hard to build up his farm, but many of the surrounding farms and businesses in his area had recently closed because the Chinese government had begun to buy up and develop land for the tourism industry around the nearby lake. But unlike many of his neighbors, Mr. Jin saw this as an opportunity, and together we developed a strategy map around his dream to redesign his business in order to get into tourism-farming.
He hopes to attract tourists by planting additional crops like fruit trees, opening a restaurant, and building attractions such as pavilions and bridges. He even has plans to stock a nearby pond in order to allow guests to fish. But what was truly inspiring was how well Mr. Jin, who only has a middle school education, had planned out his aspiration. He created by far the most complex strategy map of any client I interviewed, and he showed a very sophisticated understanding of what was necessary, recognizing his own need to learn new skills, gain management training, and even identify a potential financial backer/partner. Mr. Jin’s strategy map was so impressive that the Executive Director of Opportunity China asked for a copy to hang in the branch to serve as a reminder of what clients are capable of.
Katie: What do you want people to know about Opportunity's work in China?
Alex: What is often overlooked is the very real and urgent need of millions of poor people in China. These are people who have fallen through the cracks of China’s economic boom, and in a country of nearly 1.4 billion people, those cracks can be staggeringly large. I’m proud of the work Opportunity China is doing to serve people living in poverty and those who have been “left behind,” and hope that our research can benefit their work and make our impact that much more meaningful.