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50 for 50: Back to the Beginning - David Bussau

By Alexis Beggs Olsen

This essay is a selection from the special edition of UnPoverty by Mark Lutz. The new edition has been released in celebration of Opportunity International’s 50th Anniversary, featuring new chapters from leaders throughout Opportunity’s history. To receive a copy, simply make a donation of any size to Opportunity and we’ll send it to you.


David Bussau always knew that having “enough” was about more than financial success.  

Throughout his life, David would grow in his understanding of what “enough” meant—both for himself and for others. The journey took the Bussau family to the small Indonesian village of Blimbingsari on the island of Bali and, after that, all over the world.

David grew up in Sedgley Boys’ Home, an Anglican orphanage in New Zealand. The boys at Sedgley went without the amenities and experiences that constituted “enough” for others, so he knew what it meant to be marginalized and to experience poverty. 

David dramatically escaped these origins. While living at the boys’ home, he sought out odd jobs including mowing lawns and milking cows. He also found summer work in a fertilizer factory and as a laborer on a wharf and on a farm. His first taste of entrepreneurial success came with the rental of a hot dog stand at a nearby showground. Within months, David was running three hot dog stands manned by fellow orphans. David left high school early. He needed a faster pace than he could find in the classroom. He invested in a hamburger stand, which he ran for a year and then sold for a healthy profit. He invested the money in a fish and chips stand, which he similarly upgraded and sold for a margin. He then bought a bakery—which he sold three years later for six times the price. 

The entrepreneurial spirit David fostered as a young man only increased in strength. He kept up his pattern, learning a new business and then increasing its value by upgrading its equipment and improving its reputation. In each case, David would lose interest once it was running smoothly and profitably, prompting him to sell it and move on to the next business. 

After the bakery sold, David purchased a pancake and pikelet company and worked to automate production. His innovations made the products available for sale under the largest baking brands in New Zealand. He developed a distribution network with supermarkets across the country as well as international export. After two years, David had divided the original company into three separate companies—one held the worldwide patent to the new automation, one produced the pancakes and the third focused on distribution. Each of the three companies were sold to different buyers at a significant profit. 

David was on his way to fulfilling a prediction he had made to the other boys at Sedgley: “I’m going to be a millionaire and self-supporting by the time I’m 40.”  

At this time, David had recently married, and his wife, Carol, was struggling with health issues. The couple relocated to Sydney in support of her health. David once again entered a brand-new business: construction. Within a few years, when David was 33, his business employed around 100 people and catered to the architects who worked for Sydney’s elite. 

David started experiencing discontent with the typical process of business expansion. He later described it as the “economics of enough.” His businesses met needs—for his family, his customers and his employees—but David started wondering if this was really enough. His future ventures would require just as much entrepreneurial spirit, but his focus shifted toward helping others in distress. 

When David was 34, Cyclone Tracy hit Darwin, flattening the city, killing 71 people and causing 25,000 to be homeless. David brought a crew of 20 volunteers to help rebuild. After he returned to Sydney, he set up his businesses to run without him. David, Carol, and their daughters, Natasha and Rachel, moved to Darwin, where David supervised construction crews and Carol ran a guest house. Soon David was also traveling around the country to raise support for the rebuilding effort. 

As David threw himself into the relief efforts, his understanding of “enough” shifted. His innovations focused on provisions for others in need. He discovered that his entrepreneurial gifts could be used outside the business world, and he began selling off his businesses to set himself up to be self-supporting. As the rebuilding in Darwin wound down, the pastor of the church the Bussau family attended there reached out to him about a new need: an earthquake in Indonesia had destroyed the church in Blimbingsari. David and his family moved there in 1976 to help rebuild the church. 

 

David and his family stepped into a completely new lifestyle. The thatched homes in Blimbingsari often only held one piece of furniture—a simple chair made of bamboo. And yet David identified with his new neighbors and friends on several levels. Due to his upbringing in the orphanage, he was well acquainted with simple surroundings. And, like David, the villagers were more than willing to work hard to implement creative and innovative solutions. 

When he arrived in Blimbingsari, David was given the task of “building a church that would last 1,000 years.” The village was home to about 1,000 people, all Christians, who had been expelled from other parts of Bali because of their faith. The town was a 10-kilometer walk from the nearest road and had no water, telephones or electricity. To attempt a lasting church building for the community, David needed to build from reinforced concrete. Since concrete requires a lot of water, the first task was to bring water to the village. Blimbingsari’s water problems went deeper than the difficulties of creating large amounts of concrete—without irrigation, there was only one harvest a year. Providing more water would tackle several of the village’s problems at the same time. 

David needed to dam a river and install a pipeline that passed by two Hindu villages. “We provided water to them first,” David recalled. “It was a valuable lesson in building relationships with people you don’t align with. We had to connect with all the players and have sensitivity for their needs.” When the water reached all three villages, it allowed for multiple rice crops each year, dramatically improving the people’s wellbeing. 

The Bussau family learned to speak Indonesian, and a man from the village named Ketut Suwirya, who had English skills from his studies, translated for David. Ketut was a rice farmer and father of four children. As a tenant farmer, Ketut would turn over the majority (60 percent) of the crop he harvested to the landowner. To survive the fallow season that existed before the irrigation work, tenant farmers would borrow money from the landowner, who took a greater percentage of the crop to pay off the mounting debt. Debt was passed from one generation to the next. When a child was born into a tenant farming family, that child was already in debt to the landowner. Tenant farmers often had to mortgage their own children, who were made to work for the landowner. 

Ketut had mortgaged his own 10-year-old son, but even that sacrifice wasn’t enough to break the cycle of mounting indebtedness. 

When David understood people were mortgaging their children to cope with debt, he was shocked. Through the church, he made a grant to redeem Ketut’s oldest son and then also extended a loan to Ketut to help him generate an income outside of the rice fields. Ketut used it to buy an old sewing machine for his wife. She began selling clothes in Blimbingsari and surrounding villages. Soon they were able to buy a second sewing machine and hired another worker. David’s original loan to Ketut went a long way toward breaking the cycle of debt to the landowner for two families. 

As soon as it became clear that the loan was benefiting Ketut, David began extending loans to other people living in Blimbingsari and, through the support of church leadership structures, elsewhere in Bali. While much of the historical Christian humanitarian work in Bali that David observed had created a sense of dependency, local church leaders had developed a revolving animal scheme that protected the dignity of those helped by having them pay something back. David knew that for the loan program to be sustainable, people would need to pay interest to pay someone to manage it. “I wasn’t an expert at making loans,” David recalled. “I was a builder.” 

Once David finished building the Blimbingsari church structure, leaders of the church in Bali asked him to help build a hotel and conference center that could be used to train people to work in the growing tourism industry, as well as to continue building the loan program. David had found his niche—using his business acumen to help the church develop alternate revenue streams to help people and break dependency on the West. Money wasn’t enough for a person in need, either—David realized that people needed a thriving system that went beyond economics and protected their individual dignity. 

Reflecting on a lifetime of work in microfinancing loans, David said, “The genius of God was that, unbeknownst to us in building a microfinance network, we were building a platform to be able to do more holistic ministries. There is an agenda that is going on that we were not aware of, that is more strategic than our little plans.” David continued, “After making tens of thousands of loans, you realize that economics is only part of the process. Economic development, without focusing on other areas like health and education, is meaningless. It’s just a transactional relationship that you have. Microfinance Institutions need to be concerned with other aspects of the clients’ lives and their health.” 

While in Indonesia, David met Hillary de Alwis. Al Whittaker had hired Hillary to serve as the Indonesia representative for IIDI. David began to support Hillary’s projects, and he soon got to know others in IIDI, including Al, who was serving as the executive director. It was the first time David had heard of another organization that was extending loans to people living in poverty. 

The resulting partnership between Al and David was a true catalyst in the history of Opportunity. David returned to Sydney in 1981, at age 39, finished the process of selling off or winding down his remaining businesses (which were construction industry suppliers), and set up Maranatha Trust to enable his family’s continued work in and support of development. Maranatha Trust and IIDI worked together to establish organizations in what was then known as the budding field of microenterprise development. 

In 1986, David divided his foundation into two—Maranatha Foundation would fuse with IIDI to become Opportunity International. And Maranatha Trust would continue separately as David’s family foundation to support a range of programs at the intersection of development and Christian theology. David developed a network of global thought leaders who deeply intertwined with the development of the microfinance work. As co-founder of Opportunity International and a recognized leader in developing local boards, David was soon traveling in Africa and Eastern Europe, in addition to continuing closer work with Asia. He also began setting up additional support-raising entities for Opportunity in Australia, the UK, Canada, France and Germany. He frequently traveled for eight weeks at a time, while Carol took care of the girls and served in pastoral care at their local church. After 14 years, David stepped away from Opportunity and turned a new chapter in his life. He provided training and encouragement for more than 100 organizations at annual Christian microeconomic development conferences in Thailand, and he built the Wholistic Transformation Resource Center in the Philippines. 

Ketut, David’s first loan client, still owns the old Chinese-made sewing machine he bought with his first loan. Ketut has owned businesses including a hostel and motorcycle rental business and now owns a furniture business. His 20 employees import truckloads of raw furniture from Java that they sand, stain, polish and export around the world. Over the years, David has given away numerous other sewing machines to his employees to help them start their own businesses. 

Now in his 80s, David is both active (regularly traveling internationally before limitations due to the COVID-19 pandemic) and philosophical. He’s discovered that the key to “enough”—for himself and for others—is the willingness to let God work. As David has said, “One has to let life unfold and be positioned to respond to the Holy Spirit as it moves, rather than I plan and strategize and orchestrate. Let it unfold.” 

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