On Saturday, February 20, 2021, we presented the first of a series of 50th anniversary awards. The first Founders Circle Awards went to a group of Opportunity International pioneers who helped us innovate our strategies and programs to better serve clients. These awards celebrate the earliest days of initiatives that have come to define Opportunity's work—and we are so excited to go back and remember how these programs began.
In 2004, a young Opportunity International employee wrote a white paper for his boss. He saw HIV/AIDS ravaging communities in Africa, and he postulated that our Trust Groups in Africa would be broken by this crisis. His fear was that in this scenario where neighbors' successes were inextricably linked to each other, Trust Groups wouldn't permit a neighbor into the group if they knew they could become ill and die.
Opportunity clients were already able to access loans and deposit money in savings accounts, but their businesses, and in fact their very lives, were so risky that even the safety net of a savings account wasn't enough. But this creative young employee had a simple-but-revolutionary solution: very small insurance policies that covered the loan balance and, in some cases, the funeral costs should a Trust Group member pass away.
His calculations showed that both Trust Groups and our financial institutions could afford these small insurance policies, and he further demonstrated that stigma and buy-in would not be issues. He called the plan Ntula, or "sharing one another's burdens."
The solution caught on quickly and immediately addressed some of the "chutes and ladders" that affect those living in poverty. Meaning, as clients climb ladders with loans and business training, insurance helps them avoid falling down the chutes caused by illness, natural disasters, and more.
The initial pilots of the program were successful, and in 2008, Opportunity International launched MicroEnsure, the world's first microinsurance agency.
Over the next few years, with support from partners like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, MicroEnsure grew to serve over 4 million people—and the potential for additional growth was enormous.
In 2013, MicroEnsure was ready to function as a standalone organization. It spun off from Opportunity, and with support from partners like the IFC and the Omidyar Network, it began to scale rapidly.
By 2020, when MicroEnsure combined with STP Group and TonkaBI to form The Micro Insurance Company, it had grown to serve over 65 million people.
Today, millions of Opportunity International clients and families living in poverty can protect their earnings and plan for the future. Thanks to small insurance policies, they know that a disaster won't destroy years of hard work. And in a year when so much has gone wrong, this assurance is more important than ever.
For his foresight, creative problem solving, and relentless commitment to providing insurance to those most in need of a safety net, we were pleased to present a Founders Circle Award to Richard Leftley.
Each week for the next 50 weeks, we will share a piece of Opportunity's history—major or minor, sobering or inspiring. We have gotten to where we are today by facing some of the world's greatest challenges, with you by our side. Please join us in celebrating the many significant moments that have built the foundation on which we will embark on our most audacious vision yet: ending extreme poverty.