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50 for 50: Founders Circle Award Winners Ken Vander Weele and Larry Reed

By Opportunity International

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 1998, then-Opportunity Network CEO Larry Reed issued a Change or Die declaration to Opportunity leadership. The organization needed to address two key challenges in order to stay relevant to client needs and impactful to the size of the problem.

First, clients needed to save as well as borrow. Increased incomes were at risk if families did not have a place to keep their earnings safe, but traditional banks weren't equipped to open accounts with extremely small balances.

Second, we needed commercial funding and leverage in order to make a meaningful dent in the enormous poverty problem. We dreamed of impact at scale, but that would require creative financial structures to help every dollar go farther and serve more families.

These two truths sparked a conversation about banking—not just microlending, but a full suite of financial services for those living in poverty.

Larry's colleague Ken Vander Weele began developing and testing various lending structures in Eastern Europe, while Larry began building "transformation banks"—first in the Philippines and then in Malawi.

Before long, these two entrepreneurial thinkers had developed models for full-fledged banks designed to serve those at the bottom of the economic pyramid. One of best examples of this model in action was Opportunity International Bank of Malawi, which opened its doors in May 2003.

Within six months of opening, OIBM had over 15,000 savings accounts with deposits of over $2 million. The bank used biometric technology and fingerprints as identification since so many of its target customers could not read or write. The bank was popular immediately—and over 1,000 customers came to deposit money or complete transactions each day.

Elias Ngalande, Governor of the Central Bank in Malawi in 2003, commented upon the opening of OIBM, saying, "The way to do it is the way that the Opportunity International Bank of Malawi is doing it. Bring the bank to the people."

By 2004, thanks to Ken and Larry's tireless efforts, Opportunity was doing exactly that. The team had proven success with their pilots and began establishing the first network of microfinance banks in Africa. And by 2006, Opportunity International owned and operated five formal financial institutions in sub-Saharan Africa, ending the year with 88,000 deposit accounts. This was only the beginning.

Ken and Larry's incredible vision, and the bold steps of so many Opportunity International leaders, supporters, and experts, paved the way for a new era in banking for developing economies around the world.

In 2007, Opportunity launched a Banking on Africa campaign to catalyze and scale full-service financial institutions for those living in poverty—something that had only been a dream a few short years earlier. That campaign unlocked over $125 million in capital for new and growing banks and sparked exceptional results.

By the end of 2014, the total loan portfolio had grown by 285% in USD (and 856% in local currencies!). The number of savings accounts had increased by a whopping 2,355%.

These banks also provided a starting point for more of Opportunity's flagship programs, including Agriculture Finance, Education Finance, MicroEnsure, and many of our digital financial services.

Opportunity was a leader in the sector and paved the way for so many peer organizations. By 2015, microfinance institutions in every country in Africa were offering one or more services that were pioneered by Opportunity since the early 2000s. What had been revolutionary just over a decade earlier had become standard practice, a shift that allowed Opportunity the freedom to do what it has always done best—innovate new solutions to better serve those living in poverty.

For their belief in full-service banking to the poor—and their exceptional efforts to bring that vision to reality—we were pleased to present Founder's Circle Awards to Ken Vander Weele and Larry Reed.

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