50 for 50: Origin Stories - Asia
Opportunity International finds its origins in two corners of the world. While Al Whittaker began making loans in Latin America, Opportunity’s co-founder David Bussau initiated a loan program in Indonesia following a devastating earthquake.
In 1974, a farmer named Ketut received Opportunity International’s first loan in Asia. With $50 from Bussau, Ketut and his wife began a tailoring business after purchasing a sewing machine. The microfinance program proved as effective as it was replicable—in 2020 alone, Opportunity assisted more than 6 million families across Asia with small loans.
Since those first microfinance programs began in Indonesia, Opportunity quickly began expanding services across Asia—including initiatives in Indonesia, Myanmar, Pakistan, Nepal, Philippines, and India.
For example, in 1981, we launched programs in the Philippines—and today, we provide loans in every major area of the country. In 2005, Opportunity passed the major milestone of financing over 500,000 microbusinesses in the Philippines, the majority of which were operated by women.
One of these inspiring women is Anna Serrano, who shared her story with us:
Then, in 2006, Opportunity began working in India—a country in which we have seen exponential growth over the last 15 years. When we first began working in India, 80% of the population there lived in extreme poverty—the vast majority of India’s population survived on less than $1.90 each day.
Thanks to Opportunity’s comprehensive services in the region, clients like Saleha and her husband Mujib experienced the transformative power of financial access. As residents of India’s least developed state, Bihar, they struggled to make ends meet, but they were determined to establish a new life for themselves and their children.
After connecting with Opportunity India and receiving their initial loan, Saleha and Mujib began to build their construction business and nearly tripled their daily income from $2.30 to over $6.00. With the extra money, they purchased more nutritious food and cleaner, safer drinking water. Their new economic reality also afforded their children the opportunity to receive a quality education. Best of all, their success has impacted not only their family, but also their local community. They currently have seven employees who now have the ability to support their own families and build their own futures.
With a new sense of confidence, Saleha also took on the role of a community health facilitator. She works in partnership with a nearby medical clinic, assessing patients in her neighborhood and referring them to hospitals for free treatment. She also informs her neighbors about basic healthcare issues, such as illness prevention and nutrition. In her first year as a leader, Saleha successfully helped improve the household sanitation conditions of 15 families. She also established four health savings groups, encouraging over 80 families to collectively contribute to health funds in case of emergencies.
By 2018, the number of people living in extreme poverty in India had decreased dramatically. While 176 million people still struggled to cover their basic needs, there had been tremendous progress for millions of families like Saleha’s.
Then, in 2020, India faced a catastrophic year punctuated by an enormous spike in COVID-19 cases. Instances of poverty doubled. And for a time in Spring 2021, the country had half of the world’s positive coronavirus cases (New York Times). It was a devastating blow to the positive progress that had been happening for decades.
With one of the largest populations in the world—and one of the largest concentrations of those living in extreme poverty—India faces both enormous challenges and significant opportunities for advancement and development. Opportunity’s continued emphasis on community-led health and financial services will prove instrumental as we continue to serve families in India—and across Asia.
Since that first loan to Ketut 50 years ago to Ana’s tireless efforts in the Philippines to community leaders like Saleha in India, Opportunity has been dedicated to fighting poverty in Asia for five decades. We are grateful for the countless partners, donors, and staff who make this important work possible—and we know that together, we can continue to empower and equip families together.