“I’ve learnt to accept the impossible from God.”

Stories about families who have been able to buy their children out of bondage thanks to a job created by a growing enterprise or who have been able to hold a wedding ceremony they’ve never been able to afford thanks to a small loan. Or like that of a Ghanian man, who borrowed money to start a poultry farm and who, now the largest poultry producer in the nation with a staff of 4,000 people, recently stood for the position of the nation’s president.

David Bussau2

 

CHANGING THE WORLD, ONE SMALL BUSINESS AT A TIME: David Bussau in the Philippines. 

 

"(I)f you want to economically empower (the poor), they simply need a job.”

- David Bussau

“(I)t doesn’t surprise me when these outcomes happen,” the 67-year-old says. "I get joy out of seeing it happen but I’m not really surprised by it...You can look at the spectacular and you can look at the normal and they’re both significant from God’s perspective.”

Recently named Senior Australian of the Year for 2008, Mr Bussau has been an instrumental figure in the development of the concept of micro-enterprise development internationally. 

He joined with the late Al Whittaker in 1979 to form Opportunity International. It’s one of 15 organisations and programs - focused on issues ranging from theological education through to leadership training - he's helped establish via the Maranatha Trust, a family foundation he set up after selling off his multi-million dollar construction business in the Seventies.

Opportunity International, meanwhile, now works in 27 countries around the world and currently serves more than a million people through micro-enterprise development. 

Mr Bussau has retired from the organisation - although he retains an honorary board position with Opportunity International Australia - and these days provides consultancy services to governments, multinational companies and other organisations. He describes the work of Opportunity International as being about “transforming communities”, not just about funding businesses. 

“It just so happens that we feel the most strategic way to transform a community is to empower people economically as the starting point,” he says. 

“Because we’ve found that if people are economically disempowered, then they’re unable to make choices in life. It’s the same for us in Australia - if our income levels are pretty low then we don’t have the same range of choices that others with a larger income would have. It’s no different. 

“So our strategy is (looking at) - how do you economically empower people? Then they can make a choice about what sort of medicine they buy, what sort of nutrition they take and what standard of housing?...For poor people, if you want to economically empower them, they simply need a job.”

Nothing his preference for the term micro-enterprise development rather than micro-finance - “we’re always concerned about the whole person and not just economic life”. Mr Bussau says it’s the entrepreneurs who create the jobs in a community - a factor which has lead Opportunity to focus on the poorer entrepreneurs in community who have been operating a small business but have no collateral to enable expansion.

They are encouraged to submit a business plan - which details how the business will create new jobs - and, if accepted, will lead Opportunity International to loan them a small amount of money to get things started. Once an initial small loan is paid back, Opportunity may look at financing a second, larger loan.

“Eventually we like to be able to take people to the bank and to guarantee them at the bank...” Mr Bussau says.

About 98 per cent of the money and interest loaned by Opportunity is repaid and Mr Bussau says that such a high repayment rate is possible because of the model the organisation uses. Under it, entrepreneurs are formed into clusters of about 20 people who, as well as supporting each other in fellowship, cross-guarantee each other.

Opportunity also provides entrepreneurs with a range of other services including housing loans, access to medical credit, business development strategies covering areas such as product diversification and marketing.

Asked about what motivates him to help others, Mr Bussau says that given his own success as an entrepreneur, he believes he has an obligation to give back to society.

“My favorite expression is that I’ve been blessed and God expects a return on His investment and that return is supposed to be 100 fold. So I really have a responsibility to bless other people with the resources and the gifts and talents that I have.”

“My favorite expression is that I’ve been blessed and God expects a return on His investment and that return is supposed to be 100 fold. So I really have a responsibility to bless other people with the resources and the gifts and talents that I have.”

While his Christian faith plays a pivotal role in that, Mr Bussau says he doesn’t approach things from a theological perspective.

“I simply call myself a redemptionist,” he says “I really believe that all my screw-ups are redeemed. There’s no black marks where I’m going, the slate’s been wiped clean. And that gives you a freedom - if you really believe that - to step out into some uncharted waters and get involved in some pretty high risk enterprises and programs. It’s also liberating because you’re not confined by what society says you can do and can’t do or you should do and you shouldn’t do. I’m a firm believer that you miss 100 per cent of the shots you don’t take.”

Raised in Anglican orphanages in New Zealand with no recollection of his parents, Mr Bussau, who is married to Carol and has two daughters and five grandchildren, says he always had a sense of “God the Father”.

“I didn’t have an earthly father but I always had this feeling that God had me on the planet for a purpose and that purpose would be fulfilled in His time but that in the meantime He was the sustainer and the provider and He typically proved that He was.”

He says he has come to know got, not in “one blinding flash” but in a continuing process of revelation.

“And I grow stronger in my faith as I travel the journey,” he says. “If I’m honest I’ve probably got to say that there’s been multiple experiences in my life which have been correctives and have made my faith a lot more solid.”

One of the most well known incidents which helped shape where Mr Bussau is now - recounted in Philippa Tyndale’s 2004 biography of Mr Bussau, Don’t Look Back - took place in 1974 when, then working in his construction business, he took a call at home one night from Kerry Packer who demanded he fix a latch on a new cabinet he had made for the media baron which wasn’t working. He did so, but it was an event that lead him to think deeply about his life and what he was doing and one of a number of incidents which ultimately led him to co-found Opportunity.

Asked what he finds most challenging about his work these days, Mr Bussau says he convinced that God has equipped him and wants him to work in “the hard places”.

“Places where there’s resistance to the Gospel. So I now find myself designing strategies and programs for China and Vietnam and North Korea and other (places) on the horizon: Namibia and Iran and Iraq...Places where most organisations don’t want to go; where it’s very hard to get into. I enjoy the challenge of making something happen rather than the results of what happened.”

Recent years have also seen Mr Bussau challenging Australian business to support micro-economic development in a greater way. In 2004, he and World Vision Australia chief held a news conference in which they did just that - saying that micro-economic development was the world’s best hope of defeating poverty.

Mr Bussau describes the response since then as spectacular and says that revenues at Opportunity International have increased substantially over the last couple of years - mostly thanks to the corporate arena. More than that, he believe that there has been a shift in the culture of corporations concerning supporting work such as that being do by organisations like Opportunity International.

“Increasingly I’m realising that there’s a power in the marketplace that we’ve haven’t tapped a power for good...I’m just seeing so much willingness from the corporate community to engage now in programs.”

“I’m of the opinion that it’s genuine from their perspective - there are a lot of people that are sceptical about it. I think most responsible modern corporations now realise it’s just good business and they also realise the benefits out of being socially responsible. I’m finding that there’s a shift now from corporate philanthropy to social responsibility and there’s a big difference in that social responsibility means you take responsibility for the problems you cause through your products. 

“Maybe a decade or so ago you solved that by chasing writing out a cheque for $100,000 to a kindergarten or a hospital or something, whereas now what I’m encouraging people to do is to say ‘No, let’s look at the environment and the impact that you have on the environment and design a program that’s going to address that problem’.”

He says that while business - both large and small - has in the past often been seen as the “exploiter” and the “oppressor”, such stereotypes were no longer accurate.

“Increasingly I’m realising that there’s a power in the marketplace that we’ve haven’t tapped a power for good...I’m just seeing so much willingness from the corporate community to engage now in programs.”

As for being named Senior Australian of the Year? Mr Bussau describes the award as a “tremendous honor” and says it provides him an additional platform to share with people his views on life “and where we’re going and where we should be going”.

He says his central message to other senior Australians is that everybody has gifts and talents and a responsibility to share those with the wider community.

“I would like to see more people recreate themselves; become significant in the community. Not just successful, because we have a lot of people out there that have been very successful but are now either going into retirement or are slowing down and we’ve got a hurting world out there that really needs those gifts and talents. You don’t have to go far to find a place that you could apply them.”

“I think sowing back into the next generation is important. There is wisdom that the older generation have and increasingly there is a demand for role models and mentors and I think some of the people who are retiring early have got so much to give back to society. Plus the retirement age is decreasing - I’ve got many friends who are 45 who have retired...and we really need to harness those people, capture that talent and that knowledge that they’ve got and apply it to the next generation.”

www.opportunity.org.au.