Grameen Caldas is an organization that was created to implement and operate the Holistic Social Business Movement, a highly innovative regional development approach which aims at eradicating poverty and rebuilding the economy of the region of Caldas in Colombia. In order to understand it better, we decided to interview Martin Loeffler, who is the project leader and current CEO of Grameen Caldas.
• How did the Caldas project start?
In 2009, ProfessorYunus was in Cartagena (Colombia) at a microcredit summit where he was approached by the governor of Caldas Mario Aristizabal and his social development consultant. They came to him and told him that they had an issue which was that Caldas has 70% of poverty, 25% of extreme poverty and that even if Caldas has few social projects that they were not working so they needed another idea, something new. In response to those issues, Professor Yunus suggested to do the Holistic Social Business Movement of Caldas.
This movement is a combination of microfinance on one hand (income generation) and on the other hand a long term development opportunities in the areas of nutrition, education, housing and healthcare. There is also the development of a social business fund which will create a bunch of social businesses to address all the causes of the social issues in Caldas.
The governor asked how much money they will need for that. Professor Yunus said that they will need about 16 million dollars to be invested. They would get the necessary funds by selling some TERPEL shares (oil and gas company) that the government still owned- this is how it was born. The 16 million unfortunately never arrived for various reasons but we are still here and try to make it without the government funds. So far we are still alive…
• Why did you choose Colombia?
Actually, the answer is we have not chosen Colombia, Colombia has chosen us because they came to us. The general approach of Grameen is not to go where we think we should go. It is more a reactive approach. If people need our help and ask us for help, then we come. So that’s why we are in Colombia. They said they will invest 16 million dollars in microfinance and a social business fund to create the first really revolutionary and sustainable regional development approach – so we came.
• What is your role in this project?
First of all I would not call it a project anymore, it was a project last year and it was a Grameen Creative Lab project to implement the Holistic Social Business Movement. My role when I joined the project in the second year was to secure its implementation and I was there as the project leader for that year.
In the course of the project we created a Colombian company called Grameen Caldas (Caldas is the state in Colombia that we are operating in) which is intended to manage the fund and the microfinance organization. We are looking for a local leader to take over but that is not that easy so right now I am still leading that company.
• What are the advances?
We are really excited right now as in order to show that social business can actually work we have created three pilot projects in Caldas. After the deal with the government fell through because the 16 million dollars never really existed, we were going into a big crisis because we thought we could not fund the project. So now we just got financed by ECOPETROL which has invested in each of the three social businesses we have here. Financially that does not really help Grameen Caldas, but it allows us to create some tangible value here in the region which in the long run will show people that they should invest in Caldas.
The pilot projects are Como en Casa, a housing social business, Bienestar, a healthcare social business and Panela Fortificada, which is a social business that produces panela and fortifies it with 7 vitamins which have several great benefits such as strengthening the immune system, fighting anemia or improving cardio-vascular health among other benefits.
Finally, we just managed to strike a deal to develop a joint venture with McCain, the largest frozen potatoes company in the world. So now they will work with us to create another social business here in Caldas which is planned to create jobs and improve access to nutrition for the poor.
• How can we get involved?
We actually work a lot with volunteers from all over the world. For example we work with top MBA schools such as Wharton Business School and if people want to do an internship with us for about three months, then we interview them and see if there is a fit. If there is one, we are really thankful whenever people want to help us accomplishing our goals of reducing poverty in Caldas. What we usually try to do is a three months volunteering program, it should be a minimum of one month but the longer the better. Since we are creating several companies and every company has all the functions from product development, to marketing, to finance, to IT, there is a variety and tons of things to do to get these social businesses pilots up and running. Whoever is interested can write us (firstname.lastname@example.org) and be part of the creation of a social business that in the long term will eliminate the social issues that it is intending to resolve.
• Is this model easy to implement in other parts of the world?
Absolutely – the model of the regional poverty reduction program of the Holistic Social Movement can later be adapted to other regions in the world.
We already know that Grameen microfinance works in more than 40 countries in the world and now a social business fund concept is also something that can be replicated anywhere else. Caldas at this point serves as our pilot project to implement the Holistic Social Movement even though due to the lack of funds we have not started the microfinance implementation portion of the program. But with time we are going to fully implement and then refine the model and once we see that it is up and running and it really works well here, then we can take the concept to other areas quite easily. Some of the main adaptations that will have to be made are of course understanding what are the social issues in each of those regions.
• A word on social business
We have seven social principles and the last one is DO IT WITH JOY. It is supposed to be fun and to be creating social value and we are of course happy when people join us.
If you wish to have more information or even join the team, visit Gramen Caldas webpage.
Photo taken from the Grameen Caldas webpage.