A People’s Bank in Rwanda

  • Overseas
  • 2007

In 2002, investment banker and entrepreneur Dale Dawson became interested in efforts to rebuild the war-torn east African nation of Rwanda. (See 2002 entry on our companion list of achievements in Religious philanthropy.) As Dawson began to spend half his time on charitable projects in Rwanda, he noticed that residents were in desperate need of places where they could safely save money, and where small-business creators could go for loans. He and the Christian nonprofit Opportunity International made plans to create such a bank, then joined with other faith-based partners to launch the Urwego Opportunity Bank in 2007. It operates as a business, but the founders reinvest all earnings back into the enterprise.

This microbank became a phenomenal success, soon growing to eight branches across the countryside, 225 employees, and 40,000 outstanding loans, in an average amount of $300. Only 1 percent of their loans become overdue by 30 days or more. The faith-inspired bank also offers small entrepreneurs insurance, safe money-transfer services, and financial education.

When Urwego opened, 95 percent of Rwandans had zero experience with a bank. Now 120,000 clients have savings accounts, in an average amount of about $60. To work around illiteracy, all accounts are tied to fingerprints. When small savers go to a teller window and press a digit on a reader pad, their account info pops open. The bank has helped Rwanda become one of the freest and fastest-growing economies in Africa.