On one level the work of Oikocredit is very simple. You invest your money. Someone in the developing world gets some credit. But that makes everything sound deceptively simple. In fact, there’s a huge amount of hard work, careful thought and personal commitment needed to make it all happen. And Sambou Coly, Oikocredit country manager for Senegal, is more than up to the job.
Quietly spoken, with a charming lisp to his English, Sambou exudes the calm of someone you can have complete and utter confidence in. As good at listening, as talking, you get the sense that this is someone who brings patience, intelligence and common sense to all they do.
Dig a little deeper and you discover a man of deep convictions, sound judgement and gentle humility, who simply tries to do his best for both investors in Oikocredit and his fellow countrymen.
On earning his high school diploma in Senegal, Sambou completed his education in Montreal, Canada during the 1990s finally earning an MBA in Financial Services – before joining the Royal Bank of Canada.
There, he advised his clients to look for maximum returns on their savings and investments, promoting stock market shares and bonds, long before the concept of ethical or microfinance investment was really established.
It’s hard to imagine he could have foreseen the path his career was actually taking him on, but he was learning important lessons about being careful with his clients’ money, along the way.
Even on his return to Senegal to work for the more commercial Citibank, Sambou was far removed from the everyday credit needs of ordinary people. Unsurprisingly, a corporate bank like this was only interested in deals that delivered acceptable returns. Social impact didn’t come into it. And as Sambou himself puts it, that left him with a slightly uneasy feeling.
“At the end of each year, you made your profits, you earned a good bonus, but still there was something missing. You never saw any real benefit from what you were doing.”
Even when his wife suggested he apply for the Oikocredit job she’d seen in the local newspaper, Sambou wasn’t sure just what he wanted. The thought of opening an office from scratch, seeking out partners in remote rural areas and managing such a risky portfolio of investments, was alien to everything his formal business training had taught him.
Yet he says, he soon found his feet:
“When I went to my first meeting with our partners – banana farmers, in Tambacounda – I found exactly what I was missing. Just talking with them in the village, and seeing the poverty they were living in. It showed me that I was missing the chance not just to improve the lives of these people, but also to contribute to the economic development of my country.”
And Sambou was smart enough to quickly grasp that he didn’t have all the answers. As he travelled around talking to different microfinance organisations and the people they helped, it became obvious that his MBA and business training could only take him so far.
“It’s very, very, very dangerous to think that you have all the answers because you have an MBA”, says Sambou “What I learned is that these farmers know far more than you could ever do. I learned a huge amount from them. You have to make sure you listen as well as talk.”
Sambou will only modestly admit it is this ability to stand back and see the big picture that is his particular talent. He has to balance the need for prudent business, clear accountability and acceptable risks or returns with an absolute commitment to help the very poorest people in Senegalese society.
“I always try to do something different from all the other big international lenders” he explains. “They only give money to the biggest microfinance partners in Senegal. But I go out into the rural areas and search for partners to work with. I go even it’s very far away or there’s no proper road. We go to them. They don’t come to us. They don’t know people like Oikocredit exist.”
But once he’s found a group he wants to work with, then it’s down to Sambou to make sure he works with them to help them organise themselves, put in place the right structures and put together a business plan that stands up to examination, long before major investments are made. It’s slow, careful painstaking work that can take years to put together. But Sambou is convinced it’s the right way to go about things.
“I have to think about how sustainable a project or loan might be. Because of my background I know that investors in Oikocredit are people who have worked for many years to earn their money.
“It’s not as some people here in Senegal believe, that investors simply have more money than they know what to do with. We have to have a level of confidence that people really will benefit from the project and that our investors will get repaid.”
The fruits of Sambou’s labours are about to be harvested in Casamance in southern Senegal, where this season’s Mango harvest will be the first to be packed, processed and shipped to the Netherlands. In previous years 75% of the crop has gone to waste, due to lack of access to a market.
It’s all thanks to a new factory, which Oikocredit has helped the local farmers co-operative to build and take part-ownership in. But it’s been a long three-year journey to get here. And Sambou admits you need to have a certain something to keep you going.
“Each morning when I wake and come to this office I have this commitment, to help improve the lives of the people, of my country. The day I don’t have this I should probably do something else…but for now it’s something I have with me every day.”
And thank goodness it is, as you get the feeling, without the missing link of Sambou’s drive, energy and ability, the work of Oikocredit in Senegal would be greatly diminished.