When Martin Connell and his wife Linda Haynes took a trip to Bangladesh and India in the fall of 1980, they were on a quest to find that transformative opportunity to help fix the incredible disparities they knew exist in our world. Their experiences on that trip would inspire a life-long desire to find a way to make a lasting difference. In early 1983, Calmeadow was incorporated and began granting to Canadian NGOs catering to women in less developed countries.
Mr. Connell grew concerned with enterprise-building programs’ lack of sustainability. It did not feel like Calmeadow was quite getting it right. Then, in September of 1984, all of that would change after a meeting between Mr. Connell and ACCION International’s Jeffrey Ashe and William Burrus. By 1984, ACCION had been working with micro-entrepreneurs for 12 years. ACCION’s story, success, and sustainability angle ignited Mr. Connell.
Initially he sought to bring Canadian NGOs and ACCION together to try and convince Canadian NGOs to micro lend. However, at the time, micro loans just didn’t feel right. In response, Calmeadow decided to shift its focus and resources to support the micro-enterprise sector in the Third World. Calmeadow asked ACCION if they could support a few projects in Latin America and ACCION agreed.
Calmeadow began supporting initiatives to strengthen microfinance in Latin America and Africa; specifically, projects to encourage wider application of solidarity group lending methodologies, trilingual (Spanish-French-English) operations manuals and computer software programs for microcredit program managers, and other best practice information dissemination.
Still, the defining moment of Calmeadow had yet to come. Since Mr. Connell’s first meeting with ACCION in 1984, he wondered if there was a way to make it even more sustainable. He said, “There must be a way to make it commercial – to franchise it.” At the time, Prodem in Bolivia was providing credit and business training to more than 4,000 clients, 99% of whom where women, with a loan recovery rate of effectively 100%. Mr. Connell and then-President of Banco Hipotecario Nacional, Fernando Romero, wondered how Prodem’s methods could be applied on a massive scale. Specifically they wondered if it could be commercialized and franchised. Calmeadow volunteered to do a feasibility study and discovered it was feasible. In 1991, Calmeadow helped establish a committee called Cobanco and, with by Doug Salloum, began developing a business plan to turn Prodem commercial.
On January 24, 1992, BancoSol became the world’s first commercial microfinance bank thanks to start-up equity from Prodem’s own loan portfolio (35%), Bolivian investors (19%) and international investors (46%). This success inspired Fernando Romero, Bill Burrus, Martin Connell, and Ernst Brugger to move forward with the creation of funds to invest in other microfinance institutions. This would result in a new microfinance paradigm led by ProFund.
Soon after, Calmeadow along with a few long-time collaborators pursued its vision and lead the development of two commercial equity funds, ProFund and Africap, one in Latin America and one in Africa. The development of ProFund and Africap mobilized funds from a number of leading international development agencies, private donations, NGOs and individuals, and invested them, for a return, in shares of local, aspiring microfinance institutions, generally existing banks providing a range of normal financial services but that were now willing to expand those services to include microcredit loans and financial services to people with little or no collateral and no place to invest their savings. ProFund was successfully close in 2005 and Africap continues its operations.
As of today, Calmeadow continues sponsoring projects that aim at ensuring ready access to sustainable and affordable financial services for the self-employed poor around the globe.