Chiswick charity lends a hand

Started by two Chiswick businessmen, the Micro Loan Foundation helps people in the Philippines and Malawi to help themselves. Lynette Dobbin meets its founders

“Micro Loan is such an obvious and important concept it beggars belief it was not conceived of earlier” Bob Geldof
Once upon a time, Richard Foster, a thirty-something Englishman, became bored and disillusioned with his job running sports clubs in Brussels. So he decided to chuck it all in and go round the world.

In the Philippines, appalled by the poverty he saw all around him, he made an impromptu loan of £100 to a man he had met in the street. A year later he was amazed to find that not only was the loan repaid in full, but the fortunes of the man's family had improved beyond measure. So he lent the money to somebody else, and then did it again. And again.

Sounds like a fairy story? Perhaps. But this incident gave rise to the creation of Chiswick-based charity The Micro Loan Foundation, the brainchild of local businessman Peter Ryan, a long-standing friend of Richard's. Micro Loan has since made over 400 loans in the Philippines and last year expanded its operation into Malawi, attracting Sir Bob Geldof to become its patron. “Micro Loan is such an obvious and important concept it beggars belief it was not conceived of earlier,” Bob says.

Despite having a full-time job as well, Peter's enthusiasm for Micro Loan is infectious. A seasoned traveller whose career has been spent setting up new businesses for blue chip companies all over the world, he was seduced at an early stage by Africa. “I always got a buzz out of getting involved with the locals, but found the disparity between rich and poor a bit troublesome,” he says.

After registering the charity in 1997, he set about establishing a funding base in west London. How did he do it? “Largely through bloody-mindedness!” he laughs. “I gave a few talks and raised a few hundred pounds, which gradually grew into thousands. I've had terrific support from the local church and the wider community, who have really taken Micro Loan to their hearts. We're still very much a local organisation, directly linking a relatively affluent community with desperately needy ones overseas. Now with the Malawi base up and running, our target is to raise £100,000 over the next two years.”

Micro Loan must be almost unique amongst international charities in that it incurs virtually no administrative overheads. Peter, his wife Caroline, and his expanding team of supporters all work from home on a voluntary basis and around 97% of the loans made are repaid in full, allowing the capital to be “re-cycled” into new projects.

Chiswick accountant Nick Ridge, one of the founding trustees of the charity, recently visited Malawi to see for himself. He admits to have been a bit sceptical at first. “I was afraid that Micro Loans might not work in Africa. I felt the culture would be different to the strong work ethic of Philippines,” he says. What changed his mind? “Well, basically, I was just completely wrong. Within 10 minutes of the airport we came across roadside stalls selling a wide variety of goods. Everything was beautifully presented, whether a bit of carpentry or a bag of charcoal. I felt there was a genuine desire to make the most of the commercial opportunity.”

As he talked to the people he met in the villages, he realised they really wanted to be able to make a living for themselves and their extended families which often include a number of children orphaned by AIDS.

“Chronic unemployment is a huge problem and for most people there simply is no chance of work at all,” Nick says. “But for around £7.50, they can buy a large bag of rice which can be divided up and sold on at market for £16.” More ambitiously, a loan can finance the construction of a chicken house where poultry can be raised out of danger from predators, poachers or snakes. The trouble is, for Micro Loan clients in Malawi, even £7.50 – less than the cost of a couple of meals at McDonalds, or a bottle of house wine for us – is beyond their wildest dreams.
Nick recalls his first visit to Malawi when he was greeted on a lovely sunny day by a group of people singing lustily in their local dialect, Chichewa. Thinking it was a happy song, he asked for a translation of the words. “I was told they were singing about how their families had died of hunger,” he says. It was clearly a sobering moment.

Jocelyn Ridley of Acton has supported Micro Loan's work from the start. “I just thought it was fantastic to be able to do something really practical with what is for us such a very small sum of money,” she says. Her first donation bought a £30 bag of bananas for a lady in the Philippines. Another long term supporter of Micro Loan says: ”I really like the fact that it inspires people to help themselves, and gives them a kick start – completely the reverse of our dependency culture.”

Micro Loan offers not just financial support, but elementary business training as well. “Kenson Chiphaka, our loans manager in Nkhotakota, provides seven days' training covering basic things like book-keeping,” says Nick. Literacy remains a problem, however, with many of Micro Loan's clients unable to read or write. “I'd really like to try and do something about that,” he says.

And so the future for Micro Loan is a challenging one, with fundraising to meet the £100,000 target an immediate priority. A round of sponsored dinner and lunch parties has just kicked off, there are marathons to be run and mail shots to organise. For Peter, Nick and their dedicated team of trustees and volunteers, there is no question of becoming either bored or disillusioned. Far too much remains to be done.

Lynette Dobbin

February 28, 2003

To find out more about Micro Loan (Registered Charity No. 1071101) and ways to help its work please phone 020 8994 0559 or e-mail

Article originally published in the Green Magazine. Republished with kind permission

Accountants and other professional services in Chiswick